Covid has made iron deficiency a health risk. Check out alternatives before taking the pill
“Beauty is an iron mine,” Australian mining magnate Gina Reinhart once remarked. She spoke of a precious resource, but iron is also deeply important important for living organisms: from bacteria and fungi to mammals like us.
Iron acts as a key to numerous metabolic functions in our body. But iron deficiency persists one of the greatest global health risks recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Iron deficiency has become the most prevalent micronutrient disorder worldwide and Covid may be making the problem worse.
Iron is hard to come by
The type of iron that we mine is different from the free form iron that can be used biologically. Freeform iron has a tendency to Jump between two chemical stateswhich allows it to bind to different molecules and take part in all sorts of essential reactions in our body.
But again we see a different story during food digestion. In our upper small intestine, where iron is most effectively absorbed, free form iron tends to bind with oxygen, other minerals and food components. This often results in rocky, insoluble clumps (resembling those we mine!). These are too big to pass through or between our cells.
This means that even if we consume enough iron, typically only about 15-35% of it is absorbed. It also means iron may be available improved or inhibited depending on how we eat it or what we eat it with.
For example, heme iron from animal meat has one cage-like structure, which carries the iron in a soluble form that prevents it from clumping together during absorption. In many western countries, heme iron only accounts for Eaten 10% of the iron, but two-thirds of the total iron absorbed.
More of us are at risk of shortage
Getting enough iron sounds like simple math: we want Add enough to our food intake to balance the iron being lost from the body, e.g. B. by feces, skin peeling, menstruation (in women) and sweat. But the two sides of the equation can change depending on who and where we are throughout our lives.
In general, iron deficiency occurs when our body’s iron stores are depleted because we haven’t ingested or taken in enough iron to meet our needs.
This can happen when people restrict their diet, for example for religious, social or medical reasons. Some people also find it difficult to keep up when their iron needs increase, such as pregnant woman and growing children.
However, iron deficiency can also occur if the body has enough iron, but cannot transport it effectively into the cells. This is common in people with acute and chronic infections, heart and autoimmune diseases, and cancer. In these cases, the underlying condition must be treated first, rather than improving iron absorption.
The table below summarizes some common causes of iron deficiency. Sometimes several causes can occur at the same time – for example in the case of many top athletes (35% of women and 11% of men) Iron deficiency results from decreased absorption due to inflammation, in addition to increased loss through sweat and breakdown of blood cells.
Also Read: Can Taking Vitamins and Supplements Help You Recover From Covid?
Covid didn’t help
The ongoing Covid epidemic has also introduced several risk factors for iron deficiency.
We know that severe infection with SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid) can change the way some people live metabolize iron, resulting in lower iron levels for up to two months after infection. This contributes to the symptoms commonly reported after infection, as are fatigue and lethargy.
That means more people are facing food security barriers — and the nutrient-dense foods that help boost our iron absorption, like red meat or leafy greens, may be unavailable or unaffordable for them.
Before you take a pill
It may be tempting to take one of the many widely available iron supplements to try and boost your absorption. However, we must remember that iron supplementation is conventional associated with some negative side effects.
These include damage to our intestinal lining, nausea, diarrhea and constipation. Iron supplementation has also been associated with changes gut microbiomea key determinant of health.
The WHO has recommended two other approaches: Diet diversification and food fortification.
diversification of diet is exactly what it sounds like: a diet high in a variety of whole foods like fruits and vegetables, grains and legumes, meat, dairy, and nuts and seeds.
This approach not only ensures that there is enough iron in the foods we eat, but also that they are in different forms or “vehicles” to enhance absorption. This approach works also with plant foods.
Food fortification, which involves adding iron to processed foods, is also a fairly safe yet accessible option due to its lower dose. In Australia, iron is commonly fortified in products such as bread, cereal and ready mixes.
It can be difficult to get the iron into our bodies and where it’s needed. But before we turn to supplements, we need to remember that food sources should always come first. In the event of a diagnosed deficiency, your healthcare professional will provide you with further information on where supplements are needed.
Yianna Zhanggraduate student, The University of Melbourne; ken ngSenior Lecturer & Course Coordinator (Master of Food Science), The University of Melbourneand said AjouniAssociate professor, The University of Melbourne
Also read: Drastic dietary changes, increase in anxiety, loneliness – how Covid changed lifestyles