Iron and anaemia. Is it safe to supplement with iron? What are the best forms of iron?

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Iron is a controversial topic.  And this is because some, for example Mercola, think too much iron in the body is toxic; excess iron causes oxidative tissue damage and this can lead to developing cancer, heart disease or damage to the DNA, for example. Max Motyka, in the above clip, thinks that it is not so easy to build up an excess of iron in the system unless the body has difficulty dealing with iron.  My strong advice to anybody suspecting anaemia is to go and get a blood test to confirm iron deficiency – and, for reasons that I won’t go into in this blog to keep the blog within a reasonable length, I also advise having a vitamin B12 deficiency test too.  For there are actually various forms of anaemia and to assume it is iron based and to start supplementing with iron willy nilly will at best not help the tiredness and may make things worse.  It is just not worth the risk.

So who are the people who are most likely to be iron deficient?

  • Children
  • Menstruating women
  • Pregnant and nursing women
  • People who regularly lose blood through illness
  • Vegans and vegetarians and those who do not eat red meat.

Iron is used in the red blood cells to transport oxygen about the body – so it is an extremely important mineral.  The reason for the controversy about iron is that there are only 2 ways the body loses iron; one is through bleeding – hence why menstruating women and those with illnesses that cause regular blood loss may well be anaemic; and the other way is by growing – either yourself if a child or a baby if a mother.  And so should excess iron be diagnosed, then levels are lowered by blood donation or by prescribed bleeding if for some reason blood donation is not possible.

Iron is readily available from the diet – and the best dietary source is red meat, with the crowning source, as far as I can tell, being chicken livers, giving 8.99mg per 100gms.   Liver generally is a good source of iron – it is wise to source organic liver since the liver is the cleaning unit of the body, so toxicity can easily build up here. Venison seems to come in at 2.90mg, beef at 2.46mg, lamb 1.77, chicken 1.09, wild salmon 0.80, farmed salmon 0.34, cod 0.38.  Turkey dark meat 2.33, light meat 1.36.  Duck, farmed, 2.40, wild 4.16 (as usual, all mgs are in relation to 100gms of the foodstuff).

Of the vegetable world, the difficulty is uptake.  In order to be able to release the iron from the vegetable fibre, high levels of stomach acid, HCl, are necessary.  If the vegetable is raw, the uptake is even poorer.  For interest, boiled spinach contains 3.57gm, boiled kale 0.90 and raw savoy cabbage 0.40. The crowning glory of the vegetable world is, as with magnesium, cocoa powder, coming in at an amazing 13.86.  However, snarfing down a block of milk chocolate will do little for the iron levels and much for the waist line since milk chocolate M&Ms come in at 1.11gms.  It is fair enough to argue that chocolate or cocoa has absolutely no fibre whatsoever, so cleaving the iron from its fibrous sheath is hardly a problem. But is isn’t as simple as that, since the other problem with iron from vegetables is the form of the iron.  When iron is contained in meat it is called heme iron and the digestive system likes its iron in this form.  Even if the stomach is not very acidic, iron from meat sources is still absorbable. Iron from vegetable sources is bound to what they call a salt 1  and we still need decent levels of HCl for good uptake.  Heme iron needs less HCl present and will still be uptaken by the digestive system.

The 5 groups mentioned above can – and should – take a multi vitamin supplement containing iron.  To ensure good uptake and no side effects (such as constipation) the iron should be bound to an amino acid – iron glycinate being a very good form.  As Mercola warns, avoid multis containing ferrous sulphate, since an overdose of this can actually kill a child.2  Since ferrous sulphate is not absorbed by the body, it ends up as free iron floating about in the blood stream where it damages the blood vessels, liver and kidneys.  It is also worth bearing in mind that ferrous sulphate is used as a moss killer in gardens.  Mercola himself recommends looking for feosol carbonyl. Men and post-menopausal women should take an iron free multi, unless diagnosed otherwise.  Eveybody’s diet should also contain generous amounts of high quality red meat – and organ meats if they can be a) found, and b) liked.

Vitamin C does help the uptake of vegetable iron – it helps to keep it in solution in the digestive system by binding to it.  With low HCl levels, it just drops out of the gastric juices and is not absorbable. 3  It would be wise to supplement with Vit C, since, unless we are eating home grown food most of the time, our fruits and veggies have limited amounts of Vit C.  Blueberries are one of the best sources, since the Vit C is highly up takeable.

The next blog about iron will look at fortified cereals and breads.  Briefly, these are not good sources of iron.  Should your breakfast cereal be magnetic?

  1. The term salt means non-amino acid substances such as sulphate, coming from sulphuric acid; carbonate, coming from carbonic acid or citrate, coming from citric acid []
  2. Ferrous sulphate is not absorbed by the body, so a sudden high dose of this form of iron overloads the child’s body with catastrophic consequences.  Essentially, the iron is floating free in the blood where is damages the veins and arteries, it lowers the blood pressure and makes the body very acidic.  It also causes liver and kidney damage. []
  3. Garcia-Casal MV, Layrisse M, et al.  Iron Absorption from elemental iron-fortified cornflakes in humans.  Role of Vits A & C.  Nutrition Research 23 (2003) 451-463 []

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