Iron is an important mineral that is stored by the body in the liver, spleen, and bone marrow. It’s needed for red blood cells to form which are essential for carrying oxygen to all parts of the body. Iron helps maintain the health of red blood cells and muscle tissue. It supplies oxygen to working muscle cells by forming a protein called myoglobin in muscle tissue which also helps with muscle contractions. Iron also has many other jobs: helps make collage, helps in how the immune system works, is necessary for physical growth, neurological development, cellular functioning, and synthesis of some hormones.
If you noticed from my last few corners, Vitamin-B12 and Folate deficiencies can both cause anemia, and they aren’t the only ones. Iron can also cause a type of anemia called microcytic hypochromic anemia, if too low. Unlike with Vitamin-B12 or Folate megaloblastic anemia, where blood cells are large; in microcytic anemia the blood cells develop smaller than normal and do not contain enough hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the protein molecule in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to the body’s tissues and returns carbon dioxide from the tissues back to the lungs. This is also what gives blood its colour.
Only a fraction of Iron we eat is absorbed by cells that line the gastrointestinal tract. Once absorbed the iron is released into the blood stream where transferrin, a protein, attaches to it and delivers the iron to the liver where it is stored as ferritin. It is released as needed to make new red blood cells in bone marrow. After about 120 days in circulation red blood cells are unable to function and are re-absorbed by the spleen. Iron from these old cells can be recycled by the body.
Iron can be toxic if you take or store too much. Most men will have enough stores if healthy. Women more than men, may need to supplement or will have lower stores, because of blood loss from monthly menstrual cycles. Other factors that can affect both genders are exercise intensity, diet, surgery, or gastrointestinal problems that can interfere with iron absorption.
Below are certain populations that should consult with their doctor on their iron status.
Adolescent females and women of child-bearing age (due to blood loss from menstruation)
Women trying to conceive (deficiency has been linked to infertility)
Pregnant women (as they have to make up for their own increased blood volume as well as hemoglobin for the growing fetus – also a deficiency is linked to miscarriage, low birth weight and preterm labour)
Endurance athletes or athletes who train at high intensity (Athletes lose more iron due to heavy sweating as well as increased blood loss in the urine and GI tract. Red blood cells also break down more quickly in those who exercise).
Patients with a chronic disease (due to gastrointestinal disturbances)
Bariatric patients (less stomach acid due to surgery)
Older/senior patients 65+ (due to the lower stomach acid being formed)
*Vegetarians or people on dietary restrictions (non heme iron vs heme iron)
Non-heme iron. Food combinations to enhance iron uptake, what to avoid so as not to inhibit absorption, RDA’s, and the different supplements of iron, in next week’s corner.
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Mikkie Nettles, Certified Personal Trainer/Holistic & Sports Nutritionist
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*Vegetarians, are vulnerable to iron deficiency, because the iron found in plant-based foods (called non-heme iron) is not as well absorbed as iron found in animal-based foods (heme iron). Even though vegetarians may eat many iron rich foods, there are many factors to those foods to whether or not the iron gets absorbed adequately. Many foods either bind the iron from absorption or other dietary sources inhibit absorption. Heme iron, on the other hand is pretty simple, absorption is high and it is not affected by other dietary sources, whenever it is eaten. Absorption of heme iron ranges from 15-35% whereas non-heme iron absorption is 2-20%.