Jason West, DC NMD DCDN FIAMA
In older days, to gain stamina and strength, warriors would sharpen their swords over a pot of wine and drink the wine before battle, thinking that the iron shavings would strengthen their bodies. I shudder to think of the physical effects of such a toxic intake of iron.
Iron is a good/bad mineral. Too little and you have anemia, too much you have toxicity and unfortunately, I fear that most people are getting too much.
Iron is a vital component of hemoglobin and myoglobin, the proteins that transport oxygen in the blood and muscle. It’s also involved in energy production and replication in cells. Iron deficiency has severe consequences, including anemia and impaired cognitive development and growth in children.2
However, we only need a small amount of iron and iron overload is affecting over 35 million people and has been associated with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, cancer, asthma, psoriasis, inflammatory bowel disease, hypothyroidism, liver disease, gout, epilepsy, impotence, infertility, osteoporosis, and osteoarthritis.3
What is worse is that we are fortifying foods with iron. It is estimated that iron intake has risen 50% since the 1950s and the main source of iron fortification? Cold cereal – Special K, cheerios, Kix, Frosted MiniWheats, and Raisin Bran. Toxicty for iron is about 45mg/day according to the institute of Medicine so that means that if you sit down to eat a bowl of Raisin Bran or Frosted Mini Wheat you are at upper limit of iron intake. Don’t worry, it get’s worse – if you have pasta that is fortified with iron now you have tipped the scales.
Too much iron wreaks havoc on the intestines and how many chronically ill people have stomach problems? Pretty much all of them. Several studies in Africa showed that iron fortification of foods did help with iron deficiency but alco increased diarrhea, inflammation9,11 increased infections 500% and increased gut inflammation. Perhaps the solution is not iron fortification but natural iron?
Excessive iron has been known to accumulate in the intestine and cause free radical damage.12 This results in leaky gut, allowing the bad guys to leak into the blood stream and cause systemic inflammation.13
So, is iron all bad? No. If you don’t’ have iron, bad things will happen but most of the time, people don’t even know their iron status.
Test! Most of the time doctors don’t run iron panels and these are the tests that are most important:
- Serum iron – amount of iron in your blood
- Total iron binding capacity
- Ferritin – long term storage of iron
If you are too high, stop taking iron and stop eating iron fortified foods. It’s killing your health, I promise. If your iron is too low considering natural sources of iron, NOT iron Rx or iron supplements.
If you need to increase your iron, consider these foods – thyme, parsley, spinach, hazelnuts, and tomatoes. Be aware that eggs, grains, and coffee may decrease iron. One of the best ways to increase and decrease natural sources of iron is Vitamin C. I like to be about 2,000mg/day of Vitamin C.
To decrease iron levels (after a blood test), vitamin C, exercise, detox therapies, blood donation and in advanced conditions, intravenous chelation therapy. Absolutely you should reduce dietary intake of iron fortified foods. Consider ceramic cookware, not cast iron. You should re-test your iron levels at least one time per year. Once your iron levels are normalized, there’s no reason to not eat iron containing foods, just don’t supplement with iron. Iron is like blood sugar, too much and disease will occur and too little disease will occur.
- WHO | Micronutrient deficiencies. WHO Available at: http://www.who.int/nutrition/topics/ida/en/. (Accessed: 17th January 2018)
- Miller, J. L. Iron Deficiency Anemia: A Common and Curable Disease. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Med 3, (2013).
- Sangani, R. G. & Ghio, A. J. Iron, Human Growth, and the Global Epidemic of Obesity. Nutrients 5, 4231–4249 (2013).
- Nutrient Content of the US Food Supply | Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. Available at: https://www.cnpp.usda.gov/USfoodsupply. (Accessed: 17th January 2018)
- Food Composition Databases Show Foods List. Available at: https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/search/list. (Accessed: 17th January 2018)
- Office of Dietary Supplements – Nutrient Recommendations : Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI). Available at: https://ods.od.nih.gov/Health_Information/Dietary_Reference_Intakes.aspx. (Accessed: 17th January 2018)
- Hallberg, L., Brune, M. & Rossander, L. Iron absorption in man: ascorbic acid and dose-dependent inhibition by phytate. Am J Clin Nutr49, 140–144 (1989).
- Payne, S. M. & Finkelstein, R. A. The critical role of iron in host-bacterial interactions. J. Clin. Invest. 61, 1428–1440 (1978).
- Soofi, S. et al. Effect of provision of daily zinc and iron with several micronutrients on growth and morbidity among young children in Pakistan: a cluster-randomised trial. Lancet 382, 29–40 (2013).
- Zimmermann, M. B. et al. The effects of iron fortification on the gut microbiota in African children: a randomized controlled trial in Cote d’Ivoire. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 92, 1406–1415 (2010).
- Jaeggi, T. et al. Iron fortification adversely affects the gut microbiome, increases pathogen abundance and induces intestinal inflammation in Kenyan infants. Gut 64, 731–742 (2015).
- Lund, E. K., Fairweather-Tait, S. J., Wharf, S. G. & Johnson, I. T. Chronic Exposure to High Levels of Dietary Iron Fortification Increases Lipid Peroxidation in the Mucosa of the Rat Large Intestine. J. Nutr. 131, 2928–2931 (2001).
- Nchito, M., Friis, H., Michaelsen, K. F., Mubila, L. & Olsen, A. Iron supplementation increases small intestine permeability in primary schoolchildren in Lusaka, Zambia. Trans. R. Soc. Trop. Med. Hyg. 100, 791–794 (2006).
- Hurrell, R. F., Reddy, M. & Cook, J. D. Inhibition of non-haem iron absorption in man by polyphenolic-containing beverages. Br. J. Nutr.81, 289–295 (1999).
- Lönnerdal, B. Calcium and iron absorption–mechanisms and public health relevance. Int J Vitam Nutr Res 80, 293–299 (2010).
- Cook, J. D. & Monsen, E. R. Vitamin C, the common cold, and iron absorption. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 30, 235–241 (1977).
- Gasche, C., Lomer, M. C. E., Cavill, I. & Weiss, G. Iron, anaemia, and inflammatory bowel diseases. Gut 53, 1190–1197 (2004).
- Green, P. H. R. The many faces of celiac disease: clinical presentation of celiac disease in the adult population. Gastroenterology 128,S74-78 (2005).
- Chey, W. D., Kurlander, J. & Eswaran, S. Irritable Bowel Syndrome: A Clinical Review. JAMA 313, 949–958 (2015).
- Paganini, D. et al. Consumption of galacto-oligosaccharides increases iron absorption from a micronutrient powder containing ferrous fumarate and sodium iron EDTA: a stable-isotope study in Kenyan infants. Am J Clin Nutr ajcn145060 (2017). doi:10.3945/ajcn.116.145060