Iron: Get back your energy

Woman smiling at Man. Skybright Iron Liquid Mineral.

Iron: Get back your energy

Iron is essential for energy production. It is found in the haemoglobin of our red blood cells to transport oxygen from our lungs to every cell in our body. It’s also present in myoglobin, a protein found in skeletal muscles and the heart. At the cellular level, iron is used to fuel enzymes and make energy.

Iron is responsible for more than 200 processes in the body, and key to thyroid function, hair growth, mood regulation, cognitive function, building and maintaining strong bones and optimal immune system maintenance.

Iron is found in the haemoglobin of our red blood cells.
Iron is found in the haemoglobin of our red blood cells to transport oxygen to every cell in our body.

There are any number of reasons we can feel tired or lacking energy. Not enough sleep, too much work, or several key nutrients missing from our diet. 

Low iron status is one of the most common deficiencies in the world. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), two billion people in both developing and industrialised countries are iron deficient. This is also true in New Zealand, especially for women. 

In the last New Zealand Nutritional Survey (all the way back in 2009!), 34% of girls aged 13-19 were deficient in iron, and that figure was 49% for Māori and Pasifika teenage girls. It is estimated 20-30% of women of child-bearing age in New Zealand are iron deficient.

When iron levels are low you are essentially depriving your cells of oxygen. Symptoms can include low energy, weakness, fatigue, pale skin, poor concentration, brain fog, and cold hands and feet. Low immunity to infection, and slow recovery from sickness is also common. In more severe cases, when haemoglobin levels are low and red blood cells become paler in colour, anaemia develops. This can cause a host of serious health issues including shortness of breath, chest pain and dizziness.

“This iron liquid supplement has helped so much with energy levels, sleep and breathlessness. Can highly recommend.”

– Inger
Woman smiling after taking Skybright Iron Liquid Mineral

While low iron or anaemia occurs more frequently than any other micronutrient deficiency, too much iron can be just as dangerous. The symptoms for excess iron are often the same, such as low energy or cognitive issues. 

Haemochromatosis, or iron overload, is a genetic condition that affects 1 in 200 New Zealanders, mostly of European descent. It’s thought to be the most common genetic disorder in the world. The iron slowly builds up in the body, especially your liver, heart, and pancreas. Eventually, these organs can be permanently damaged by the excess iron.

A balanced wholefood diet can play a big part in restoring and maintaining sufficient iron levels, and a well-nourished person is able to regulate their iron levels effectively, depending on what their body requires.

However, if you think you require more iron, it is recommended that you consult a health professional before commencing supplementation.

Iron absorption and bioavailability

While there is often enough iron in our diets, absorption of the mineral can be problem. This comes down to bioavailability, and how our body can access the iron from our food.

The role of healthy gut

Maintaining a healthy and happy gut is key for getting all the nutrients from your food and your overall wellbeing. Simple things like chewing your food well can help stimulate acid production, and friendly gut bacteria and probiotics such as lactoferrin play a vital role. 

Man holding stomach. Friendly gut bacteria and probiotics such as lactoferrin play a vital role in iron absorption.
Friendly gut bacteria and probiotics such as lactoferrin play a vital role in iron absorption.

Food sources of Iron

Dietary sources of Iron can be broken up into two main types: Haem iron and non-Haem iron. 

Haem iron is found in red meats such as beef and lamb, as well as fish, shellfish and poultry, and is readily absorbed by the body. For many reasons, including health, we’re eating less red meat than we used to, and therefore missing out on one of the best sources of iron.

Non-Haem sources include lentils, legumes, wholegrain fortified cereals and tofu. Leafy green vegetables such as spinach, kale, brussel sprouts can also provide small amounts of iron.

Here in New Zealand, non-Haem sources such as wheat form a considerable portion of dietary iron; 40% according to the 2009 New Zealand Nutritional Survey (animal protein accounted for 18%). However, non-Haem or plant-based sources are not as bioavailable and often poorly absorbed. To assist with absorption, it can be paired with Haem iron foods such as red meat, fish or poultry. 

Vitamin C can be hugely beneficial. By eating citrus fruits, kiwifruits, capsicums and brassica vegetables such as broccoli and cabbage, it can enhance the absorption of non-Haem iron, and increase iron status. Many iron supplements contain forms of vitamin C for this purpose.

In contrast, high levels of calcium, zinc or phytates, which can be found in legumes, rice and other grains can inhibit absorption of both Haem and non-Haem iron. Conversely, high intakes of iron can affect the absorption of zinc, and calcium.  

A range of foods that contain the mineral iron: beef, fish, spinach, legumes, wholegrain bread. Vitamin C helps with absorption of the mineral.
Variety is key, as there are small amounts of iron in many foods.

Variety is key, as there are small amounts of iron in many foods. It’s important to try and keep a good balance to help the body maintain sufficient mineral stores.

Lastly, although iron from plant sources is less bioavailable, if you don’t eat animal-based products, don’t assume you are iron deficient. Many vegetarians utilise iron from their diet very effectively. Again, it is best to take a blood test before undertaking supplementation.

A note about tea and coffee

It is recommended not to consume tea or coffee with iron-rich meals as this has been shown to inhibit absorption due to the tannins present. These tannins can bind to the iron and hinder absorption. Allow two hours before or after eating iron-rich foods or when taking an iron supplement.

Iron in pregnancy

The WHO has estimated that anaemia is the most prevalent nutritional deficiency worldwide, affecting 33% of non-pregnant women, 40% of pregnant women and 42% of children worldwide. Research suggests that 20-30% of women of child-bearing age may be iron-deficient in New Zealand.

Pregnant woman sitting on floor in bedroom. 20-30% of women of child-bearing age may be iron-deficient in New Zealand.
20-30% of women of child-bearing age may be iron-deficient in New Zealand.

Women often require more iron when pregnant and nursing children. A lack of iron can lead to complications in pregnancy such as decreased fertility, reduced birth weight and reduced gestation periods. 

Iron deficiency in children can lead to irreversible effects on brain development, lack of growth, and low immunity to infection. Cognitive development can also be affected if a mother is lacking iron in her last trimester of pregnancy.

The issue of excess iron is rarely found in women of child-bearing age, due to menstrual blood loss. Having children and monthly cycles can often deplete women’s iron stores for many years to follow.

Iron for athletes

Iron can be critically important for endurance athletes. Anaemia or even marginal iron deficiency can impair performance as it reduces the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood and inhibits mitochondrial enzyme function in the cell. 

Endurance athletes often deplete their iron stores more rapidly through sweat loss, red blood cell destruction, and gastro-intestinal blood loss.

Male athlete running on track. Iron liquid mineral for energy.
Endurance athletes often deplete their iron stores more rapidly through sweat loss.

Some athletes have difficulty meeting their iron needs due to factors such as calorie restriction, avoiding animal-based products and a high carbohydrate intake. Those training for more than six hours per week are more at risk and should have their iron status checked at least once a year. 

When to supplement

At certain times of life, there is an increased need for iron. In infancy, experiencing growth spurts in childhood, adolescence, when pregnant and breastfeeding, and exercising often.

Woman taking care of her daughter with minerals supplements
Iron deficiency in children can lead to irreversible effects on brain development, lack of growth, and low immunity to infection. Cognitive development can also be affected if a mother is lacking iron in her last trimester of pregnancy.

“Really easy to use, and noticed a big difference within a couple of days in my daughter.”

– Becky

Elderly men often have low iron status or anaemia due to weak stomach acid. Try to avoid or limit the use of antacids, heartburn or stomach acid lowering medication that can prevent absorption of iron and other minerals. 

Iron supplementation should only be recommended following a consultation with a healthcare professional, especially for those on medication. They may suggest a test which measures haemoglobin levels, determining the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood cells. An additional serum ferritin test measures the amount of iron stored in the body.

Iron deficiency can develop slowly and correcting it can also be a slow process. A supplement may be required for at least a few months to replenish your iron levels. Always use as directed and keep out of reach of children. 

References:
Coory, David. Stay Healthy by supplying what’s lacking in your diet. 1992
Schauss, Alexander G. Minerals, Trace Elements, & Human Health. Life Sciences Press. 1995
WHO guidance helps detect iron deficiency and protect brain development. 2020
Ministry of Health ­– Manatū Hauora. Iron overload (Haemochromatosis). 2018

Disclaimer:
The information in this article is not intended as a medical prescription for any disease or illness. Nothing stated here should be considered medical advice. Use as directed. If symptoms persist, consult your healthcare professional. 

A to Zinc: A handy guide

A to Zinc

Acne: Zinc is an important component for healthy skin, and in particular for sufferers of acne. It can control the production of oil in the skin and help balance some of the hormones that can lead to acne. Many skin disorders can be attributed to insufficient zinc.

Bioavailability: The bioavailability of zinc from grains and plant foods is lower than that from animal- based foods such as lean red meat and poultry, although many grain and plant-based foods are still good sources of zinc.

Common Cold: Much research has been done around zinc and its capacity to combat the common cold. Although studies examining zinc treatment on cold symptoms has shown varied results over years, it appears to be beneficial under certain circumstances. The Cochrane Report concluded that taking it within 24 hours of developing symptoms and has been shown to reduce the severity and duration of cold symptoms in healthy people by up to a third. It does this by directly inhibiting the rhinovirus binding and replicating and suppressing inflammation.

Depression: Virtually every enzyme reaction in the brain involves zinc, and low levels have been linked to anxiety and depression.

Eyesight: Research has suggested that zinc and antioxidants may delay the progression of age- related macular degeneration and vision loss, possibly by preventing cellular damage in the retina.

Food sources: Lean red meat is an excellent dietary source, and it is also highly bioavailable, meaning your body can absorb it much more readily. Poultry, nuts, seeds, and lentils are other good sources. Green leafy vegetables and fruits contain modest amounts of zinc.

Grains: Wholegrain breads, cereals and other grains contain zinc, but these foods also contain phytates, which can bind zinc and therefore inhibit its absorption. While these plant-based options are good dietary sources, the bioavailability is often lower than animal-based products.

Hair loss: In severe cases zinc deficiency can cause hair loss and a dry flaky scalp.

Immune system: Zinc is needed for the proper functioning of the immune system, and enables protein synthesis and cell growth.

Job: Zinc is often seen as the gatekeeper for your immune system, to ward off bacterial and viral infections like the common cold.

Kids: Zinc supports normal growth and physical development during pregnancy, and this continues through childhood and adolescence.

Low zinc content in our soils: Plants, like our bodies, cannot make minerals. They instead extract them from the soil. Like many other mineral and trace elements, if they are lacking in the soil they will be lacking in the plants we eat or the animals that are grazing the fields and providing our much-need protein. If certain crops aren’t rotated, it can seriously deplete the soils of these minerals, leading to deficiencies in our diet.

Magnesium: Both zinc and magnesium help protect the brain and the eyes from excitotoxin additives that are common in foods today. In New Zealand, deficiency of both of these minerals is common due to soil depletion.

Nutrients: As well as being involved in hundreds of processes within the body, zinc helps us absorb and utilise nutrients from our food.

Oysters: Oysters contain more zinc per serving than any other food.

RDI for zinc is higher for pregnant and lactating women.

Pregnant women: Pregnant and breastfeeding mothers may require bigger intakes, as there are high foetal requirements for zinc, and lactation can also rapidly deplete mineral stores. For these reasons, the RDI for zinc is higher for pregnant and lactating women, and supplementation is often recommended.

Quote: “Just about all skin disorders improve if you build up your zinc stores.” Dr Robert Atkins

RDI (Recommended Daily Intakes): Common RDIs for zinc are as low as 5mg for a child, 7mg for a teenage girl, 13mg for a teenage boy. For adult woman it is 8mg, increasing to 12 mg when breastfeeding or pregnant, and 14mg for adult males.

Stress: There is evidence that zinc levels decrease following physical stress or injury. It is one of the few minerals lost in the urine following acute or chronic physical stress.

Taste test: There is a simple test you can take to measure your zinc status, which can often be provided by your local health shop. It involves taking a tiny amount of zinc sulphate, dissolving it in water and then tasting as little as a spoonful. This test works because zinc is required for your taste buds to function. If you notice a bitter, astringent taste you are not deficient. If this bitter taste is delayed by more than a few seconds, you need more zinc in your diet. If there is a much longer delay or if you don’t notice the bitterness or it tastes like water, you may have a deficiency and will need to restore your zinc levels.

Ultimate nutrient: Zinc is responsible for hundreds of processes within our brain and our body, and is one of the most important minerals for our health throughout our life. There are more roles in the body for zinc than any other nutrient.

Vegetarians often require as much as 50% more of the RDI for zinc.

Vegetarians: Vegetarians often require as much as 50% more of the RDI for zinc than non-vegetarians. Zinc can be sourced from whole-grain breads, cereals, nuts, seeds, beans and legumes, but these foods also contain phytates, which can bind zinc and therefore inhibit its absorption. While these plant-based options are good dietary sources, the bioavailability is often lower than animal- based products.

Vitamin C: With the help of vitamin C, zinc has been used in research into improving age-related macular degeneration (AMD). After an average follow-up period, supplementation with antioxidants plus zinc (but not antioxidants alone) significantly reduced the risk of developing advanced AMD and reduced visual acuity loss.

Wound healing: Zinc is critical for wound healing, whether it is a small cut, or helping the skin recover from surgical procedures. It also helps prevent scar formation.

EXcessive zinc: A over-large intake of zinc may result in side effects with symptoms ranging from mild to severe. Intake of 50 to 150 milligrams per day of supplemental zinc may cause minor intestinal distress occurring within three to 10 hours after ingestion. Single doses of 225 to 450 milligrams of zinc usually cause nausea and induce vomiting.

Yellow fungus growth on toenails: Many skin disorders are related to insufficient zinc, including abdominal stretchmarks after childbirth, split fingernails with white specks, as well as yellow toenails and/or fungus growth.

Zinc: There are more roles for zinc than any other nutrient. It is one of the most important elements for our health yet one of the most deficient in our diet, especially here in New Zealand. This is due to the quality of our soils and the impact of the foods we eat, and the water we drink.

Disclaimer:
The information in this article is not intended as a medical prescription for any disease or illness. Nothing stated here should be considered medical advice. Use as directed. If symptoms persist, consult your healthcare professional.