Dr Libby: The Importance Of Iron (And What To Do If You Think You’re Deficient)

By Dr Libby Weaver
Collage / Julia Gessler

In this special series, guest writer Dr Libby Weaver shares her health insights.

Is feeling exhausted a constant for you? Iron is critical for great energy, sparkling eyes, and a vitality that lasts all day. It helps to transport oxygen throughout the body and is essential for optimal functioning of

Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world, and it particularly affects children, women across the menstruation years, and pregnant women.

In New Zealand, it is estimated that up to 25 per cent of children under the age of 3 and between 20-30 per cent of women of childbearing age have some degree of iron deficiency two deeply concerning statistics. It can have a major impact on your quality of life and that of children, if you are iron-deficient during pregnancy.

The main symptoms of iron deficiency include exhaustion, shortness of breath especially on an incline, muscle aches, rapid pulse and heart palpitations, increased anxiety, brain fog, poor memory and concentration, headaches, low mood, hair loss, feeling cold easily and an increased frequency of infections.

A simple blood test from your doctor will establish whether you are iron-deficient or not. Testing is important because some people have a tendency to store too much iron and this needs to be avoided, or treated if it already exists. Plus, some of the symptoms of iron deficiency can be symptoms of other health conditions that are best investigated if iron deficiency is not the culprit.

Taking an iron supplement when you don’t need it can interfere with your body’s absorption of other minerals that are just as important. I recommend a yearly blood test to keep an eye on your levels, or if you have a deficiency even once every three to six months.

What does iron do?

The liver stores iron (measured as ferritin) and the majority of the rest of it is within the haemoglobin of red blood cells, which carry oxygen throughout the body. Without healthy red blood cells, your tissues can’t get enough oxygen, the consequence of which is constant fatigue. This exhaustion can affect everything from your ability to fight infections to your brain function not to mention how resilient you feel as you face the tasks in your day.

Iron is also required to make thyroid hormones, which are essential for keeping our metabolic rate humming as well as helping to regulate our temperature. While other nutrients such as iodine, selenium and zinc also play a key role in healthy thyroid function, iron deficiency can be part of the picture when the thyroid hormone levels are lower than desired. This is because we physiologically require iron to produce thyroid hormones. Despite thyroid function commonly being linked to metabolic rate, they are actually required for the function of every cell in our body.

In practical terms, if you are someone who has a tendency to an underactive thyroid, whether you have been diagnosed with a thyroid disease or your hormone levels are simply skewed inside the normal range, it can be useful to have your iron levels checked, as improving poor iron status can better support healthy thyroid function.

Too many people aren’t aware of the critical role iron plays in detoxification, a process through which substances if they were to accumulate inside you, risk harming you are converted into a form that can be eliminated from the body. There are two stages to detoxification in the liver and iron is essential to the function of some of the enzymes required for the first phase. In other words, when you’re iron deficient, detoxification can be compromised.

Iron is stored in the liver and is called upon during times when dietary intake is inadequate. Your body’s iron stores will decline over time if your iron requirements are not met through your diet or via additional supplementation (if required).

How do you become iron deficient?

Most often deficiency is due to poor dietary intake. The recommended dietary intake (RDI) of iron for women through the menstruation years is 18 milligrams (mg) per day (post-menopausal women and men require 8mg per day).

Those who have an aversion to iron-containing foods, follow a vegetarian, vegan or have a restrictive way of eating and those who have increased requirements (such as athletes and pregnant women) can fall into iron deficiency quite easily.

Even a robust “meat and potatoes” eater can find it hard to meet these requirements on a daily basis. Other disrupters to good iron status include consuming iron-rich foods with calcium-rich foods as these two minerals compete for absorption. Calcium wins out in this situation as it is a larger molecule.

Absorption of iron can also be compromised if someone has undiagnosed coeliac disease or non-coeliac gluten sensitivity and still eats gluten.

A deficiency of other nutrients, such as copper, can also affect iron status, as can microscopic blood loss from the bowel, although this latter scenario is rare.

What you can eat

Food sources of iron include offal meats such as liver, beef, lamb, eggs, mussels, sardines, lentils, and green leafy vegetables. Variety is key, as there is a small amount of iron in many foods and they will add up across your day.

Vegetable sources of iron are better absorbed in the presence of vitamin C, so pair your plant-based iron sources with citrus, parsley, kale, capsicums, or broccoli or follow your meal with a handful of berries.

Assess your iron status so you know where you are at and do your best to address iron deficiency if this is found to be the case, keeping in mind it is needed for countless vital processes inside you.

Dr Libby Weaver. Photo / Supplied
Dr Libby Weaver. Photo / Supplied

Dr Libby Weaver PhD is a nutritional biochemist, 13 times bestselling author and international keynote speaker. To learn more about how to reduce your total body burden and steps you can take to optimise your iron levels, join the Detox by Dr Libby online course at Drlibby.com

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