Overcoming an Iron Deficiency

My Goal

To share my hours and hours of findings (mainly from the internet), explain what did and didn’t work for me and help people to prevent an iron deficiency from ever starting (rather than having one to treat!)

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Who is Anaemic?

Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world, affecting about 25% of the global population  – MJA Open, 2012

Although the vast majority of people who are anaemic are females (80% ish), I have a few male friends who have suffered from low iron, particularly sporty ones, so this is for anyone who has an interest in learning more about the topic 😀

Females of childbearing age need more iron as they lose blood monthly during menstruation. Also, pregnant women need more iron, to help their baby grow!

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My Experience

I first realised that I was iron deficient during my 2nd year of Uni. I went off with my housemates to give blood but unfortunately  was rejected as my level was too low. As dramatic as I may make this sound, this isn’t rare, with about 1 in 4 being rejected for this reason.

Straight away I booked a doctor’s appointment and did a little basic research (but at the time I REALLY did not know my stuff about iron deficiencies). Discovering I was low in this mineral kind of made sense as I had been needing to nap a lot in the daytime and I was bruising like crazy (part down to my translucent type of skin!).

The doctor prescribed strong tablets, which I took for several months. These worked and I didn’t change anything else in my lifestyle (silly teenager) but they are pretty chemically and unnatural. Looking at the bottle of pills I didn’t actually know what any of the ingredients were. Therefore, I don’t think they are a good long term solution.

My anaemia cropped up again a few years later when I was living in  London and led a bit much of a work-party-work-party lifestyle. It actually came up again pretty suddenly and left me feeling awful. After travelling to the Philippines with my friend Sophie I arrived back feeling really groggy. I put it down to a tummy bug I’d had whilst on my PADI course and too much travelling. However, a few weeks on and nothing seemed to shift. I eventually had blood tests and realised my levels were low.

Again, I was again prescribed intense pills  but this time they didn’t really seem to work. I took them for apx 8 months and even though I was feeling better than when I was really low in iron, I couldn’t miss more than a day of pills without feeling run down again. I was eating lots of meat and focussing on buying ingredients that I found on a ‘top 50 iron sources’ style list online.

I kept getting achy legs, bruising easily, tingly toes, lightheadedness when I stood up and if I went out drinking, the next day would be terrible. My heart would beat faster, my head would hurt, I’d ache. However, on the deficiency scale my case was not extremely low so I can’t imagine how terrible an serious deficiency must feel.

This made me go about exploring longer term ways to overcome my deficiency. I read that not doing so can speed up ageing, this really scared me to get researching quick! 😀

 

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Why do we need Iron?

Iron is an important part of red blood cells and is needed to form hemoglobin which transports oxygen around the body, allowing for:

  • Energy Production
  • Immunity
  • DNA synthesis

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How I tried to cure it

A lot of websites told me that meat, shellfish & offal are great sources and I should include far more of these. As mentioned above, this didn’t help at all and in fact, made me feel worse. Eating more protein/fat and less carbs I believe to be a bad idea for anyone for numerous reasons which I’ll cover on a separate post.

Then I started reading studies to answer my various questions:

  1. Which areas in the world have fewer issues with iron deficiencies?
  2. What affect does exercise, particularly running, have on iron levels?
  3. How do I absorb more iron? what prevents absorption?

 

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Top Tips for Ironing Things Out

Today, I rarely take iron supplements, despite exercising almost every day. I sleep about 7 hours a night and wake up refreshed. However, it has taken me a while to figure this out!

So I’ve put together some of the things which have helped me overcome my deficiency which may be helpful for anybody suffering from low iron:

  1. Eat food with vitamin c. This increases absorption by as much as 500%. I read that that vegetarians/vegans have no more issues with anaemia than meat eaters due to a diet higher in vitamin C which aids absorption.

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2. Veganicity iron pills.  These ones REALLY work. I was recommended them by my friend Sam and I take them after I run as running kills a lot of red blood cells. They don’t have the crap which the more medical versions do or cause me any tummy issues and they are super cheap.

The ‘chelated iron’ pills can be bought here.

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3. Eat loadsa grains/legumes. Lentils, black beans, Chickpeas, wholewheat pasta & bread. Again, with vitamin C. E.g. make hummus with lots of lemon juice or tomato sauce on wholemeal pasta.

4. Buy organic greens as pesticides reduce iron in greens by up to 70%. I don’t buy everything organic and my rule of thumb is buy organic when the item has no skin/when you eat the skin (e.g. sweet potatoes, tomatoes, greens) and non-organic when it is something you will peel (bananas, oranges, kiwi)

5. Find alternatives to caffeine. I used to drink a tonne of tea, even with meals. If you do have caffeine, only do so 1-2 hours before/after meals to minimise its effect on absorption. Other ideas for low caffeine  are chai/tumeric lattes/herbal teas.

Very strange blue algae alternative latte I tried the other day. Wouldn’t recommend!

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6. Avoid calcium supplements around meals. Personally I’ve never needed to take calcium supplements but this point seemed to come up regularly in my reading.

7. Eating smaller meals and snacks throughout the day – as only x amount of iron can be absorbed at one point in time this increases how much we absorb. Similarly, if you’re taking a supplement, break it in half and eat 1  half at the beginning of the day and the other at the end.

8. Cook in a cast iron skillet

Brown rice paella with plenty of veggies and covered in fresh lemon.

 

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  • ‘Vegetarians who eat a varied and well balanced diet are not at any greater risk of iron deficiency anaemia than non-vegetarians’

Iron Topic 1: Vegetarians/Vegans

As you may know, I eat a vegan diet and actually have overcome my iron deficiency since becoming vegan. However, I understand I’m just one person so I’ve put together some supporting evidence below 😛

  • The American Dietetic Association’s Position Paper on Vegetarian Diets says, “Incidence of iron deficiency anemia among vegetarians is similar to that of non vegetarians”

 

  • ½ cup of cooked lentils has nearly twice the iron as four ounces of beef. It’s not surprising that vegans and vegetarians often consume more iron than meat-eaters.

 

  • In the United Kingdom, where 45% of dietary iron comes from cereals and cereal products and less than 20% comes from meat and meat products

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Iron Topic 2: Plants V’s Animal Sources

There are 2 types of iron:

  1. Heme (animal based)
  2. Non Heme (plant based)

It is important to note that heme (animal based) iron is more easily absorbed that non heme, therefore the reccomended intake for veggies is higher than that for omnivores.(about 1.8 times higher).

However, what I didn’t realise for far too long is: It’s not how much iron you consume, but how well you absorb it.

A crucial factor to consider is that vitamin c increases absorption by up to 500% and vegetarians/vegans have a far higher intake of vitamin c and this is likely to be the reason why meat and non-meat eaters have a similar incidence of iron deficiencies.

Iron Topic 3: So how much iron do we actually need?

  • Men and non-menstruating women: 10 mg/day
  • Menstruating & Nursing women: 15 mg/day
  • Pregnant women: 30 mg/day

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Iron Topic 4: Plant Based Iron Sources

  • Legumes: lentils, soybeans, tofu, tempeh, lima beans
  • Grains: quinoa, fortified cereals, brown rice, oatmeal
  • Nuts and seeds: pumpkin, squash, pine, pistacio, sunflower, cashews, unhulled sesame
  • Vegetables: tomato sauce, swiss chard, collard greens,
  • Other: blackstrap molasses, prune juice

Well planned vegetarian diets provide adequate amounts of non-haem iron if a wide variety of plant foods are regularly consumed. Research studies indicate that vegetarians are no more likely to have iron deficiency anaemia than non-vegetarians. Vegetarian diets are typically rich in vitamin C and other factors that facilitate non-heme iron absorption.

Iron Topic 4: Sport

The average requirement for iron may be 30% to 70% higher for those who engage in regular, intense endurance exercise, especially running. This is due to increased gastrointestinal blood loss after, and red blood cell destruction during, runnin

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Sources

 

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