Humans have appreciated the crucial role that iron plays in health since Ancient times. Indeed, the ancient Greeks, Romans, Hindus and Egyptians used iron for medicinal purposes. Iron is not just important, it’s essential. Every living creature on the planet needs iron in order to function.
Most people are aware that iron is an important building block of red blood cells and also that not having enough iron can lead to anaemia. It is less widely known, however, that the effects of iron are not only limited to physical performance. Iron deficiency can also cause impaired mental acuity, reduced immunity and lack of energy. Taking an iron supplement has been found to improve symptoms of fatigue in women who were not anaemic but were deficient in iron. Supplementing with iron in women who had low iron stores also improves endurance and enhances muscle capacity. Iron supplementation in women who are iron deficient but not anaemic also significantly improves cognitive performance.
Having too much iron is just as important as having too little. This condition, known as haemochromatosis, causes iron levels to build up over time resulting in damage to the internal organs especially the liver, heart, brain and pancreas. This is why before starting any supplements containing iron it’s important to know what your body’s iron stores are.
There are a number of great dietary sources of iron for people who have been found to have low levels. Good quality red meat is an excellent nutritional source of iron but iron is also present in fish and poultry. The type of iron in plants can be absorbed less although legumes and leafy green vegetables are still excellent sources of iron. It has recently been discovered that an independent mechanism exists to allow the body to efficiently absorb plant iron from legumes.
There are a number of factors that can enhance or inhibit the absorption of iron. Vitamin C can increase the uptake of iron from the gut. Pairing good sources of iron with plenty of vitamin C rich food maximises iron absorption. The polyphenols present in tea have the opposite effect. These molecules bind to iron and prevent them being absorbed in the gut. Therefore, it’s best to avoid drinking tea at mealtimes. Even herbal teas have been found to have this effect, albeit to a lesser extent than black tea.
If you are looking to improve your energy levels, physical performance and cognitive ability, iron may be the key. Make sure you have your levels checked first, as having excess iron can cause your body long-term damage.