Your Iron Levels Can Affect Your Happiness
As part of our series about reading and understanding nutrition labels, this time we are talking about iron (aka ferritin).
Get the basics (plus a little more) of what you need to know about this essential micronutrient in five minutes or less!
I believe that the more you know about WHY certain components of our food are important, the more easily you will be able to make choices to include foods and ingredients that can support natural, healthy living and give you the motivation and energy to really enjoy it! When you know you are adding the good stuff, it’s easy to lose the feeling of being deprived.
IRON is a mineral micronutrient that’s essential to many of our body’s processes.
It is stored in bones, muscles, liver, and elsewhere in the body. It is essential to the process of creating two proteins: hemoglobin and myoglobin.
🚆Hemoglobin helps red blood cells carry oxygen from the lungs through the rest of the body.
🦵Myoglobin brings oxygen to the muscles.
⛓️ Iron is also key for creation/strength of tendons, ligaments and other connective tissue.
One of the lesser known purposes of iron is its role in hormone production and neurotransmitter efficiency.
First, let's give a little background.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (chemical messenger) that influences fine and large motor skills and coordination, gives us a boost when we have rewarding experiences, affects our ability to pay attention, and influences our moods.
Much of the dopamine in our bodies (over 50%) is produced in our gut, and travels through nerves (primarily the Vagus Nerve) to the brain where there are receptors, ready to read the chemical messages and act accordingly. So if dopamine is low, we have lower attention spans, can experience memory problems, get little joy from previously rewarding or interesting experiences, and can feel like we’re just in a bad mood.
What’s interesting is that nutritional iron deficiency has been shown to reduce the efficiency of dopamine transmission. So not only does the body not make enough of the dopamine, but the brain can’t use it all either.
This has been shown to contribute to learning problems, attention deficiency, low mood, and impaired memory.
So what can you do to be sure that you’re getting enough iron to support happy hormone production and protect your memory, attention and good mood? Get enough iron in your diet.
Iron is usually listed on the bottom of a nutrition label, with some other key vitamins and minerals, below the “big five” (Fat, Cholesterol, Sodium,Carbohydrate, Protein).
Interestingly, the body absorbs iron more easily from meat sources than it does from plant sources. Meat sources contain heme iron, and plant sources provide non-heme iron.
So while the Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) for women ages 19 to 50 is about 18 mg, and men is 8mg, that only applies to meat eaters.
Vegetarians and vegans should consume double that amount for adequate levels (32mg RDI for women and 16mg RDI for men). Any foods with non-heme iron should also be enjoyed with foods containing Vitamin C to improve absorption.
Food Sources of Iron include:
- 🥩 Meat (~ 1.5-2.4 mg per 2.5 oz serving)
- 🐟 Fish (~ 1.2-6.3 mg per 2.5 oz serving)
- 🍗 Poultry (~ 0.5 - 0.9 mg per 2.5 oz serving)
- ⚪ White Beans (~ 3.3-4.9 mg per ¾ cup serving)
- 🟠 Lentils (~ 3.3-4.9 mg per ¾ cup serving)
- 🥬 Spinach, Cooked (~ 3.4 mg per ½ cup serving)
- 🥣 Fortified Cereals (~4.5 mg per 30 g serving)
If you are unable to get the recommended daily intake through food sources, and you (and your physician) find that there is reason to supplement iron, consider one that is chelated, (chelated minerals are found to be easier to digest), and take it with vitamin C for best absorption.
Supplementation is common for low iron levels. Iron supplements should be taken with food, and the diet should include plenty of Vitamin C to improve absorption and fiber in order to prevent digestive issues. (Some people find that iron supplements can cause constipation, but including plenty of water, and soluble and insoluble fiber can help avoid this.)
An alternative is to cook foods (especially acidic foods) in cast iron. One study found that preparing foods using cast iron skillets or other cast iron cooking vessels increased the iron content of most of the foods (90%) that used this method. Over time, this can help support adequate iron levels when used consistently.
While there are many potential effects of not getting enough iron in your diet, there are also plenty of simple ways to increase it! If you’re looking for a way to incorporate more iron in your diet to get all the benefits, consider creating a meal plan that includes plenty of iron-rich foods each week. (And if it feels overwhelming to create one on your own, reach out! We offer personalized 100% Custom Meal Planning Service!)
Reminders: This article does not constitute medical advice. The information contained here is based on research from outside sources, and any changes to your diet or exercise routine should be cleared with your physician first. Remember to check in with your physician before adding any supplements, as well as the RDI for age and current iron levels before making any drastic changes. Excess iron consumption can result in stomach pain, constipation, nausea or vomiting, or some more serious complications with long-term, heavy over-consumption.
Sources: Pino JMV, da Luz MHM, Antunes HKM, Giampá SQC, Martins VR, Lee KS. Iron-Restricted Diet Affects Brain Ferritin Levels, Dopamine Metabolism and Cellular Prion Protein in a Region-Specific Manner. Front Mol Neurosci. 2017 May 17;10:145. doi: 10.3389/fnmol.2017.00145. PMID: 28567002; PMCID: PMC5434142.
Brittin HC, Nossaman CE. Iron content of food cooked in iron utensils. J Am Diet Assoc. 1986 Jul;86(7):897-901. PMID: 3722654.
HealthLink BC, Iron in Foods https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/healthy-eating-physical-activity/food-and-nutrition/nutrients/iron-foods
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