Iron is an essential mineral in the body, known for its role in carrying oxygen from our lungs to all our tissues, iron has many subtle ways it impacts our over all well being. It plays a pivotal role in our attention span and focus. A 2010 meta-analysis in the Nutrition Journal, that included 14 randomized controlled trials of children over the age of 6, adolescents, and adult women who had iron deficiency (also known as anemia) found that when they started taking iron supplementation they improved their attention, concentration, and even their IQ! Other symptoms commonly seen with iron deficiency anemia are: shortness of breath, dizziness, headaches, low energy, rapid or irregular heartbeats (arrhythmia), pale skin, irritability, cold extremities and chest/abdominal pain.

Studies have noted a correlation between ADHD symptoms and low ferritin levels (ferritin is how much iron your body is storing). It has been estimated that roughly 10% of women ages 12-49 have iron deficiency anemia. The RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) for vegetarians is 1.8 times higher than omnivores (33 mg for young vegetarian women to be taken in daily). If you are taking iron supplements, it is important to remember to take your iron with vitamin C, 500 mg twice daily has been shown very effective for absorption (or increasing your vitamin C rich foods such as berries, cauliflower, kiwis, leafy greens in higher amounts) and B vitamins to maximize absorption, and at least 2 hours apart from high doses of calcium (to avoid iron binding with calcium and preventing iron absorption) and to always take iron away from caffeine as that will block iron absorption and BEST TO TAKE AN IRON SUPPLEMENT ON AN EMPTY STOMACH – absorption increases when taken on its own.

Iron can interact with pharmaceuticals as well and this can have adverse effects on iron absorption. Proton pump inhibitors (PPI), such as Nexium (esomeprazole), Rabeprazole etc. reduce the acidity of stomach contents, and without adequate stomach acidity that can reduce iron absorption.

There are two forms of dietary iron, “heme” iron and “non-heme” iron. Heme iron is iron bound to hemoglobin (the oxygen transporting protein in blood) often thought as meat iron; non-heme iron is not bound to hemoglobin, and is often thought of as plant based iron. Heme iron is the most efficiently absorbed form of iron. The absorption rate of non-heme iron supplements, such as ferrous sulfate and ferrous fumarate, is 2.9% on an empty stomach and 0.9% with food. This is much less than the absorption rate of heme iron, as found in liver, which is as high as 35%. NFH Heme SAP is a favourite of The Wholistic Dispensary. In addition, heme iron is without the side effects associated with some non-heme sources of iron, such as nausea, flatulence, and diarrhea.

Regardless of diet, iron supplementation is often required to raise levels, especially during pregnancy and in menstruating women with heavier periods. Ferrous sulfate is the most popular supplement through conventional medicine, but it is less than ideal, as it often causes constipation or other gastrointestinal (GI) disturbance. Although it is best absorbed when taken on an empty stomach, doing so often causes nausea or GI upset. To offset the GI upset it is often taken with food, which greatly reduces its absorption. Currently, the best sources of non heme iron in supplements appear to be a special form of ferric pyrophosphate and ferrous bisglycinate (sold at The Wholistic Dispensary NFH Iron SAP). Both are free from gastrointestinal side effects with a high relative bioavailability, especially if taken on an empty stomach. If looking for a non heme form of iron that is plant based (vegan), and non constipating, The Wholisitic Dispensary’s favourite is Megafoods Blood Builder.

Another way to enhance iron in your diet is through cooking with a Lucky Iron Fish, a fish shaped cast iron ingot used to help prevent anemia. By boiling the Lucky Iron Fish for 10 minutes and then adding a little lemon to the water and using the water for cooking quinoa or making soup etc. this helps the body absorb as much as 90% of your daily iron intake. The Lucky Iron Fish are a Canadian innovation and each one sold provides 2 + to a country in need. Lucky Fish are available at The Wholisitic Dispensary.

While iron is critically important and iron deficiency anemia can take a significant toll on our overall health, it is important that teenage boys, adult men and non-pregnant, non-menstruating women NOT take supplemental iron unless prescribed by a knowledgeable health care professional.