My personal story

Iron, iron, iron. If ever I were to have a mineral arch-nemesis, it is iron. Seriously, I don’t know what I did to it, but it clearly has a personal vendetta against me. 

I first learned the degree to which iron is my body’s mineral version of an internet troll, when I was 16 years old. I helped coordinate a school blood drive and when it came time to donate myself, I was declined due to low iron. Sadly, this low iron battle (iron deficiency anemia, if you want to get technical) has continued through my entire life and became severe during my pregnancy and deliveries. My hemoglobin became so dangerously low, I had to have multiple blood transfusions and intravenous iron infusions. 

My personal battles have led to A LOT of research on the subject of iron. I am not a physician, I am not an expert, but I thought I would share with you my layman’s version of what I have learned. 

So what the heck is iron? And what does it do? 

Iron is a mineral. Its main function is to carry oxygen throughout the body so cells can produce energy.

Why does that matter? When the body’s iron stores become too low, not enough normal red blood cells can be made to carry oxygen efficiently. (Uh oh, I’m going to get technical again… By “normal” we’re discussing here hemoglobin levels, which is a protein in red blood cells that lets them carry that important oxygen around.) Okay, okay, so why does that matter? Let me oversimplify this greatly: We know we need enough oxygen to breathe. Without it, we suffocate. Well, our organs and everything internally also needs enough oxygen to “breathe”. Having too little oxygen in our body can lead to damage. 

What kind of damage can be caused from low iron? 

There are many concerns with anemia, but one of the biggest concerns is heart harm. The heart must work harder to make up for the lack of normal red blood cells. This extra work can harm the heart and can include issues such as irregular heartbeats. 

Other signs and symptoms of low iron: 

  • Being tired. – This is the most common symptom! Your heart has to work so much harder to move that blood around that it down-right leaves you all tuckered out.
  • (Along the lines of being tired…) Weakness, being cranky, poor productivity, and difficulty concentrating. 
  • Lacking the sun-kissed look. – Fun fact: Hemoglobin is what gives blood its red color, so iron deficiency makes the blood less red. That’s why we lose that lovely rosy color.
  • Huffing and puffing. – Remember, iron helps create the red blood cells that carry that oxygen around your body. It only makes sense that your literal breathing rate will increase as your body tries to get more oxygen.
  • Light-headedness, dizziness, and headaches. – Yep, that lack of hemoglobin means there may not be enough oxygen getting to the brain too. 

How much iron do we need? 

Are you ready for a sad fact? Recent data suggests that ten million people in the United States have an iron deficiency. 

I wish there was simple to answer to how much you should have. The fact is, it varies. Age is a determining factor, as is gender (there are no official recommendations for the transgender community yet, and that will vary greatly depending on whether or not steps have been taken for a medical transition.) There are also factors such as pregnancy, nursing, menopause, and menstruation that play a role for women. Oh man, there’s more… Other lifestyle and training choices can play a role as well. Example: If you are a high endurance athlete, you may need more. 

It’s confusing, so I’ll share with you a table that breaks down the information. (These are recommendations on Dietary Allowances for Iron per the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Resources, National Institute of Health.) This may provide a starting point, but you should take a look at your blood work and have a conversation with your doctor to get a more in-depth look at your specific needs. 

Age group Male (mg/day) Female (mg/day)
Birth to 6 months 0.27 0.27
7–12 months 11 11
1–3 years 7 7
4–8 years 10 10
9–13 years 8 8
14–18 years 11 15
19–30 years 8 18
31–50 years 8 18
51+ years 8 8
Pregnancy 27
Lactation (younger than 18 years) 10
Lactation (19–50 years) 9

How would I know if I’m getting enough? 

A simple blood test will tell you. Likewise, stick to that health journal and keep track of how you’re feeling. If you start to notice some of the signs and symptoms that I noted above, you may want to get checked out. 

Ok then, how do I get iron? 

You can absolutely take an iron supplement, but remember that we suggest trying to get as much of your nutrients from real foods before turning to supplemental use. With that in mind, here’s a list of some foods that may help you out: 

  • Spinach 
  • Broccoli (bonus points for broccoli sprouts!) 
  • Lentils
  • Beans (especially white beans) 
  • Quinoa
  • Peas
  • Nuts like peanuts, pecans, walnuts, pistachios, almonds, and cashews
  • Sunflower Seeds
  • Pumpkin Seeds
  • Raisins 
  • Sweet Potatoes 
  • Prunes
  • Organs, especially the liver of various meat sources such as beef, pork, and chicken 
  • Clams, mussels, and oysters
  • Fish like halibut, haddock, salmon, sardines, and tuna
  • Brown rice
  • Dark Chocolate (Say what?! Heck ya!) 

**Fun fact from my hemotologist: Vitmain C will help you absorb your iron. So, enjoy your iron-rich spinach alongside an orange. To the contrary, studies show that calcium can inhibit iron absorption. So, avoid the glass of milk with your broccoli sprouts. 

Cast Iron Skillet 

This is a trick among the vegetarian/vegan community. Simply cooking your food in a cast iron pan allows some of the iron to transfer to your food. Even better, studies suggest that iron is transferred but chemicals that can be transferred from other types of pans such as Teflon, do not get transferred. 

Video: Cast Iron Skillet Intro & Cleaning Tutorial

Iron Warning (because I don’t want to get in trouble) 

Like anything, I should mention that in the same way too little iron is bad, so is too much iron. Although it is much more rare, there are individuals who suffer from iron overload. In most cases that includes individuals with a hereditary metabolic disorder called Hemochromatosis. If you suffer from this disease and/or feel you are at risk of consuming too much iron, get that blood work done and talk to your doc.