Iron in the body

The theme of increasing iron levels in a baby/toddler/preschooler and women is one that comes up time and time again. I struggle with this and have updated this part of the site many times as I learn more.

Menstruating women are very at-risk for iron deficiency. Just supplementing with iron does not help everyone. In fact, iron supplementation when it is not needed is harmful and linked to neurodegenerative diseases.

There are 3 things that often need to be addressed:

  • Co-factors that the body needs to make and recycle iron. When we don’t get the co-factors, the body can’t use iron correctly and it gets sequestered in the body.  Just eating iron rich foods or taking iron supplements will not help if the body is lacking the other needed materials. The co-factors for biosynthesizing heme iron include alpha Lipoic acid , zinc, copper, B2, B5, B6, biotin. Bioavailable copper and real vitamin A are needed for recycling iron from old blood cells.
  • Low stomach acid can be the cause of iron deficiency, as acidic conditions are needed for the body to convert and take in minerals. For this reason it is recommended to pair iron and vitamin C supplements for optimal absorption. It is important to investigate why stomach acid is low. Common reasons are:
    • medications (proton-pump inhibitors, antihistamines, antacids for example)
    • stress! (fight or flight = no stomach acid! must be in the parasympathetic state, also known as “rest & digest” to digest food properly)
    • lack of co-factors. To make hydrochloric acid (stomach acid) we  need lots of good quality sea salt (to provide the chloride), zinc, B6
    • infections, like H. pylori. H. pylori makes an alkaline cloud around itself and keeps acid low in the stomach. It is important to test for it before treating or trying to raise stomach acid, or harm can be done. It is linked to GERD, gastritis, ulcers. see my article about foods, herbs and supplements for fighting a H. pylori infection.
  • Proper breathing can affect iron stores. This is not something I completely understand yet but will add more soon!

On the topic of fortification – I used to recommend iron fortified cereals but I no longer think they are a good idea. Real food with preformed vitamin A, copper and iron are the most beneficial … for example chicken livers. Dr. Ray Peat has talked about the dangers of iron in the body extensively as well as many other modern nutrition experts. Dr. Preston Estep also talks about the dangers of excess iron through fortification in The Mindspan Diet.

I greatly prefer food over supplements. Oysters and organ meats are the best sources of the nutrients we are talking about here. If those are not palatable, there are baby steps that can be taken to make them more palatable and integrate into your diet. Cookbooks like It Takes Guts by Ashleigh Vanhoughten can help!  In the meantime other options include supplements like ancestral supplements dried liver and organ blends (there are many other brands on the market as well and I am not partial to any one brand), another idea is this new seasoning called “Plucked” that contains dried organ meats in the blend. We love these seasonings in meatballs and other savory dishes.

Cod liver oil is an excellent source of real vitamin A. This is not beta-carotene which is in plants. Rositas softgels is a good brand to try.

Babies use up their iron stores and start needing iron from their diet around the time they start eating real food (6 months or so). Meat can be a good first food for babies! Lamb chops were one of my son’s first foods, he seemed to enjoy holding it and sucking on it to get the flavor. If a young child’s main source of nutrition beyond 6 months is milk then he/she is at risk for iron deficiency. Iron is stored in the baby’s body until around 6 mo., then it needs to be ingested from food. (This is one of the reasons mom needs so much more iron while pregnant, the fetus takes it all and stores up for later use). If your child’s blood test for lead comes back high then it could be competing with iron. With the guidance of a healthcare practitioner, increasing bioavailable copper and vitamin A in his/her diet is a good idea. Even if your child is not iron deficient then some of this may be of interest, this is such a rapid time of growth and iron needs are high for kids. Baby’s first foods should contain iron from food and the co-factors. Recommendations about first foods from the American Academy of Pediatrics  are now more liberal than they have ever been. When baby shows signs of being ready to eat, any healthy food except honey is OK. It is best to start slow – not combine too many foods at once – so you can discern if there is a reaction or allergy.

There is no doubt that breastmilk beyond age 1 is a wonderful source of nutrition, but if the child is iron deficient then emphasizing food before breastfeeding may work to get more iron in. If the child is drinking cow’s milk at this point then same idea: offer water instead of milk at meals and try giving the milk at the end of the meal after food.

Offering green leafy vegetables like spinach can help a bit but because of “anti-nutrients” like oxylates in leaves it is not super absorbable (not a reason not to offer it to your child however, all foods have “good” and “bad” things about them). Make spinach pancakes/fritters. Mix baby spinach leaves into smoothies or pancake batter (in blender).

Eat foods high in vitamin C along with the mineral rich foods to increase absorbtion. Like tomato sauce with meatballs, oranges in salad with beans, etc.

Other ideas…related to decreasing lead which competes with iron: many people are giving their kids the Earthpaste toothpaste which is edible and has clay in it that is supposed to remove toxins including lead from the body. We tried the lemon one, it tastes good.

Foods to eat to improve iron in the body – remember they need to be combined with real vitamin A and bioavailable copper if they don’t already contain it. 

Oysters, lobster – cooked or raw

Chicken livers – eat in pate or chopped liver, some kids love it! add to soups, stews, meatballs, meat loaf, baked beans, etc

Beef, then other meats

Lentils, then other beans

Molasses – add to pancakes, smoothies, oatmeal ( I love it in cookies).

Spinach (iron)

Dried fruits, dates particularly from certain parts of the world (for the copper)

Cod liver oil (real vitamin A)

nuts (walnuts are high in Alpha lipoic acid)

chia seeds – high in Alpha lipoic acid


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