When I was a teenager I had a strong conviction to stop eating meat and animal products because of a trip to a forbidden Romanian monastery. The monks there allowed us in, and one of them told us that everyone who ate meat would burn at the return of Jesus. Being young and impressionable, and also religious, this made me into a “vegan” for about 7 years until I went to college.
I use the word “vegan” in quotations because I wasn’t actually smart about my diet. I was a teenager. Not eating animal products meant eating microwaveable “vegan” pizza and chips or non-dairy ice cream. It was a terrible idea, and by the time I was a young adult I started to have pale skin and my hair was falling out, along with anxiety and sleep disturbances.
Eventually I began my journey with health testing, nutrition and supplements — and that’s when I realized I had probably incurred an iron deficiency from my fanatical behavior. Iron deficiency is rare in men, because we don’t lose iron like women do through their periods, yet nonetheless in this case it was definitely going on due to years and years of nutritional neglect.
I share with you this story because iron is an important mineral for a variety of things, yet iron must also be handled carefully. In this article I will discuss everything important that I’ve learned and how you can pick a good iron supplement as well as how to maintain regular tabs on important markers.
Iron: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly
Iron has a lot of roles in the body, but some main ones are helping your red blood cells carry oxygen and helping to create serotonin in your brain. Iron is also needed for the immune system and for thyroid function. Women lose iron regularly from their body because of menstruation, and if you suffer from irregular menstruation (from any number of reasons) this puts you at a risk of iron deficiency.
Men on the other hand do not need to worry about iron deficiency most of the time, but if you are donating blood regularly it may be an issue. Genetics as always plays a role and understanding the story of your genes can make a big difference in how you approach your supplementation and nutrition goals.
When it comes to supplementing iron, the reason you have to be careful is that iron is not very easily excreted from the body. In other words, iron overload is a danger of using iron, and some people (hemophiliacs) are at a risk of this just by virtue of their genes — so they have to watch their diet. Iron oxidizes (think rust) and in your body this can create a whole host of problems that boil down to rapid aging. So, too much iron must be avoided.
In the diet there are two forms of iron: heme and non-heme iron. Heme iron comes from animal sources like fish, eggs and beef, while non-heme is plant iron, like from chocolate. Heme iron is better quality if you’re trying to replete your iron levels, but because it is more bioavailable (absorbs better) this also means you have to watch your meat intake. Everyone is different and some thrive on more meat while others don’t. This is why understanding your personal genetics (as referenced above) is the key.
Keeping Tabs on Your Iron Levels
Iron in the body is measured in several ways. One common way to measure iron is through the serum protein, ferritin. This measurement gives you an idea of your iron stores, as ferritin is a protein that binds iron and stores it up for usage. Different people recommend different ferritin amounts for optimal health. In my experience, a score of about 80–100 is good. Some aim for below 100, and most will agree that anything over 150 is showing signs of inflammation and imbalance.
If you have a very high ferritin (like 300 or 400) this may be related to either an infection or a thyroid imbalance. In either case, ferritin scores are one measure of iron activity in the body and the ideal range is below 100.
Another way to measure iron is through binding proteins. TIBC (total iron binding capacity), transferrin and % saturation are 3 tests that usually come together. They measure the capacity for your cells to transport iron (TIBC), the amount of protein that does the job (transferrin) and how saturated that protein is (% saturation). In general you want less than 50% saturation for optimal health, with about 30% being a good score.
Genetics plays a role here because some people form less carrier proteins by default. I found this out the hard way, because when I first started taking iron after my 7 year vegan streak my % saturation was very high, about 65%. Yet my body showed signs of iron deficiency, which was seemingly paradoxical. What I later learned is that my genes do not function as well as they should in this area, meaning I don’t have as many little trucks to carry the iron as I should. This skews the results, where even a normal blood iron level leads to a high saturation due to low transport availability.
All of this is very important because using iron requires more consideration than most other minerals and vitamins and regular blood testing. Some people may need to take iron their whole lives, while others only for a short while to get back to homeostasis. In any case, monitoring your blood and understanding the numbers is very important.
Reducing your iron levels is not that easy, and it depends on what the issue is. High ferritin can be an indicator of an underlying infection, inflammation or thyroid imbalance (hypo or hyper). So resolving the underlying issue will resolve the ferritin being high. On the other hand, if you have high blood iron, natural substances like turmeric can chelate (remove) iron from the body. Donating blood also helps. If you suffer from low iron binding proteins, like I do, then navigating this journey requires a good professional versed on these topics and careful monitoring.
The Importance of Co-Factors
Yet another important consideration with iron are its co-factors. These are nutrients that work synergistically with iron to allow it to be absorbed and function. Predominantly, two main ones here are vitamin C and B12. I have talked about vitamin C in this article and about vitamin B12 in this article.
It is also important to maintain your antioxidant levels, with a prime attention on the mineral selenium. Because selenium is the key ingredient for your body’s master antioxidant, glutathione, a simple and cheap test you can take is a GGT (Gamma-Glutamyl transferase) test. This enzyme regulates glutathione, and if it’s elevated that means you have less glutathione available and more potential cell damage. Often people will combine a GGT test with a ferritin test to see how your body’s oxidative status is doing. The higher both are in their respective ranges, the more antioxidants and nutrition your body needs.
For a great resource on how to use antioxidants effectively, check out my article on antioxidants and cancer.
The Best Form of Iron: Amino Acid Chelate
Like most other minerals, iron comes in a variety of forms. Common, cheap supplements will offer iron sulfate or iron oxide, but these are horrible and potentially toxic forms of iron to be taking. They are not bioavailable and they lead to more problems than good. Thankfully, technology has existed for decades how to chelate minerals for human consumption.
Chelation is a natural process that your body does with minerals by wrapping them in a protein, so that when they pass the villi in your small intestine, your body recognizes it as organic and absorbs it. This process can be replicated artificially and chelated minerals are the gold standard for nutrition and probably always will be for the foreseeable future.
Therefore the best iron supplement to get is iron as an amino acid chelate. The ideal product will also have cofactors, as mentioned previously, and even some digestive enzymes to help process everything completely. In this regard there is no better product I have found than Optimal Iron. It checks off all the boxes, and it is the safest and best quality iron supplement anyone can use both short and long-term.
Iron is essential for health, but it is one of the finicky minerals (like iodine) that need to be handled with care. Some people, like women with irregular menstruation history, are very prone to iron deficiency or anemia and need to supplement. When taking a supplement always opt for an amino acid chelate form, and include cofactors like B12, vitamin C and selenium. The best product I’ve found that matches these requirements based on research and testing is Optimal Iron.