How iron works and how it makes you feel

If you’re sick and tired of feeling sick and tired, it’s probably time to have your iron levels checked.

Iron is an essential mineral. Our cells need it to survive and our body needs it to function and feel great. Iron has the very important role of producing haemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells responsible for transferring oxygen from the lungs to the tissues. Without this function, the cells in our body would be starved of oxygen, leaving you feeling … sick and tired!

How does this make you feel?

Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies in Australia. If your iron or haemoglobin levels are low, you may feel unusually tired and have difficulties concentrating and being able to function normally. These symptoms are due to the lack of oxygen reaching your cells.

Anaemia is a condition caused by very low iron levels and can lead to more severe symptoms. These can include feeling extremely tired, short of breath, dizzy and light-headed. Anaemia can also cause a fast and/or irregular heartbeat.

It is important to treat iron deficiencies and bring iron levels back to normal. Since your body can store iron but cannot produce it, it’s important that you give your body the iron that it needs from a diet that includes foods rich in iron.

Foods Rich in Iron

Animal-based foods are the best source of iron, especially red meat and offal (liver). Iron can also be found in chicken, duck, pork, turkey and fish.

Plant-based foods containing iron include:
• Green vegetables (e.g. spinach, silverbeet and broccoli)
• Lentils and beans
• Nuts and seeds
• Grains, for example whole wheat, brown rice and fortified breakfast cereals
• Dried fruit

Iron Absorption

The types of food you eat, as well as how it is prepared, can affect iron absorption. The iron in animal-based foods is easier to absorb than the iron in plant-based foods, meaning that vegetarians and vegans in particular need to take extra care that they are absorbing enough iron in their diet.

Foods rich in vitamin C (oranges, tomatoes, berries, kiwi fruit and capsicum) can help you absorb more iron if you eat them with iron-rich foods. A good way to do this is to drink orange juice with your meal or take a vitamin C supplement.

Some foods and drinks reduce iron absorption, including:
• Coffee and tea
• Wine
• Calcium-rich foods (milk, cheese, tinned salmon and calcium tablets).

It is a good idea to reduce the intake of these foods or consume them between your iron-rich meals.

If you have been diagnosed with iron deficiency, your doctor might recommend an intravenous iron infusion. This allows the iron to be infused directly into the bloodstream, providing a more immediate result.

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