Photo Credit: John P. Midgley/Corbis Outline
Is there such a thing as a healthy dose of heavy metal? My Mom certainly thinks not – perhaps I should clarify I’m not referring to the face-melting guitar solo kind of heavy metal. No, I’m talking about plain ole iron.
Iron deficiency remains the number one nutrient deficiency worldwide, so we probably all need more, right? It’s not so simple. Even though it’s the number one deficiency, iron is still a heavy metal and must be approached with caution. Let’s explore…
Remember your mom’s cast iron skillet? The one that was so heavy if you could swing it and connect with your target you could totally take someone out??
In spite of the miracle that cast iron for cooking is, you may at this moment be recalling past ‘heavy metal poisoning’ headlines with alarm. The usual players are mercury, lead, cadmium, and yes, they are seriously bad for the human body and need to be avoided at all costs. But that’s not the case with all heavy metals.
We humans require cobalt, copper, iron, manganese, molybdenum, and zinc in trace (aka ‘teensy’) amounts from food to perform crucial jobs in human metabolism. While they are vital to vitality, just like their other ‘heavy’ friends, getting too much isn’t a good thing.
What’s a healthy dose of the heavy metal iron? Turns out, it’s tricky. Stick with me. We’ll make sense of it.
Why iron is a must: it’s incorporated into hemoglobin and carries oxygen in the bloodstream. Since it’s kinda crucial to survival, in addition to the ‘working iron’ in hemoglobin, the body keeps reserve stores in the liver, heart, and pancreas (ferritin) to protect against short term deficiencies in the diet.
Source: Masimo Corp
Not enough iron in the diet? No problem in the short term, your body will use what’s stored to make hemoglobin for your newly minted red blood cells. Long term, a deficiency results in iron deficiency anemia.
While iron deficiency anemia is no picnic and remains a worldwide health concern, too much stored iron in the body (hemochromatosis) is also hugely problematic, just not as widespread as deficiency. Whether passed down genetically or brought on by lifestyle or other conditions, hemochromatosis left untreated will lead to failure of the liver, heart, and pancreas among other things.
Hemochromatosis is rare. But ‘high’ levels of iron in storage and high levels of heme consumption are not rare. Some research indicates that elevated ferritin (stored iron) and increased heme iron consumption is associated with poor outcomes for those with cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
In case you’re not a science junkie, the study designs aren’t strong enough to establish a clear ’cause and effect’ relationship, only for patterns to be identified and cue further research. If that’s not enough of a reason to give you a moments pause before you consider supplementation with iron consider this.
The body has no natural way to release excess stored iron. The only options for getting it out before it wreaks havoc are loss of blood (through blood donation, therapeutic phlebotomy, and menstruation) or drugs that chelate (bind to) the iron so it can be eliminated from the body.
All of that to get to this: what’s a healthy dose of this heavy metal we call iron? Healthy individuals could refer to published guidelines here. The guidelines are designed for people whose bodies are correctly regulating iron absorption from foods (which is the vast majority).
But if you feel something (or even a few things) are ‘off’ with your health and want to be sure you’re not getting too little or too much iron, the only way to know your status for sure is through a blood test.
If you think iron deficiency is the problem – you might be right. Do you donate blood often? Are you an elite female athlete engaged in rigorous training? Pregnant? Sure, deficiency might be the issue.
But it’s not a good idea to begin supplementing without being sure of your status and having that monitored. Remember, excess iron has no natural way out and left unchecked can shut down a few organs you’d rather be up and running and behave badly in diabetic and heart disease patients.
So, with that said, if you’ve had a history of low iron levels and have that familiar out-of-breath dizzy feeling here’s a primer on how to include and absorb more iron in your diet.
There are two types of iron found in food: heme (found in animal sources) and non-heme (found in plant sources). Heme is more easily absorbed than non-heme.
Having calcium-rich foods with an iron-rich food leads to iron not getting absorbed. Having vitamin C-rich foods or alcohol with iron rich foods means enhanced iron absorption.
Both of these (uber-simplistic) examples are trumped by a healthy human body’s ability to tightly regulate absorption based on the status of iron stores. Whew! Still with me?
So, what do you eat to get the most easily absorbed iron? Beef liver, mussels, venison, lamb, beef, shrimp, pork, clams, chicken, and salmon. Cook it (and anything) in cast iron and get even more!
Know you need to reduce iron stores? Give blood. If you choose to consume iron-rich foods, have a 300 milligram dose of calcium with them. Don’t cook in cast iron.
Quick note on veggie sources of iron: The tannins in tea and coffee, oxalates in sweet potatoes and spinach, phytic acid in greens and nuts, and phosphates all interfere with absorption of non-heme (non-animal source) iron. Since non-heme iron containing veggies generally contain compounds that interfere with it’s absorption, it’s kind of a wash.
Summary: If you are generally healthy, eat meat, or ever cook in cast iron, and do not have a history of low iron or suffer from hemachromotosis, your body is most likely regulating the right amount of absorption and storage for you.
If you suspect you are too low or too high, already suffer from diabetes, heart disease, or metabolic syndrome, work with a clinician to determine your iron status and together undertake the proper course of action from there. Do NOT supplement with iron without getting checked first and being monitored.
Alrighty, that about does it for this post which, I hope you found helpful since you took the time to read. Do you have a question you want answered? Ask away – I love hearing from you. Thanks for reading and let me know your thoughts below!