Iron Deficiency & Caffeine

If you drink a couple of cups of coffee each day, you're unlikely to suffer from adverse health effects from the caffeine. However, if you consume an excess amount of coffee, tea, cocoa or cola, especially if you have a poor diet, intestinal disorders, a chronic medical condition, drink excessive alcohol or are pregnant, the caffeine you consume could put you at risk for an iron deficiency.

Iced coffee and other caffeinated beverages may inhibit your absorption of iron. (Image: TongSur/iStock/GettyImages)

Why Iron Absorption is Important

Your body needs to efficiently absorb iron to maintain many bodily functions, such as producing hemoglobin in your blood. Iron is also necessary for healthy cells, hair, skin and nails. Only a small fraction of iron from the food you eat is absorbed into your body by cells that line your intestine.

The iron is released into your bloodstream and stored in the liver, where it helps to make new blood cells and bone marrow. The recommended daily allowance for iron is 8 milligrams for men and 18 milligrams for women, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Caffeine and Iron Absorption

When you drink a cup of coffee, tea or some types of soda, the level of caffeine in your blood peaks in about one hour and maintains that level for several hours.

Half of the caffeine you consume remains in your body for up to six hours, and it may be 10 hours before the caffeine is gone from your bloodstream according to the Cleveland Clinic. During this time, several components in caffeine may inhibit the absorption of iron in your body, which could have long-term adverse effects on your health.

Iron Deficiency and Caffeine

Iron is needed for the production of red blood cells, which carry oxygen to all parts of your body. An iron deficiency that may lead to anemia could develop when your body's iron stores run too low. Iron deficiency marks an association between caffeine and anemia as a contributing factor to health problems.

The American Society of Hematology lists some of the symptoms of an iron deficiency, including pale or yellowish skin, fatigue, weakness, rapid heartbeat, craving for ice, smooth tongue, brittle nails and hair loss. See your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms.

Types of Iron Affected

The type of iron in the food you eat has a significant influence on how caffeine restricts its absorption. Iron in food comes in two forms — heme and nonheme iron. Nonheme iron is found mainly in plant-based foods, and only 2 to 20 percent of this type of iron is absorbed by the body. Both types of iron are found in meat, with about 55 to 60 percent being nonheme and the remainder being heme iron, according to the Iron Disorders Institute.

Caffeine can inhibit the absorption of nonheme iron, but has little effect on heme iron from animal tissue, says GP Notebook. So if you're a vegetarian or vegan who is dependent on plant-based foods for your iron, you should be especially attentive.

Tannin in Tea

Tea contains a chemical compound called tannin, which is a phenolic substance. Although tannin provides some antioxidant benefits, it also has the characteristic of inhibiting iron absorption, says the Journal of Nutritional Science. In some cases, tannins found in caffeine can have iron-inhibiting effects of up to 60 percent, according to the Iron Disorders Institute. It's recommended that you avoid consuming tea within two hours before or after eating an iron-rich meal.

Chlorogenic Acid in Coffee

Coffee contains chlorogenic acid, another phenolic substance found in caffeine. It's responsible for the bitter taste of coffee. Chlorogenic acid also has the ability to reduce the body's absorption of iron.

The amount of chlorogenic acid in coffee varies. Arabica coffee has 6 to 7 percent chlorogenic acid, and Robusta has up to 10 percent, according to Coffee Chemistry.com. Even decaffeinated coffee contains chlorogenic acid, as verified in a book written in 2015 and published by Academic Press.

If You Need a Supplement

If you feel you have an iron deficiency, consult your doctor about needed supplements. The average dose for anemia is 100 to 200 milligrams of elemental iron, taken two or more times a day, advises the Cleveland Clinic. Take supplements on an empty stomach. Feosol.com says taking your iron supplement with food could inhibit its absorption by up to 50 percent.

Never take your supplement with coffee or other foods or beverages containing caffeine, calcium or antacids, which will also decrease the amount of absorption. Vitamin C assists with iron absorption from your supplement, so adding a little lemon juice to your tea may be helpful.

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