Iron-deficiency anemia, or low iron is one of the most common health concerns I see on a regular basis in my clinic. About 20% of women, 50% of pregnant women, and 3% of men do not have enough iron in their body. The most common signs and symptoms of low iron levels are fatigue, shortness of breath, weakness, poor concentration, dizziness, headaches, and pallor (pale skin and tissues). However, iron deficiencies can also cause restless leg syndrome, tinnitus or ringing in the ears, brittle nails or spoon-shaped nails, hair loss, racing heart, an altered sense of taste, a desire to eat non-food items, feelings of itchiness, a sore tongue, sores at the corners of the mouth, or difficulty swallowing

How do you tell if your iron is low? A simple blood test will show your body’s ferritin or iron levels. Ideally, women should have ferritin levels between 50-70 ug/L, but iron levels in the body are considered within the normal range if they fall between 5-272 ug/L. Many patients I see have been told they have normal levels despite those levels being on the lower end of the range and having symptoms of deficiency present. Optimal range with females is between 50-70 ug/L.

What are ways we can boost our iron levels? There’s always supplementation, however, some patients don’t tolerate iron supplements or they don’t absorb the iron. Whenever I am working with a patient to restore their iron levels to optimal we talk about other methods of increasing iron in the body through lifestyle modifications, nutrition and food combinations, herbs, and more. 

One of the easiest ways to boost iron levels is to focus on iron rich foods in the diet. These foods include: oysters, beef, and chicken. There are also many vegetarian sources or plant-based sources of iron such as black-strap molasses, tofu, prune juice, kidney beans, and lentils. 

Another aspect of iron rich foods to be mindful of is that iron is better absorbed from foods or supplements when combined with a vitamin C source. Often supplements combine iron with vitamin C so you don’t need to worry about taking two separate products. When eating an iron-rich food, having a vitamin C source such as kiwi, orange juice, or lemonade can help with absorption. 

Some additional food combinations of iron and vitamin C to be mindful when meal planning include: spinach and bell peppers, broccoli and tomatoes, black beans and cabbage, kale and oranges, lentils and brussel sprouts, dark chocolate and strawberries. You can mix and match these foods (the iron rich food is listed first and the vitamin C source listed second), to suit your taste preferences. 

Another concept to be aware of when it comes to iron supplements or iron rich foods is regarding foods or products that can impair or impede iron absorption. Beverages such as black tea, peppermint tea, coffee, spices including chili powder, mint, herbs such as milk thistle, and medications including antacids and proton pump inhibitors can all impact the body’s ability to absorb iron

Naturopaths often use herbal medicines to treat a wide range of health concerns including iron deficiencies. Herbs known to boost iron levels include nettle, Dong quai also referred to as Angelica sinesis, and astragalus. Nettle provides high concentrations of iron, whereas angelica sinesis and astragalus contribute to the creation of new blood cells. Herbs or botanicals can be taken in many different forms including teas, liquid extracts, tablets or capsules. Before starting any new regime it is key to connect with a licensed healthcare provider to ensure it is safe for you. Although natural health products are usually available over the counter, many herbal preparations can have serious interactions with medications or aren’t suited for individuals with certain health conditions. 

Another easy way to get iron levels boosted is to cook using cast iron cookware. Food cooked in cast iron absorbs the elemental iron from the cookware and provides the body with an increased amount of iron. There is evidence demonstrating cooking with iron cookware is a viable intervention for those with iron deficiency.

If cooking with cast iron isn’t an option, there is a relatively new product on the market called the Lucky Iron Fish. Made of iron, this cooking tool is added to boiling water or other meals to provide a source of elemental iron. When used regularly at least 3 times a week the lucky iron fish can raise blood iron levels in as little as 3 months without any unwanted side effects of supplemental iron. The best part is, this is a Canadian made product that gives an iron fish to a community in need with each purchase in an effort to combat the world’s largest nutritional challenge – iron deficiency – affecting 2 billion individuals worldwide

Lastly, as a naturopath I will often speak to patients about the benefits of acupuncture, particularly in the role of iron deficiency. Research has demonstrated acupuncture upregulates ferritin (iron) levels while decreasing total iron binding capacity (TIBC). TIBC is a blood test that measures the body’s ability to bind iron with transferrin, the main protein in the blood that binds to iron and transports it throughout the body. Acupuncture may also work by aiding the digestive system’s ability to absorb iron. Based on this evidence acupuncture is a practical adjunctive treatment option for those with low iron levels. 

If you’re suffering from iron deficiency anemia and you’d like to explore alternative ways to increase your iron stores contact a healthcare provider, such as a licensed naturopathic doctor, to find out which treatment options are right for you. 


About the Author

Dr. Kate Klein is a licensed naturopathic doctor and clinic director at Your Health Collective, an integrative wellness clinic located in the heart of Ajax. Dr. Klein and her team offer services including, naturopathic medicine, holistic nutrition, acupuncture, osteopathy, and psychotherapy to patients of all ages. Practitioners at Your Health Collective provide a collaborative approach to patient care through a variety of natural treatments and solutions for health concerns ranging from disordered sleep, allergies, fertility, headaches, digestive concerns, and much more. We believe that health is more than just the absence of disease; health is when we function at our best through proper nutrition, exercise, a balanced lifestyle, positive emotions, thoughts and actions. For more information about Dr. Klein, naturopathic medicine, or our clinic please visit: