Though it helps in immunity, metabolism, and oxygen delivery, excess iron may cause cancer and heart diseases, speed up aging, and worsen Alzheimer's. Avoid supplements unless prescribed by your doc for intense workouts, to fight iron deficiency, or during pregnancy or menopause. It's better to eat pulses, whole grains, plant sources (spinach, dark leafy greens) than animal sources.
While we need iron, excess iron in the body is a health risk. For a healthy person, the best way to get iron is through the diet and then by supporting the intake with quality supplements as needed.
Here are some common questions I get about this mineral:
1. How Do I Know If My Iron Levels Are OK?
Annual lab tests will reveal if your body has healthy stores of iron and whether iron is doing its job(s) properly.
Life-stage changes (planning to be pregnant, when pregnant, or menopause) and training for or performing a significant physical event are times to check your levels.
Your practitioner will check if you report any conditions (blood in stool, fatigue, etc.).
2. What Does Iron Do?
Iron is part of your better-energy team. Hemoglobin, an iron-containing protein of your red blood cells, picks up and delivers oxygen throughout the body.
Metabolism, the breaking down of nutrients into usable energy, requires iron. Your immune system also benefits from iron.
3. Can I Have Too Much Iron?
Early in life, and during periods of growth (pregnancy as well as intense exercise), the body uses iron to support these efforts. Throughout life, women lose iron monthly via menstruation.
But the body can accumulate too much iron from excess intake (typically more of a risk from supplements and fortified foods, rather than foods, unless one is mono-eating iron-rich foods in high quantities).
The body can also hold on to iron or not use it when something is not functioning properly.
4. What Risk Does Excess Iron Pose?
Excess body stores of iron, as well as “free floating” iron, increases risk of major diseases, ranging from cancers to heart and diabetes.
It may also worsen cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and even speed up cellular aging (makes sense when we understand what iron does).
5. How Should I Get My Iron?
First, iron is best absorbed from whole food, and from plants at that. This can be controversial as there are two types of iron — heme (animal) and non-heme (plants).
Over the decades, nutritionists have advised against non-heme sources for absorption concerns. But today we know:
- The overall health benefits of plant-based diet
- That other animals get their iron from plants
- That vitamin C and other plant nutrients aid absorption of iron
- That, perhaps, the absorption issues of non-heme are a built-in protection against too much iron
That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy quality animal sources of iron, but you don’t need to eat meat to get sufficient iron.
Second, during growth phases, or along with being monitored by your practitioner, during intense periods of fitness and muscle exertion, you can and likely should supplement your iron intake.
Third, when lab values are concerning, your practitioner will recommend a supplement. This is not meant to be a prescription for lifelong, daily iron supplement intake, and you should request follow-up lab checks.
Women should consider taking the supplement only during period to see if they achieve normal levels that way.
6. What Are The Best Iron Sources?
Pulses (lentils, chickpeas, beans, etc.), hemp hearts, cooked spinach, and other dark leafy greens, as well as olives, pumpkin, and sesame seeds, are good sources of iron.
Whole grains like bulgur, barley, and quinoa contain nice amounts of iron (1–2 mg per serving, typically 1 cup), and cereals made from these will contain iron as well.
However, flour-based cereals are often fortified with iron; one serving can deliver an adult daily dose of iron or more. I like these less (we often eat more than one serving and we hopefully get other sources of iron in the same day).
When eating animal sources of iron, pork liver and mollusks like oysters top the list with beef (and beef liver), as well as quality fish like wild salmon. You can also get extra iron by preparing your food in a cast-iron pan.
7. What If Iron-Rich Foods Can’t Improve Iron Levels?
I recommend working with your doctor and a dietitian. There are factors that can interfere with iron absorption, like foods and supplements (coffee or calcium in foods and in supplements and medications).
8. What If The Iron Supplement Causes Constipation?
This is really common. There are some supplements that work to address this. Herbs that include vitamin C can address constipation in addition to promoting better iron absorption.
I often add magnesium to improve motility when adding an iron supplement to the diet as well.