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Iron Levels for Optimal Health!

July 13, 2016 by headtotoe

Iron – Mind-Body Optimization

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Iron deficiency – the most common nutrient deficiency!

The World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes iron deficiency as the number one, most common nutritional disorder in the world (7,8).

Some causes of iron deficiency include:

  • Blood loss (e.g., heavy menstrual periods, stomach ulcer)
  • Lack of dietary iron sources (more common in vegetarians and vegans)
  • Poor iron absorption due to digestive health issues (e.g., celiac disease, irritable bowel diseases, low stomach acid, etc).

Why is iron so important?

Iron is a trace mineral essential for human life.  It has many functions in the body but it is most well known for it’s integral role in the formation and function of red blood cells, allowing for oxygen transport and energy production – hence why iron deficiency is associated with feeling exhausted!  When iron deficiency is severe, it can affect the health and numbers of red blood cells causing ‘iron deficiency anemia’.  That said, even mild to moderate iron deficiency without anemia (when red blood cell count has not yet been impacted) negatively affects childhood growth and development, immune health, thyroid function, wound healing, and cognition and physical performance (1).

Signs that suggest iron deficiency include:

  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Low mood
  • Dizziness
  • Brittle nails
  • Pale skin
  • Hair loss
  • Frequent infections
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Increased heart rate
  • Poor circulation (cold hands and feet, shortness of breath on exertion)
  • Low appetite
  • Craving ice or ice cold drinks


Source: Adapted from http://thumbnails-visually.netdna-ssl.com/

Optimal Iron Levels

Generally speaking, iron status is assessed clinically by taking a blood sample and measuring the level of “ferritin”, which is the storage form of iron.  Some medical guidelines suggest normal ferritin levels are between 12-300ug/L – this is a HUGE range that allows many individuals with low iron to go untreated.  For instance, a ferritin level of 13ug/L will not be flagged on blood work.

Other medical guidelines, like the one included below from the Ontario Association of Medical Laboratories (OAML), provide optimal ranges.  As we mentioned before, even low iron status without anemia can affect your health.  Furthermore, studies show that by optimizing iron status even when anemia is not present, we can resolve the symptoms associated with low iron (3).

As Naturopathic doctors, we aim to have ferritin levels above 70ug/L to support optimal health (including hair growth, thyroid function, immune health, etc).

Below is the detailed guideline to optimal iron stores from the OAML:

Serum Ferritin (ug/L) Interpretation
<15 or <12 (children) Iron deficiency
15-50 Depletion of stored iron, probable iron deficiency
52-100 Reduces iron stores, possible iron deficiency
100-300 Likely sufficient iron stores

Source: Ontario Association of Medical Laboratories (OAML)


Iron and how to get it: Food Sources and optimal absorption

In our diets we obtain non-heme iron from plant sources and heme iron from animal products. Heme iron is better absorbed however both plant and animal sources are equally important! See Table 1 below for a list of foods that are high in iron. Include these in your daily diet!

To optimize iron absorption, combine iron rich meals or iron supplements with foods high in vitamin C or a vitamin C supplement. Avoid having coffee, tea, and dairy products with iron rich meals and iron supplements as these inhibit iron absorption.



Iron Supplements

In some cases it can be difficult to increase iron stores with diet alone and an iron supplement may be necessary. Some iron supplements have poor absorption and cause digestive upset. When choosing an iron supplement, look for the ferrous bisglycinate form; it has better absorption and is less likely to cause stomach upset in both adults and children.

Work with a Naturopathic doctor to optimize your iron levels safely and effectively!

If you are iron deficient, it is always important to ask why and ensure the root cause is being addressed.  For instance, if digestive concerns continue to cause malabsorption of iron or if heavy menstrual periods cause significant blood and iron loss each month, supplementing will be largely ineffective.  This is a perfect example of why individualized treatment is most effective!

Book today for individualized naturopathic health care and to find the supplement and regimen that is just right (and effective!) for you.

Book an Appointment Today!

Note: Too much iron in the body can be harmful! Before supplementing, see your naturopathic doctor or other primary health care practitioner to assess levels and see if an iron supplement is right for you.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. 




Iron Sources

Table 1:

Food Serving size Iron (mg)
Fruits and vegetables
Spinach, cooked 125 mL (½ cup) 2.0-3.4
Tomato puree 125 mL (½ cup) 2.4
Asparagus, raw 6 spears 2.1
Snow peas, cooked 125 mL (½ cup) 1.7
Turnip or beet greens, cooked 125 mL (½ cup) 1.5-1.7
Apricots, dried 60 mL (¼ cup) 1.6
Grain Products
Oatmeal, cooked 175 mL (¾ cup) 4.5-10.4
Cream of wheat, all types, cooked 175 mL (¾ cup) 5.7-5.8
Milk and Alternatives
Yogurt, soy 175 mL (¾ cup) 2.0
Duck, cooked 75 g (2 ½  oz) 1.8- 7.4
Beef, various cuts, cooked  75 g (2 ½ oz) 1.4-3.3
Chicken, various cuts, cooked 75 g (2 ½  oz) 0.4-2.0
Liver (chicken, turkey, lamb), cooked* 75 g (2 ½ oz) 6.2-9.7
Fish and Seafood
Octopus, cooked 75 g (2 ½ oz) 7.2
Oysters, cooked 75 g (2 ½ oz) 3.3-9.0
Seafood (shrimp, scallops, crab), cooked 75 g (2 ½ oz) 2.2-2.3
Fish (mackerel, trout, bass), cooked 75 g (2 ½ oz) 1.4-1.7
Meat Alternatives
Tofu, tempeh, soybeans, cooked 150 g (¾ cup) 2.4-8.0
Lentils and Beans (white, kidney, navy, pinto, black, roman/cranberry, adzuki), cooked 175 mL (¾ cup) 2.6-4.9
Pumpkin or squash seeds, roasted 60 mL (¼ cup) 1.4-4.7
Nuts (cashews, almonds, hazelnuts, macadamia, pistachio nuts) 60 ml (¼ cup) 1.3-2.2
Hummus 60 mL (¼ cup) 1.4
Almond butter 30 mL (2 Tbsp) 1.2
Blackstrap molasses (delicious with oatmeal!) 15 mL (1 Tbsp) 3.6



  1. Abbaspour, Nazanin, Richard Hurrell, and Roya Kelishadi. “Review on iron and its importance for human health.” Journal of research in medical sciences: the official journal of Isfahan University of Medical Sciences 19.2 (2014): 164.
  2. Canadian Nutrient File 2010 hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/nutrition/fiche-nutri-data/index-eng.php
    [Accessed March 20, 2012].
  3. Clénin German, E. “The treatment of iron deficiency without anaemia (in otherwise healthy persons).”
  4. Hinton, Pamela S. “Iron and the endurance athlete 1.”Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism 9 (2014): 1012-1018.
  5. Milman, Nils, et al. “Ferrous bisglycinate 25 mg iron is as effective as ferrous sulfate 50 mg iron in the prophylaxis of iron deficiency and anemia during pregnancy in a randomized trial.”Journal of perinatal medicine 2 (2014): 197-206.
  6. Pineda, Oscar, and H. DeWayne Ashmead. “Effectiveness of treatment of iron-deficiency anemia in infants and young children with ferrous bis-glycinate chelate.”Nutrition 5 (2001): 381-384.
  7. World Health Organization. “Iron deficiency anaemia: assessment, prevention and control: a guide for programme managers.” (2001).
  8. World Health Organization. “Micronutrient Deficiencies: Iron deficiency anaemia” WHO. Web. 09 June 2016.