Iron – on the scrap heap? No way! When it comes to the famous trace element iron, there is no place for boredom. Without this essential micronutrient, not only our life would be impossible, but there are also many scientific findings concerning iron.
Blood red – due to iron
If we asked 100 people at random about the task of iron in our body, the most common answer would be that it „contributes to blood formation“. Iron, the substance that also colours rusty nails in a shade of red, is a component of haemoglobin and responsible for the red colour of our blood. Without iron, blood would look like milk. Haemoglobin, which is rich in iron, acts in our body as a kind of “oxygen taxi” and transports the oxygen that we breathe from the lung up to the last corners of the body. In the case of a suboptimal iron intake, we become pale, tired and unconcentrated.
Without haemoglobin, our blood would be white like milk and not able to transport oxygen.
Power nutrient iron
No matter whether you are hiking or lying in your bed, your body needs energy for its metabolism – all the time! For generating energy, the body uses fuels such as fat, protein and carbohydrates and transforms them in the endogenous “powerhouse” (mitochondria) into energy. And guess who contributes to this process…exactly, it’s iron. The trace element serves different enzymes of the energy metabolism as a kind of tool. Without iron, these energy-demanding enzymes wouldn’t be able to fulfil their task and we would lose performance.
Iron – going down to the core
Our body consists of 1014 (100 trillion or 100.000.000.000.000) cells. If we strung together these tiny building blocks of our body, they would reach 60 times around planet earth. If one strung together one cell per second, it would take 3 million years. Cells are subject to constant change. In our brain, 100.000 nerve cells – the cell amount of the brain of a fly – die. In young adults, cellular losses and regeneration nearly balance each other – but only nearly. This is the reason why adults lose strength over the years. But now, let us go back to our actual topic – iron! A sufficient iron supply is necessary for the processes of genesis and decline in our body. Here, iron contributes – among others – to the production of the cell nucleus material. Iron is essential for the new formation of cells – and therefore for the growth, development and regeneration of organs and tissues.
Super hero iron – few grams for a lot of responsibility
With two to four grams, iron is the most common trace element in our body. This is no surprise, because – as already mentioned – iron has its finger in many pies. The following functions are considered secured…
- …contributes to the formation of red blood cells and haemoglobin
- …responsible for the oxygen transport in our body
- …contributes to a normal energy metabolism
- …helps reduce tiredness and fatigue
- …helps maintain normal cognitive functions (mental activity, percipience, feeling, judgment, wanting and acting)
- …has a function in cell division
- ...contributes to a normal functioning of the immune system
About apples spiked with nails and other iron suppliers
Iron is an essential micronutrient – which means that our body cannot form the trace element himself and has to take in sufficient amounts of it. Spiking an apple with rusty nails, that’s what traditional folk medicine recommended to pale, tired people. The brown spots that arise where the nails hit the pulp, develop due to the so called iron malate (an iron salt). Since dosage is difficult with this method, this kind of uncontrolled iron supply is not recommendable. A better and more tasty method for taking in iron is a balanced diet that should contain the following iron suppliers:
Iron intake – team players and troublemakers
The composition of our diet influences how our body can exploit the available iron. A well -known team player of iron intake is vitamin C. Vegetables, fruit or fruit juices that are rich in vitamin C are therefore ideal partners for a good exploitation of iron (that is ingested via foods). However, there are also substances that disrupt the iron intake, which means that the body does not get enough of the trace element. This applies for example to the phytic acid in legumes and whole grain products that binds iron molecules. This means that the iron cannot be exploited and is excreted. It is the same for grape skins and the tanning agents contained in tea or coffee. For this reason, drinks such as coffee, black tea, hot chocolate or red wine should be drunk separately from meals rich in iron. Certain minerals and trace elements such as calcium, zinc, manganese or copper also act as inhibitors when they are ingested concomitantly and in concentrated amounts. This is why dairy products and red meat should not be combined.
Spinach – iron hero due to miscalculation
Myth Popeye: Does iron make strong?
For quite a long time, spinach was considered as an ideal iron supplier and thus the bitter, leafy vegetable was especially recommended for children. This assumption was symbolized by the comic-strip hero Popeye, who always consumed tinned spinach and reached unbelievable (muscular) strength. Fact? Fiction? The spinach myth can be traced back to a miscalculation that indicated that iron had a tenfold iron content. Fact is that spinach does indeed contain a lot of iron – but only in its dried form. In its fresh state, the vegetable consists mainly of water and has 3,4 milligrams of iron per 100 grams. In addition, the green vegetable is rich in oxalic acid that decreases the iron uptake. For ingesting as much iron as possible from spinach, the vegetable should always be combined with foods rich in vitamin C. A few drops of leman sprinkled on the spinach – it doesn’t only taste good, but also supports the iron intake.
Pflant-based iron cuts its own path
Aside from spinach there is an additional myth concerning the trace element iron: Even experts believed a long time that plant-based iron was not properly exploitable in general. Today, we know that this assumption is dated. The bad usability of plant-based iron is only to be traced back to the contraries in contains (e.g. oxalates or phytic acid). Our body can exploit iron from especially treated plant extracts very well – and there are even more benefits:
It’s mild: The iron contained in plants is bound in natural structures – contrary to iron salts found in common iron tablets that can irritate the sensitive intestinal mucosa. These natural iron-rich structures are very robust, thermally stable and are not dissolved through stomach acid. This way, they reach the bowel, where they are split up gradually – this means more digestible – and released.
It opens up new perspectives: Unappreciated by the scientific mainstream, the iron research found an exciting news in 2011: In addition to the two known transporters, they discovered a separate transporter for plant-based iron! This plant-oriented way gives those people a chance that do not react to common iron salt tablets due to physiological conditions
Surprising curry leaf
An especially good source of plant-based iron is a particular extract derived from curry leaf that grows in India and in tropic and subtropical Asia. The curry leaf tree counts among the rue family and should not be mistaken for the spice blend curry. The curry powder – coloured due to curcuma – has never even seen such a thing as a curry leaf. The curry leafs are used as spice and in Ayurveda. Particularly valuable about it is the plant-based iron combination. Studies indicate that a special extract derived from curry leaf fills up the iron storage – even when used in small amounts – and that it is well digestible, causing no oxidant stress in our bowel. Thus, iron from curry leaf offers an ideal plant-based alternative to a targeted iron intake and is also suitable for vegetarians and vegans.
Conclusion: Scrap-iron? Not at all! Iron is the contrary of worthless scrap, because it fulfils important tasks in our whole body! Recent scientific findings have brought a new perspective on the iron topic. For those who turn their attention especially on their iron intake, plant-based special extracts are a natural and soft alternative.
Döll, M., Weichselbraun, M. 2014. Eisenmangel. Verlagshaus der Ärzte, 128 pages.
Plant-based curry leaf iron in Biogena MoFerrin 21.