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Secrets of iron absorption revealed

Fatigue, being cold, hair loss and a pale complexion are all telltale signs of low iron, a common nutrient deficiency and a major energy zapper. As prevalent as this problem is, most cases of low iron may be flying under the radar. New research suggested that the most severe iron insufficiency cases are flagged, while individuals with moderately low – but still health-impacting – levels can be overlooked at times. Many women whose well-being is undermined by low iron are not getting the help they need.

In addition to iron-rich food, iron supplements are a tool for restoring iron levels. For those people taking pills to boost iron, they’ve been doing it wrong. Many people who take iron divide their supplements into two or more doses each day. To them, the rationale is intuitive: if you have trouble absorbing something, take smaller amounts more frequently to give the body more chances to take it in. Not so with iron. More frequent doses work against the body’s master iron regulator, hepcidin.

Hepcidin is a hormone that prevents the body from absorbing excess iron to protect them from potentially dangerous iron overload. Hepcidin levels vary according to a natural daily rhythm, being at a low point in the morning and rising throughout the afternoon. In addition to this circadian cycle, a dose of iron will further spike hepcidin, to prevent over-absorption from subsequent iron intake. It means that taking iron is a one-and-done kind of deal each day, as the first dose of iron you take in the day will kibosh the second. In fact, studies show that people who take iron every other day raise their iron levels more quickly than people who take iron on consecutive days. It is likely because waiting a day between iron bumps allows hepcidin levels to bottom out.

Iron is notorious for causing stomach upset. If taking larger doses less frequently has that effect on you, investigate more tummy-friendly forms of iron. Ferrous bisglycinate and ferric pyrophosphate are types of supplemental iron that are gentler on digestion.

Remember that foods rich in vitamin C will help you absorb more iron from your supplements and meals.

Kate Rhéaume, ND, (Inactive) is a graduate and former faculty member of the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine. A leading expert in natural medicine, she is the author of the best-selling book Vitamin K2 and the Calcium Paradox with HarperCollins.


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