Lorna Vanderhaeghe is a women's natural health expert and has
been researching nutritional medicine for over 30 years. With degrees in nutrition and biochemistry, she is the author of 11 books including a A Smart Woman's Guide to Hormones and a A Smart Woman's Guide to Weight Loss. Lorna joined Andrea Donsky on Naturally Savvy Radio to discuss the importance of iron for optimal health. [The following transcript has been edited for print.]
Naturally Savvy (Andrea Donsky): Today we are going to talk about iron. My iron levels have been low for many years; when I was pregnant with my third child, I had to supplement because my doctor was concerned. What is the importance of iron for our bodies and what are the signs of iron deficiency?
Lorna Vanderhaeghe: Iron gives us energy; it also allows us to think clearly. In children, it's essential for growth and development, especially height and academic performance. Our doctors think the only people who need iron supplements are menstruating women, but new research has found that we should be getting 20mg of iron from our diet everyday, but the average North American is only getting 8mg. Why is that a concern? Well, the concern is that iron deficiency comes with a host of negative symptoms, including things such as poor height development and poor brain development in children. It is a leading reason for miscarriage in pregnant women, and children of women who were iron deficient during pregnancy show a low mental IQ. That's why midwives and doctors are very careful about making sure that when you are pregnant that your iron stores are at an adequate level – you are building a baby!
You will notice that I am not saying anemic. Anemic means you have reached the level when a doctor will tell you to take an iron supplement. Iron deficiency is when you have low-normal iron levels. There was a study done on teenage girls: they looked at one group that had adequate levels of iron, and another group of girls that had low levels of iron – not anemia – just low-normal. The girls that had the adequate levels of iron tested very well on traditional high school tests for different subjects, and the girls that had the low-normal iron did very poorly on those tests. They retested after bringing up the iron levels of the low-normal group to normal and they did as well as the girls who had the normal levels of iron.
What this tells us is it's a very important component of cognitive function, of brain function. Consider the elderly: we have got a lot of people dealing with memory decline and it may simply be that they are iron deficient. Iron is important for energy. If you don't have enough iron, you are tired, you are huffing and puffing when you try and do any kind of exercise. As well, low iron is the leading reason for hair loss in women. It also causes peeling fingernails, and dark circles under the eyes – if your kids have dark circles under the eyes start supplementing with iron immediately because it is so important for growth and development.
NS: Talk to us about dosages. What is a safe dosage for children?
LV: When we look at iron supplements in general, the majority are sold in the wrong dose form. You will see a doctor will prescribe ferrous fumerate or ferrous sulfate iron supplements and they will tell you to take 300mg. But you don't know what the actual amount of iron that you are getting is. When you buy iron supplements, look for the elemental value – on the label it should say "elemental iron." If it doesn't, don't buy it because you don't know what you are getting. A typical dosage is anywhere from 10 to 30mg of elemental iron. I would give children 10mg of elemental iron daily, especially if you have a child who does not eat red meat or egg yolks. This is important because it is very challenging to get iron from vegetables. The iron is bound to phytate. People will say, "I eat lots of spinach; I get lots of iron." It may, but you can't extract the iron from the plant very effectively, so it's really not giving you the benefit.
NS: It sounds like iron supplementation would be very important for people who are vegan and vegetarian, those who aren't eating meat and/or eggs.
LV: Absolutely. I was vegetarian for about 15 years. I stopped eating meat at age twelve. While I was vegetarian, I was also pregnant with four kids, one after the other. You really have to be conscious if you have chosen to be vegan or vegetarian that you have adequate iron levels. That means asking for copies of your test results, because unfortunately the range of "normal" is so broad. For example, in Canada the range of normal for ferritin (which is your iron storage) is 15 to 150. If you are at 16 your doctor will tell you you are normal, but we know if you are below 70 (in the low-normal range) you are going to have problems. It's important that you look at those test results – make sure both ferritin and hemoglobin are in the mid range. Otherwise the problems start: hair loss, peeling fingernails, exhaustion and fatigue. There are so many people who are just-flat out tired, and while your iron may be in the "normal" range, if you are low-normal you will want to start supplementing.
NS: How do you know when you are supplementing if you have your iron stores up to where they should be? Will the dark circles under the eyes, etc., disappear?
LV: Absolutely, that's the great thing. When we bring iron up to normal levels, you will start to see those symptoms disappear. Hair will thicken up, fingernails will stop peeling and color will return (white fingernails are another sign; also pale skin under the eyelids). Dark circles start to go away. There are lots of good indicators.
NS: Some people have been made to feel afraid that they may overdose iron. How much does it take to overdose on iron?
LV: If we look at women who are menstruating, if you've got heavy periods, you better taken iron everyday. There is a rare condition called hemochromatosis where people have a genetic disposition to high iron levels (it's generally seen more in males), but the majority of us are not eating enough red meat and egg yolks to have adequate iron stores. I think it's unfortunate that we have this big scare against iron toxicity, although iron toxicity is a problem. It's rare in the population; the majority of people have low iron.
NS: What foods should people eat to help increase their iron?
LV: Red meat, egg yolks are the best source, followed by beans/legumes and raisins. Dark vegetables do have some but it's very hard to absorb. So, I am a big fan of supplementing 10mg of elemental iron a day. Look for liposomal-wrapped iron because it doesn't cause constipation.
NS: Thank you Lorna. A wealth of information.