nutrition

What are the Top Science-Backed Ways to Increase Iron Absorption?

Dr. Carla Montrond Correia ND, CNS

Medically Reviewed by

Dr. Carla Montrond Correia ND, CNS

5 min read

a bowl of almonds

Your body needs adequate iron to be able to function properly. Learn about how to make sure your body can absorb iron more effectively.

Iron is critical for your body’s red blood cell formation. Once iron is absorbed into your body, it’s then used to help create hemoglobin, a protein found in red blood cells that delivers oxygen throughout your body. Iron is also part of myoglobin, which is a protein that stores oxygen in your muscles.

So, it’s important to get enough iron in your diet. But it’s just as important to make sure that your body is actually absorbing enough iron. As it turns out, the amount of iron you consume actually has an effect on how well your body absorbs it. Let’s take a closer look.

What is iron?

Iron is an essential mineral that’s vitally important to the help of your body. It performs many roles and helps you maintain healthy energy levels. It’s naturally present in many foods and added to some others. It’s also available in supplemental form. The two forms of dietary iron are heme (derived from animal foods) and non-heme (derived from plant-based sources). Despite iron’s importance for human health, iron deficiencies are surprisingly common.

Iron’s health benefits

Iron supports your health in a number of key ways. Since it’s an essential part of hemoglobin, the red blood cell protein that delivers oxygen from the lungs to the tissues, it’s vitally important to the functioning of the whole body. It’s also a component of myoglobin, which helps deliver oxygen throughout the body and stores oxygen in your muscles. That’s why iron is so important for muscle metabolism and healthy connective tissue. Your body needs iron for physical growth, cellular functioning, neurological development, and the synthesis of certain hormones.

But you can really see the importance of iron when you consider the effects of a deficiency. Some symptoms of an iron deficiency include poor concentration, fatigue, and getting sick more often.

Iron deficiency and its symptoms

Low iron levels are surprisingly common and are often linked to other nutrient deficiencies. Here’s how iron deficiency works. A majority of adults have about 3,000 mg of elemental iron in their bodies, though this figure can vary based on sex, pregnancy status, and other factors. Since your body loses a certain amount of iron per day, you have to make that up through iron intake and absorption. If your intake stays too low for too long, your iron stores can start to become depleted. Some symptoms of iron deficiency include:

  • Fast or irregular heartbeat
  • Pale skin
  • Cold extremities
  • General fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Headaches
  • Brittle nails

Be on the lookout for these symptoms, because they could be a sign that you need to look into your iron intake and absorption. Left unaddressed for too long, low iron levels can lead to iron-deficiency anemia, which is also the most common form of anemia.

Who’s at risk for iron deficiency?

Certain subsets of the population are especially vulnerable to iron. Some include:

Foods that help you absorb iron

There are two types of iron that you can include in your diet and that your body can absorb: heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron is derived from animal food sources and is more easily absorbed than non-heme, which is derived from plant-based sources. To get a good dose of heme iron, you’ll want to have lean meat and seafood, which are some of the richest sources of heme iron. Some dietary sources of non-heme iron include nuts, beans, and vegetables. Upping your intake of heme iron can even help your body absorb non-heme iron. Vitamin C, too, has been shown to help the body absorb non-heme iron. So, you can boost iron absorption by consuming foods rich in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits.

Foods that can hurt iron absorption

Just as some foods can support iron absorption, some other foods can disrupt it. Coffee and tea, for example, have been shown to disrupt iron absorption. Studies have shown that calcium inhibits iron absorption, too. So, calcium-rich foods can present problems for iron absorption.

Some properties you find in certain foods can also present problems. These properties include:

  • Oxalates (compounds found in non heme/plant based sources of foods that contain iron)
  • Polyphenols
  • Phytates found in grains, nuts, and seeds

The key to improving absorption isn’t necessarily to remove these foods and properties from your diet altogether, though. Instead, you should add foods rich in vitamin C to your diet.

What to know about iron supplementation

For some people, especially those vulnerable to iron deficiency, iron supplementation can be a good option. However, you should always consult with a medical professional before incorporating an iron supplement, since taking too much iron can have adverse effects. When considering an iron supplement, you’ll ideally want to find a bisglycinate form – it’s easily absorbed, and studies show that taking 25 mg of iron in bisglycinate form is as effective as taking 50 mg of iron in sulfate form.

Care/of’s iron supplement includes buffered forms of vitamin C that make it highly absorbable.

Health risks of taking too much iron

Taking too much iron can pose some serious health risks. Iron toxicity can lead to digestive issues and tissue damage, as well as reducing your gut’s ability to absorb other nutrients. You may also experience liver issues. Some symptoms to watch out for include dark stool, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Iron toxicity can also lead to cell damage. You should keep your iron supplements out of reach of young children, because iron toxicity can be fatal for them. Always talk to a medical professional about getting your iron levels tested before adding an iron supplement to your routine.

Final takeaways

Iron is an essential mineral that’s vitally important for your body’s health. Even so, iron deficiency is surprisingly common. Eating foods rich in vitamin C can help boost your body’s ability to absorb the iron it needs. Eating enough heme iron also promotes your body’s ability to absorb non-heme iron.

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