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Iron Maiden: How and why iron is essential for the body
May 13th 2015
We spoke to Nutritional Therapist Petronella Ravenshear about why getting enough iron is key for maintaining a happy, healthy body
When it comes to ensuring we live a healthy lifestyle, we’re often made aware of the need to introduce and monitor nutrients such as proteins, fats and vitamins in our diets. What we’re less aware of however, is the important role the mineral iron plays in our body.
Currently, as many as 18% of women between the ages of 16-64 are known to be iron deficient in the UK, with it also being classed as the most common nutritional deficiency in the UK overall. And, while it may be a common ailment, the symptoms are by no means understated with a deficiency having the ability to cause everything from exhaustion to anaemia.
So, to help make sure we’re getting the right amount of iron to keep our bodies hot, happy and healthy we reached out to Nutritional Therapist Petronella Ravenshear to get some expert advice.
Iron: Friend or foe?
“There are two potential problems with iron - too little of it and too much of it – and both problems can ultimately kill us,” says Petronella. “Too much iron can damage the joints, liver, heart, and other organs including the brain. But ultimately we do need it; it’s essential for life itself. It’s needed to make red blood cells, which carry oxygen around our bodies and is needed for our immune systems and for energy and growth. We also need it for breaking down hydrogen peroxide, which is a toxic by-product in our cells.”
What happens if we don’t get enough iron?
If you fail to get enough iron into your diet the body experiences a condition known as anaemia, where there is a significant reduction in the number of red blood cells. Iron is used to produce red blood cells, which help store and carry oxygen in the blood - therefore, If you have fewer red blood cells than normal, your organs and tissues will not get as much oxygen as they usually would.
“Iron deficiency anaemia is common and it can be caused by several conditions, including heavy periods and celiac disease,” says Petronella. “It can also be caused by Internal bleeding, due to ulcers or aspirin, or even parasites. Symptoms of iron deficiency can include a sore tongue, breathlessness, and fatigue, as well as hair loss and pallor. And curiously, anecdotal evidence suggests an aversion to meat might be a sign of iron deficiency.”
What foods can help us up our iron intake?
To help give you body a helping boost there are a number of different iron rich foods you can turn to, advises Petronella. “There are two forms of iron in our food - haem and non-haem iron. The most easily absorbed is haem iron, which only comes from animal sources, including eggs, chicken, fish, shellfish and of course, red meat.”
Alternatively, non-haem iron can often be found in foods such as spinach, baobab, beetroot, pulses, chocolate and chia seeds. And, while it may be less readily absorbed than haem iron, the rate at which it’s taken in by the body can be improved by introducing more vitamin C into your diet.
According to the NHS there are also a number of food, drinks and medicines that can inhibit the amount of iron the body absorbs. These include; tea and coffee, calcium - found in dairy products such as milk, antacids and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), which are medications sometimes used to relieve indigestion, and wholegrain cereals (although wholegrains are a good source of iron themselves, they contain phytic acid, which can stop your body absorbing iron from other foods and pills).
It’s also possible to take iron supplements but make sure to exercise caution if this is the case, advises Petronella. “It’s easy to overdo the iron by taking supplements, and especially after menopause when monthly blood and iron loss comes to a halt. Don’t take iron supplements unless your GP has told you that you are anaemic, even if you have iron deficiency symptoms.”