Our bodies rely on many different vitamins and minerals in order to sustain life.
Iron is one of those. It’s necessary for life but too much is not a good thing. Even if someone is actually low in iron, I have never actually recommended an iron supplement.
Iron is a major component of hemoglobin, which is a protein in the blood that carries oxygen. When hemoglobin levels are low, or there are low levels of red blood cells, you can feel very tired and fatigued.
But just taking iron will not necessarily help with this.
And more importantly – and why I don’t just recommend iron supplements – is that adding iron can make problems worse.
In order to understand this, we have to break this down a bit.
Let’s look at how to determine iron levels, why too much iron is harmful, and how to improve levels if they are too low or too high.
How to determine iron levels
This is not as simple as just measuring the iron in the blood. Serum iron levels can fluctuate, even throughout the day and drop when there is inflammation, infection, or oxidative stress.
The labs I look at for assessing iron patterns in the body do include serum iron but also TIBC (which is basically how much iron the body wants), ferritin (which itself is not a good indicator of iron status but is still a piece of the puzzle), and % iron saturation (basically measuring how much iron your cells are holding onto).
Seeing these markers, along with the whole CBC (complete blood count), really helps to paint a picture of what the client’s body is doing with the iron and whether it actually wants more or not.
It is far too simplistic to make assumptions about iron just because red blood cells, hemoglobin, or serum iron itself is low.
A person could have adequate or even too much iron, but still have low hemoglobin.
Because our bodies are complex, vitamins and minerals work synergistically together. If you have plenty of iron but not enough B6, zinc, and/or copper, you’ll be missing some of the cofactors needed for proper usage of that iron.
Why too much iron is harmful
Iron is a “Goldilocks” mineral. We definitely need some but we don’t want too much.
Too much iron creates increased oxidative stress. If you think about it, iron can rust easily, right? Now it doesn’t just happen that simply in the body but it’s not a bad analogy.
When the necessary cofactors for iron usage are not available or there are other sources of increased oxidative stress, the body can try to get iron out of the blood. This can make it look like your iron levels in the blood are low but if not tested correctly, you’ll miss the higher iron levels building up in the cells.
Our bodies just want to survive. They innately know that too much iron in the blood is not good if there are other stressful things happening in the body.
Harmful microbes and parasites actually feed on iron. To counteract this, the body can push serum iron into cells and tissues in order to prevent those microbes from growing. While this is the body’s way of protecting itself, that buildup of iron in the cells and tissue can then begin to oxidize and cause problems at the cellular level.
If this isn’t dealt with correctly, it can become a cycle. Too much iron builds up in the cells, causing increased oxidative stress which can then increase cell death and inflammation.
Then you feel fatigued, inflamed, and can start having issues with your gut, blood sugar, and lipids.
How to improve low iron
While it’s important to make sure iron doesn’t get too high, we do also want to make sure there is enough.
I approach this by making sure the client is eating foods with iron or supplementing with a whole-food supplement that includes all the cofactors needed to utilize and absorb iron correctly.
My favorites for this are dried spleen capsules if iron is really low or dried liver. Not only do these contain usable, naturally occurring iron, but the other nutrients the body needs to use that iron.
The other aspect of this would be assessing the client’s gut health and whether their iron levels are low because they aren’t properly digesting and absorbing food.
It isn’t just about consuming foods with iron – you have to be able to absorb it as well!
How to improve high iron levels
The best way to get rid of excess iron is to donate blood. I recommend this when iron saturation is high and TIBC is on the lower end. Especially if there are signs of inflammation and oxidative stress in the body. Keeping that iron around will just continue that stress cycle.
If someone is unable to donate blood, we look at making sure the cofactors for using iron are there, cleaning up gut infections that might be fueling the iron-storage problem, and maybe introducing some nutrients that help block iron absorption in the body.
As you can see our bodies are pretty complex! This is why learning about blood chemistry feels like an art. We have to pay attention to many aspects of what’s going on in the body and not simply one or two markers.
If you are curious about your own iron status and how it might be affecting your health, sign up here for a free chat!