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I've been earning my living in the natural products industry for over 20 years. I'm in favor of natural products. I use them. I encourage other people to use them. I take a natural product to manage an iron overload disease for which the conventional pharmaceutical remedy would not work (and I knew that, so I didn't take the pharmaceutical). However, not every condition can be treated 100 percent "naturally." Anemia is one of them.

First of all, not everything that looks like iron-deficiency anemia, in terms of symptoms, actually is iron-deficiency anemia.

Chronic diseases like cancer can cause symptoms of anemia. Lead poisoning can cause symptoms of anemia. Cadmium poisoning can cause symptoms of anemia. Autoimmune diseases can cause symptoms of anemia. A disease called beta-thalassemia, in which the body has iron but can't use it to make hemoglobin, can cause symptoms of anemia. Microcytic anemia, in which the body can use iron but it can't make normal-sized red blood cells, can cause symptoms of anemia.

If you have one of those other diseases, taking iron won't help you.

In fact, taking iron can make the problem worse. That's why it is absolutely, positively always necessary to have a blood test to confirm, or rule out, iron-deficiency anemia if you have symptoms of it. Not only would taking iron on your own not do you any good, you could cause symptoms of iron overload disease, including weight gain, diabetes, increased numbers of yeast infections, increased numbers of E. coli infections, joint problems, shrinkage of the sex organs, and migraine headaches. Don't take iron you don't need!

You have to get a blood test to make sure you need iron. You also need a blood test to make sure that the iron you are taking is actually finding its way into your system.

One of the peculiar things about iron-deficiency anemia is that your digestive tract deteriorates. A kind of webby tissue can build up at the bottom of your throat. This makes it hard for you to swallow. The villi, the little pits in your small intestine that receive nutrients from digested food, can flatten out. This makes it harder to receive iron because you don't have enough iron.

In addition to all of that, iron from plant sources is harder for the body to absorb than heme- iron, which is iron from animal blood. (It sounds gross, I know, but that's the way the physiology works.) Moreover, when the plant source of iron is also rich in fiber, a component in fiber called phytic acid further interferes with the body's ability to get the iron out of the digestive tract and into the bloodstream.

It really is easier to get your iron levels up with iron gluconate (also known as ferrous gluconate) or iron sulfate (also known as ferrous sulfate). However, the iron in "herbal" iron supplements isn't actually herbal. It's the iron you would get in a medication, mixed in with a few herbs so it seems natural. However, you don't get as much iron as you actually need to build up your iron levels.

It's OK to take an "herbal" iron supplement. It won't work as fast as other iron supplements. However, no matter what iron supplement you take, it's essential to take blood tests before you start and blood tests after you start taking it. There's simply no other way to know it's working.

Iron, incidentally, interacts with other nutrients. If you are deficient in vitamin A, your body can't use iron. It doesn't take a lot of vitamin A to prevent deficiency, just 1000 to 3000 IU a day, but if you are vitamin A-deficient, taking iron won't do you any good.

You also have to have enough copper to make the enzymes involved in transporting iron to your bones where it is used to make hemoglobin for red blood cells. You may need 1 to 3 mg of supplemental copper a day. It's also important to avoid taking too much zinc (never more than 75 mg of zinc a day, even for a week, preferably no more than 50 mg a day). Zinc interferes with the absorption of copper.

It's also important to avoid taking calcium supplements or eating dairy products for two hours before and for two hours after taking iron supplements. Calcium binds iron so that it cannot enter the bloodstream.

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