Increasing Your Iron Levels Naturally

Iron deficiency is one of the most commonly underdiagnosed conditions that I see in my practice, especially in women.  Low iron can lead to a multitude of symptoms, and it can often be a challenge to maintain healthy levels of this nutritionally critical mineral.  The following looks at how to identify whether you may be iron deficient, why some people become more deficient than others, and how to increase your iron stores naturally.

Iron deficiency can manifest in a variety of symptoms.  Common indicators include:

·     Fatigue

·     Weakness

·     Headaches

·     Hair loss

·     Brittle nails

·     Pale skin

·     Restless leg syndrome

·     Reduced resistance to infections

·     Cracks at the corners of the mouth

·     Feeling cold

·     Pale skin

·     Hormonal imbalance (iron helps to optimize thyroid function)

Identifying Deficiency Through Lab Testing

Routine blood work usually looks at the complete blood count as an initial screening tool to assess for anemia risk, however the best test to evaluate iron deficiency is serum ferritin, an iron storage protein that represent your body’s iron reserves.  A ferritin score of under 45ng/mL is suggestive of anemia, and with low ferritin levels, you may have symptoms of iron deficiency anemia even if your hemoglobin levels and red blood cells are normal.

Building and Maintaining Healthy Iron Levels

How can you start to build your iron reserves and keep them up?  My top three approaches are to identify and treat the cause, increase consumption through diet and/or supplements, and work on enhancing absorption.

Common Causes of Iron Deficiency

·     Blood loss: During the childbearing years, iron requirements for women are about 80% higher than for men, primarily due to blood loss through menstruation.  Other causes of blood loss include ulcers, uterine fibroids, and gastrointestinal tract bleeding which may or may not be visible (this is often identified through fecal occult blood testing).

·     Increased Need for Iron: During pregnancy, a significant increase in blood volume creates a greater demand for iron.  I always like to assess women’s iron levels before they become pregnant, and to work on maintaining healthy iron stores throughout pregnancy, especially during the third trimester.

·     Diet: Vegetarian and vegan diets often contain less iron, especially the more absorbable and bioavailable “heme” form of iron.

·     Compromised Digestion: Poor digestive function and the use of antacids can significantly compromise iron absorption in the small intestine.  Health conditions affecting intestinal absorption, such as Crohn’s disease and celiac disease also impair iron absorption.

·     Chronic infections: Microbial biolfilms can affect mineral balance in the body, with evidence that some forms of bacteria use iron as a fuel source.  It is essential to treat chronic infections and support a healthy microbiome in order to achieve healthy iron levels.

Boosting iron Consumption: 

·     Supplements: If your ferritin levels are low enough that you are starting to show physical signs of iron deficiency, often dietary changes are not enough to provide you with a therapeutic dosage of iron. Iron supplements are notorious for having poor absorption and often contributing to nausea and constipation. Iron should ideally be bound to a protein or carbohydrate molecule for optimal absorption, which is why trying to digest the majority of iron supplements is like trying to digest a rock. 

·     Increasing your consumption of iron rich foods: Make sure you are having a minimum of 2-3 servings of iron-rich foods/day, including red meat, chicken, seafood, seaweed, beans, lentils, and dark leafy greens (see below on how to prepare).

·     Herbal infusions: Making teas (hot or iced) out of iron-rich herbs is a great way to add bioavailable minerals to your diet.  Nettle, red raspberry leaf, and dandelion are all excellent sources of iron. Herbs should ideally be left to infuse overnight.  I use loose leaf herbs and leave them infusing overnight in the fridge.

Enhancing Iron Absorption Naturally

·     Support healthy levels of stomach acid: Iron is best absorbed in a more acidic stomach environment.  Try taking a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar before meals, or taking your vitamin C (ascorbic acid) supplement with iron-rich foods to enhance absorption naturally.  Adding acidic dressings containing lemon or vinegar to iron-rich foods also supports iron absorption.

·     Cook Your Greens: Although dark leafy greens are a great source of iron, steaming or cooking greens is essential for breaking down the plant cell walls to render the minerals more absorbable.  Also, raw spinach, kale, and chard are notoriously high in oxalic acid, which binds to both calcium and iron, making them difficult to absorb.  Cooking helps to reduce the oxalic acid content of these vegetables.

·     Avoid wines and teas rich in tannins, which interfere with iron absorption.

Because there can be different causes of iron deficiency, an individualized naturopathic plan is often the best approach to building and maintaining healthy iron levels naturally. Book an appointment to determine the best treatment approach for you.

Naturopathic Travel Tips

Every winter, I am often asked about naturopathic recommendations for travel.  When travelling to another country, it’s important to consider what the health risks are for that location, and to protect yourself accordingly. The general goals of naturopathic treatment are to:

  • support your immune system, with a focus on optimizing the intestinal microbiome

  • reduce your risk of insect borne diseases

  • reduce your risk of digestive tract infections caused by contaminated food or water

  • prepare you with natural treatments for acute traveller’s diarrhea

 Basic Supplements to Help Prevent Food and Water Borne Diseases

1.  Travel Probiotic: I always recommend taking a daily probiotic when travelling to reduce the risk of digestive infections.  Healthy probiotic bacteria help to reduce the likelihood of pathogenic organisms colonizing the colon.  This is especially important if you have been on antibiotics in the past year, as your protective microbiome will already be compromised.  Look for a shelf-stable probiotic with a minimum of 25-35 billion organisms/capsule, ideally containing Lactobaccilus, Bifidobacterium, and Saccharomyces genera, the latter which has been shown to reduce the risk of diarrhea during travel. Probiotic supplementation should start several days before your trip.

2.  Herbal antimicrobial formula: I often prescribe a formula containing antibacterial and antiparasitic ingredients to take daily, containing ingredients including clove, oregano, and wormwood.  Because these herbs have antibiotic properties, they should always be taken at a different time of day from your probiotics.

3. Vitamin C: One of the best researched-based supplements for general immune support. Can be taken daily.

Appropriate dosing of supplements is always recommended on an individual basis.

For Acute Traveller’s Diarrhea

Typically symptoms of diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea, and bloating should subside within a few days. Persistent vomiting, bloody stools, and fever, especially in children, are all signs that further medical attention is needed.

Make sure you are staying well hydrated and replacing lost fluids with a low sugar electrolyte replacement formula or coconut water.  Consume easy to digest foods such as rice, nutrient-dense sweet potatoes, bananas, and applesauce.

Homeopathic Arsenicum album is a common remedy for helping to alleviate the symptoms of traveller’s diarrhea.

Increase the dosage of your herbal antimicrobial formula as per your personalized recommendations.

Avoid Insect Borne Diseases

Ticks, mites, and insects such as mosquitos can carry a wide range of diseases.  Mosquitos alone can transmit many types of illnesses, including yellow fever, chikungunya, West Nile virus, malaria, and dengue.

1. Cover up: Wear clothing with long pants and sleeves, and use mosquito netting in areas where mosquitos are known to carry the above infections.

2.  Bug Repellants: I prefer to use essential oil derived repellants instead of DEET or chemical based repellants, which carry potential health and safety risks for humans and the environment.  Look for a product containing essential oils such as lemon eucalyptus, citronella, and lavender.  Note that essential oils also carry a risk of toxicity, and must always be used diluted.  Natural repellants do need to be applied more frequently, ideally every 2-3 hours.

Further guidelines may be necessary based on your personal health history.  Book an appointment to discuss the best natural travel recommendations for you!

Nut-Free Granola Bars

Did you know that most commercial granola bars are loaded with…

factory-made sugar syrups and unhealthy fats? Homemade granola bars can be a great healthy snack on the go, and can also allow you to incorporate more nutrient-rich ingredients and superfoods into your family’s diet.

I originally developed this recipe using peanut butter and chopped almonds, however I’ve since adapted it to be completely nut-free, and it’s still just as delicious!

These bars are rich in protein, fibre, and healthy fats, and no baking is required.

Nut-Free Granola Bars

  • 1/3 cup pumpkin seeds

  • 1/3 cup shelled hemp seeds (hemp hearts)

  • 1/3 cup sunflower seeds

  • 2/3 cup unsweetened dried coconut

  • 3 cups quick cooking organic oats

  • 2 tablespoons ground chia seeds

  • 1/4 cup organic butter or coconut oil

  • 1/2 cup sunflower seed butter

  • 1/2 cup honey

  • handful of chocolate chips (optional)

  1. Lightly toast first four ingredients in a skillet over medium heat. Toss frequently for 5 minutes or until golden.

  2. Combine seed butter, coconut oil or butter, and honey in a small pot over low heat. Stir until warm and combined.

  3. In a large mixing bowl, stir together oats, ground chia seeds, and toasted seed mixture.

  4. Pour the warm honey mixture into the dry ingredients and combine.

  5. Stir in chocolate chips if using. These will melt into the granola mixture.

  6. Transfer mixed ingredients into a 9” by 13” baking dish. Pack down evenly with a spatula.

  7. Chill bars in refrigerator. Cut into squares and transfer to an air-tight container.

  8. Store in refrigerator for up to one week.

Enjoy!

The Healing Power of Acupuncture

Acupuncture is a therapy that has been used for over 4000 years...

to treat a wide range of health conditions.

Acupuncture points are located along energy meridians that are associated with different organ systems.  According to traditional Chinese medicine theory, when energy, or Qi (chi), is not flowing freely, health conditions or diseases can arise.  Inserting small, sterile acupuncture needles into specific points along these energy channels helps to regulate the flow of Qi through the body, correcting the imbalances leading to states of ill health.

From a Western point of view, the effectiveness of acupuncture can be attributed to it’s ability to enhance circulation in the area of treatment.  Studies involving MRI imaging of the brain have also shown that acupuncture has the ability to work at the level of the nervous system to help regulate the body’s response to pain.

Some of the more common conditions for which acupuncture has been shown to be effective include arthritis and joint pain, sciatica, hypertension, allergic rhinitis and seasonal allergy symptoms, headaches, and menstrual pain and irregularities.

Over the years, I have also commonly used acupuncture in my practice to help patients with smoking cessation, address obstetrical issues such as morning sickness and fetal malposition, prepare the body during pregnancy for an efficient labour, enhance the outcome of fertility treatments, support the immune system in the case of frequent or chronic infections, and calm the mind to reduce anxiety symptoms and help treat insomnia.  I often use reiki and/or cupping to enhance the healing process.

Overall, most people feel very calm, relaxed, and “rebalanced” after an acupuncture session. 

If you are interested in learning more about acupuncture, complimentary 15-minute consults are available to help determine whether this treatment modality would be a good fit for you!