Undoubtedly, you know iron as the most important metal, after all, it appears everywhere in everyday life, as an industrial product, at home, or in other everyday objects. It is not only a literal symbol of hardness, strength, and endurance but also figuratively.
In the medical field, iron has long been known as a trace element with very important functions in the human body.
When iron began to be used
The first records date back to around 1500 BC because the ancient Egyptians were already worried about the consequences of iron deficiency on health. It is also known that Paracelsus used iron supplements in his therapy.
Therefore, you must have known about the importance of the mineral for health or know the consequences of the lack of iron. However, it was a long time until the existence of the mineral in the human body was demonstrated in the 18th century.
Today we know that it is the most common trace element in the human body and that it performs vital tasks or participates in them.
Absorption of iron and vitamin C
Iron is an essential trace element, which means that it must be ingested with food because the body cannot do it by itself.
After separating from the food components, it reaches the blood through the small intestine, and from there it is transported to its destination as needed. The absorption rate and, therefore, the bioavailability are relatively low and depend on several factors.
It is trivalent in plant-based foods and is significantly less absorbable than the bivalent element that comes from the meat of animals. It should also be taken into account that the absorption rate can be influenced positively or negatively by various factors.
Ascorbic acid, better known as vitamin C, is also essential and must be supplied to the body through food. It occurs in many types of fruits and vegetables and is soluble in water, which means that it can be excreted quickly.
Vitamin C is important for many physiological processes and is an excellent addition to iron.
Tasks and functions in the body
Iron is significantly involved in the formation of functional red blood cells, erythrocytes. It controls the function of the red blood pigment, hemoglobin, a protein complex that is the active center of erythrocytes. About 50% of active iron is bound there.
Its main tasks in this system are the storage of oxygen and the transport of blood to the cells. The need for oxygen in the muscles and organs depends on the state of activity. Consequently, it is low at rest and increases with increased activity.
If necessary, chemical sensors in the blood send signals to erythrocytes, which triggers the enzymatic activation of the mineral and, therefore, the release of oxygen in the blood.
If there is little demand, the element is deactivated again and the oxygen remains stored in the hemoglobin. Only in the active form is it possible to release free oxygen ions in the blood and take them to the cells through the capillaries.
There, oxygen is mainly used for energy metabolism. In muscles, which depend particularly on energy, there is an independent system for the activation of oxygen, myoglobin.
It is chemically very similar to hemoglobin and does the same in muscle. Other iron stores are erythrocytes, liver, spleen, and bone marrow.
Iron is also an essential component of enzymes, which are important for maintaining a healthy metabolic environment in the cell. There they act as antioxidants that bind free radicals and take them out of the cell. It is also important for the immune system to work.
The exact correlations are not yet known, but you have probably already observed in yourself or others that iron deficiency makes you more susceptible to infections and vice versa, that a balance leads to an improvement in symptoms.
This means that iron is involved in several processes that are very important for well-being, vitality, and performance. It is responsible for the fact that energy metabolism can work at all and guarantees that we can perform muscularly. It is also compatible with metabolic processes in cells.
Daily need for iron
To optimally guarantee all these processes, a basic supply and a trace element supply based on needs are very important.
The optimal care of a healthy person leads to an average basic stock of 3 to 5 grams based on a bodyweight of 45 to 60 kilograms. Daily needs and the associated new intake vary and are between one and 4 milligrams.
Because the absorption is very difficult, daily intake through food must be significantly higher. It is approximately 10 milligrams in the adult man, women need an average of 5 milligrams more due to the loss of blood during menstruation.
After menopause, the need is the same for both sexes. Nursing mothers with 20 milligrams and pregnant women with 30 milligrams have a particularly high daily requirement.
Certain need factors can affect the amount of iron intake required each day. This includes physical activity, age, iron deficiency disorders, and bleeding and the resulting loss of erythrocytes.
Demand is offset by absorption capacity, which can be influenced by inhibitory and promoter absorption conditions.
Basically, there are two components that can lead to iron deficiency. Or the body does not get enough of the substance through food or absorption does not work properly.
In the first case, the solution to the problem is simple by closely observing your eating plan and making sure you eat enough foods that contain iron in the right combination. In addition, there is also the possibility of correcting the deficit with adequate supplies.
Resorption disorders can have a variety of causes, which a doctor must first clarify to determine the possible underlying disease and treat it accordingly.
If there is no disease, those affected must take special care to choose the right combination of foods and the right time when eating foods that promote and inhibit absorption.
Consequences of iron deficiency
In any case, iron deficiency means that muscles and cells do not receive enough oxygen and cannot produce enough energy. As an affected person, you will quickly notice that you are physically less efficient and often you also lack your breath because your respiratory system tries to compensate for the lack of oxygen.
In addition, you can often feel tired and show signs of forgetfulness and lack of concentration. Many women experience exactly these symptoms once a month, during, and after the menstrual period.
Blood loss causes temporary anemia, and decreases iron content and, therefore, oxygen supply. The deficiency is usually compensated by adequate food intake.
However, it is advisable to adjust to the expected iron loss during the menstrual period and counteract it with a specific meal plan. As a result, fluctuations in the iron level remain significantly lower and the symptoms appear to be significantly attenuated or no longer occur.
If there is a persistent iron deficiency for a longer period of time, this results in permanent anemia and the problems often appear at the physiological, sensory, psychological, and structural levels that do not easily disappear again.
In this case, the cause must be in the area of absorption deficit.
Possible symptoms may be:
- Hair loss.
- Brittle nails.
- Susceptibility to infection.
- Sensitive irritations such as tingling and ants run.
If you experience such symptoms, you should first ask a doctor to clarify if there is another disease behind and to treat it if necessary. If the doctor has found iron deficiency, longer-term strategies are needed to remedy the deficit.
This includes iron intake as part of systematic nutritional planning with the objective of creating the conditions for better absorption. This means that you should pay special attention to the composition of food and you should schedule food intake so that foods containing iron are ingested with other nutritional components that promote absorption whenever possible.
Food substances that inhibit resorption should only be consumed within a period of time after iron absorption. In the case of such health problems, always after consulting with the doctor, it may be useful to supplement the diet with iron supplements, for example, in the form of a combined preparation containing iron and vitamin C.
Direct replacement of iron by infusion should only be considered as a last resort.
Ferrous foods and their bioavailability
In the case of iron deficiency, you can generally do a lot to improve your well-being through proper nutrition and specific trace element intake. Not only the absolute iron content of a food is decisive, but also the origin.
The meat of animals contains a lot and especially bivalent iron, which is absorbed much better than that of plant foods. The absorption capacity or bioavailability of meat products is 15 to 35% due to the best solubility, while rarely exceeding 5% for plant foods.
This also means that a smaller amount of meat consumption can cover a large part of the iron requirement.
Below is a small description of iron-rich foods. The amounts given refer to a meal of 100 grams of food.
Legumes and vegetables
Almost all legumes and some other vegetables contain a lot of iron.
The leaders in this group of plants are lentils with 7500 micrograms and white beans with 6170 micrograms. Soybeans with 3100 micrograms and peas with 1577 micrograms are also good sources of iron. At 2700 micrograms, spinach contains a relatively large amount of iron, but also substances that hinder absorption.
Absorption options for herbal products significantly improve with the simultaneous intake of vitamin C.
Nuts and grains
Nuts, almonds, other vegetable grains, and many types of cereals also contain a lot of iron and also serve as protein carriers. Pumpkin seeds contain about 4890 micrograms, most nuts are about 1800 micrograms. With 6990 micrograms, millet is one of the best iron carriers just like the other cereals.
Due to the best use, the combination with vitamin C is also recommended for these food groups.
It obtains animal iron from meat with up to 2540 micrograms and processed meat products that vary in iron content according to the composition.
The rule applies that the redder the meat, the higher the iron content. It is present in these foods in a bivalent form, which is significantly more efficient than the trivalent variant contained in plants. They are incorporated into hemoglobin immediately after being absorbed into the blood and can assume their function immediately.
This does not apply to vegetable iron, since it first has to be enzymatically converted. Therefore, the recovery rate of animal products is three times better.
In addition to the origin, the accompanying conditions that promote or inhibit absorption play an important role in the rate of resorption. The optimal acidity of gastric juice is an important prerequisite to promote the decomposition of the pulp of food and, therefore, the release.
Diseases or medications that reduce acidity, the so-called gastric acid inhibitors, affect the absorption of iron in the small intestine.
Alcohol optimizes stomach acid composition, but should not be considered part of a healthy eating strategy due to its own negative effects.
The simultaneous intake of plant and animal foods promotes the absorption capacity of the trivalent variant in vegetables, nuts, fruits, and other plant foods.
If you like fruits such as oranges, clementines, grapefruits, or lemons, it is very good because, due to its high content of vitamin C, they are ideal as companions of iron-rich foods.
This also applies to some vegetables that have an even higher content of vitamin C. However, it should be borne in mind that the properties are lost during cooking and that some vegetables also contain absorption-inhibiting substances.
The Australian plum, the Camu-Camu bush and the Acerola cherry are the pioneers in the balance of vitamin C.
In addition, there are iron supplements that combine with acerola cherry extracts and guarantee a fast and optimal iron supply with a high absorption rate. The advantage is that they can be easily taken on the go, at work, and on vacation.
Experts recommend taking at least 25 milligrams of vitamin C with iron-rich food, which corresponds to about half a orange.
How to take iron
Ideally, eat the combination of iron and vitamin C as part of a specific nutritional plan. The next meal should take place an hour later at the earliest.
This is the best condition for high bioavailability. If it is not possible to take a balanced meal, you must ensure that the supply of iron and vitamin C is at least two hours after the last meal.
Iron is an essential and vital trace element that, with optimal care, will make you feel healthy, vital and fit. The daily dose is best achieved through an ideal combination of iron and vitamin C and sensible nutritional planning.
A simple and flexible solution to compensate for iron deficiency or prevent it is to take a combination preparation with iron and vitamin C as an addition to normal food intake.