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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Why Do We Need Iron in Our Bodies?

Why do we need iron in our bodies? What does iron do in the body?

Hi sweets! Since I've been having some pretty serious iron issues (with my iron absorption issues and my iron infusion), I've been getting quite a few questions from you guys about iron - so I thought I'd put together a post to clear things up! 
Whilst I'm not a health professional by any means, I have had to learn quite a lot thanks to my experience so I'm just sharing what I know. 

The main questions I've been getting are; 
  • Why do our bodies need iron? 
  • What foods contain iron? 
  • What does iron do in the body? 
  • How do you get more iron in your diet?
  • What happens when you have low iron levels?
  • Why can't coeliacs absorb iron? 
  • How much iron does our body need?
  • What causes iron deficiency? 
And I'll be completely honest. Prior to all of these issues occurring, I was pretty clueless when it came to iron. We all know that we need iron, but most of us aren't sure as to why - and that included me. I didn't know just how vital iron was until I didn't have enough. 

Why do we need iron in our bodies? What does iron do in the body?

Iron is one of the essential minerals needed by our body. It is part of all cells and is vital for the proper functioning of our bodies. 

What does iron do in the body? What roles does iron play in the body

The short answer? Many things

Iron is one of the building blocks of our cells, so it's needed for many cell functions. Some of the ways iron is used in the body include; 
  • carrying oxygen to produce energy
  • allowing our body to produce haemoglobin (as one haemoglobin molecule contains four iron molecules) 
  • maintaining the proper functioning of our muscles as it helps to store and use oxygen within the muscles (through a molecule called myoglobin) 
  • producing the enzyme cytochrome oxidase which destroys toxins within the body
  • boosting immunity within the body
  • transmitting nerve signals 
  • producing many proteins in the body 
  • the production of many vital hormones
This is just a tiny glimpse at what iron does in the body - but it is vital for all of the above functions and many others. 

What happens when you have low iron levels? What happens when you have anaemia?

As you now know, your body cannot function properly with insufficient iron levels. 

Iron deficiency can cause; 
  • Anaemia (anaemia is actually a deficiency of haemoglobin not iron like many think. I have very low iron levels, but I'm not anaemic as my haemoglobin/red blood cell levels are okay)
  • Extreme fatigue 
  • Impaired memory and other mental functions 
  • Delayed infant motor and mental function 
  • The increase in risk of small or preterm babies 
  • Body temperature regulation issues
  • Decreased immune function 
  • Pallor of the skin (pale/unusual skin tone)
Among many other symptoms. For me, the biggest symptoms were extreme fatigue, poor circulation, trouble concentrating or remembering things, being constantly cold, looking either pale or super yellow (but my liver is perfectly fine, don't worry!) and just feeling absolutely rubbish. When my iron levels dropped really low I also got pretty moody and grumpy too. 

What causes iron deficiency? What causes anemia?

Iron deficiency can be caused by many things, however, most cases fall into one of two categories; 
  1. Increased Iron Needs
    Such as during periods of rapid growth or pregnancy, blood loss (through heavy menstrual periods, frequent blood donation, some stomach and intestinal conditions such as hookworm and ulcerative colitis)
  2. Decreased Iron Intake or Absorption
    When not enough iron is present in the diet or when dietary iron is not absorbed by the body. 
How much iron do our bodies need?

How much iron do our bodies need? Every body has different iron needs and they chance as we go through different life stages. That said, here are the Recommended Dietary Intake (taken from: NHMRC Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand 2006)

What foods contain iron?

Iron is best absorbed from heme sources (animal/meat sources), however, non heme (plant based sources) are actually better regulated in the body. 

What foods contain iron?  Good sources of plant based non-heme iron

Above are just some of the non heme plant sources of iron - and it's actually really easy (and delicious) to boost your iron intake. Chia Puddings have a tonne of iron, peanut butter is a great way to add in some iron to your meals and oatmeal and quinoa are great iron filled bases. 

Some good heme/animal sources of iron include;
  • Mollusks (clams, mussels and oysters) 
  • Liver
  • Beef and Lamb 
  • Egg yolks 
  • Turkey and Chicken (darker meat has more iron) 
  • Pork 
But tell me, have you ever struggled with low iron levels? 
How do you make sure you're getting enough iron in your diet? 

Side note: I also think it's incredibly important to find out if you medically need any vitamin or mineral supplements. All it takes is a simple blood test and you can make sure you're providing your body with exactly what it needs. 

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