The body needs iron for the production of hemoglobin -- the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen. Without sufficient iron intake, the level of hemoglobin drops, leading to a decrease in the number of functioning red blood cells and a condition known as iron-deficiency anemia. Doctors may prescribe iron supplements for those at risk for developing anemia, such as pregnant women, or those who suffer from anemia. Since taking iron supplements can affect the absorption of other minerals or lead to iron overload, consider alternatives to help boost your iron levels.
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Eat a healthy well-balanced diet that includes iron-rich foods. Food sources contain two chemical forms of iron -- heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron, named because it comes from hemoglobin, occurs in animal-derived foods, such as meat, poultry and fish. Chicken liver provides the highest level of available iron, containing 12.8mg in a 3.5 oz serving. Because the body absorbs heme iron more effectively than non-heme iron -- 15 to 35 percent as opposed to 2 to 20 percent -- increase the amount of seafoods, such as oysters and clams, beef, turkey and chicken in your diet. Some vegetables, such as lentils, beans and spinach contain non-heme iron. Although these foods provide less iron than the animal products, eating them with foods known to enhance the absorption of iron such as citrus fruits, also helps boost iron levels.
Avoid Iron Inhibitors
While some foods enhance the absorption of iron, others can inhibit absorption. When you are trying to increase iron levels without taking supplements, avoid these items in your daily diet. Avoid drinking coffee and tea, especially at the same time you eat foods that contain iron. Both coffee and tea contain tannins, also known as tannic acid. Tannic acid contributes to the slightly bitter taste of the coffee or tea and interferes with iron absorption.
Oxalic acid is found in many vegetables, including spinach, chard, rhubarb and sweet potatoes. Oxalic acid can bind to metals such as iron, making them unavailable to the body. Soy foods contain isoflavones -- compounds that induce effects similar to estrogen in the body. Isoflavones are known to inhibit the absorption of iron. To enhance the absorption of iron, avoid eating or drinking any soy products with your iron-rich foods.
Some herbal treatments may help increase the absorption of iron and other nutrients. The University of Maryland Medical Center says that alfalfa, dandelion, burdock and yellowdock have long been used to help cleanse the blood and increase levels of hemoglobin. Gentian, another herb, may help increase your body’s ability to absorb iron. Because herbal supplements can interfere with certain medications and cause side effects, they should only be used under the supervision of your health-care professional.