Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies in the world, and is especially a problem for menstruating women, as some iron is lost each month through menstrual flow. Iron deficiency, even without anemia, can cause a range of symptoms including fatigue, exercise intolerance, and irritability. Iron is also difficult to absorb, and absorption is reduced even further if you have any gastrointestinal disorders such as celiac disease (inability to digest gluten) and H. Pylori (bacteria in the stomach that reduces acid needed to digest and can cause ulcers).
If you are like me, taking prescription iron supplements came with very undesirable side effects, including nausea, cramping, and constipation.
The good news is there are other steps you can take to improve your iron absorption that don’t require any prescriptions – only a trip to your grocer (or garden!) and health food store!
1. Reduce your intake of dairy, especially with iron-rich foods.
Dairy products have been proven to reduce absorption of iron as calcium inhibits iron absorption. If you consume dairy, don’t take your iron supplements or consume any iron-rich foods or herbs (which we’ll talk about below!) within 1-2 hours of having dairy products. This will help ensure your digestive system is absorbing as much iron as possible.
2. Don’t take calcium, magnesium, or zinc supplements with your iron-rich foods or iron supplements.
Same principle applies as with the dairy products. Calcium, magnesium, and zinc compete with iron for absorption. Again, don’t take them within 1-2 hours of each other to ensure maximum absorption of iron.
3. Take vitamin C supplements and vitamin C-rich foods with iron.
Vitamin C has been shown to actually increase the absorption of iron. Kiwis, tomatoes, peppers, oranges are high in vitamin C and should be consumed at the same time you eat iron-rich foods or take iron supplements.
4. Try gentle, iron-boosting, blood-building herbs.
It’s time we start changing our perception about “weeds”. These naturally occurring, persistent plants should not be treated as a pest, but as the life-giving, health promoting powerhouses that they are! Chances are you have some of these iron-boosting herbs in your own backyard!
Dandelion and Yellow dock are incredible herbs that have been shown to raise iron levels in the blood without all the nasty gastrointestinal side effects that can come along with taking prescription supplements. In fact, both these herbs actually improve digestion and cleanse the blood and the digestive system, meaning you get a nice healthy bonus in addition to raising your iron levels when you take these herbs. You can boil the roots and make a tea, or, for convenience, you can purchase the powdered root in capsule or tincture form from your local health food store, so that you can take them just like you would a regular iron supplement.
5. Include iron-rich foods in your diet daily.
This goes without saying – you need to make sure you are getting enough iron-rich foods in your diet to prevent and reverse iron deficiency! However, contrary to popular opinion, you don’t necessarily need to eat red meat to achieve higher iron levels. Beets, spirulina, kelp, pumpkin seeds, and blackstrap molasses are just a few examples of plant-based foods that have the best source of iron. Beets are great juiced, spirulina powder is wonderful added to smoothies, as are pumpkin seeds and blackstrap molasses. Kelp can be purchased dried and then cooked and added to soups or sauteed with other foods.
If you are experiencing iron deficiency, or simply want to prevent it, employing these five tips are crucial to boosting and maintaining your blood iron levels. However, if you are iron deficient, it is important to work with your health care provider to determine what the cause is. You may have one of the disorders I listed above, which are just a few pathological causes of iron deficiency that would need to be addressed if you want to get those numbers up and start feeling more energized and alive!