One straightforward way to get more iron in your blood? Eat more iron-rich foods.
Iron is an essential component of hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying molecule in red blood cells.
Low iron in the bloodstream can lead to a variety of problems, including fatigue, weakness, pale skin and irritability, as well as iron deficiency anemia. As noted by the World Health Organization, anemia is one of the world's leading nutritional deficiencies, affecting more than 30 percent of the world's population.
While low-iron levels are common, they can usually be reversed with diet tweaks and medical attention.
Most adults are advised to get anywhere from seven to 18 milligrams of iron per day, while lactating and pregnant people are suggested to increase their intake to as much as to 27 grams per day, per the National Institutes of Health.
If you have low iron levels, your doctor might recommend increasing the iron in your diet. Your body only absorbs a small percentage of the iron you eat, so you might have to employ a few tricks to improve iron absorption or find other ways to increase blood iron levels.
If you want to know how to increase iron and iron absorption in the body, read on for some expert-approved methods.
1. Eat More Foods Rich in Iron
Dietary sources of iron come in two forms, heme and non-heme.
Heme iron can be found in animal products like red meat, liver, fish and poultry. It is the most easily absorbed type of iron, although it is much less common than non-heme iron. Some common sources of heme iron include, per the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health:
- Beef liver
- Chicken liver
- Organ meats
- Canned tuna
Non-heme iron is present in many plant-based foods, including beans, lentils, spinach, tofu and raisins. It's also added to fortified foods like cereals, breads and oatmeal.
While non-heme iron is more easy to find, the body doesn't absorb it as well as it does heme iron, per the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Health. The following foods are good sources of non-heme iron:
- Dark leafy greens
- Potato with skin
- Morel mushrooms
- Dried fruits, including raisins and apricots
- Enriched rice, oats and bread
- Fortified breakfast cereals
Eating non-heme iron sources, like leafy and cruciferous green vegetables, including spinach, collard greens, broccoli and kale, alongside meals containing red meat or other sources of heme iron can benefit your iron levels.
Why You Should Pair Vitamin C with Non-Heme Iron
Vitamin C improves the absorption of non-heme iron, as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) outlines, whereas calcium, polyphenols, tannins and phytates can decrease absorption rates.
For this reason, it's best to pair contain non-heme iron with foods that are high in vitamin C, like citrus fruits, tomatoes, bell peppers and Brussels sprouts.
2. Talk to Your Doctor about Iron Supplements
If your dietary changes are unable to bring iron levels back to normal, your doctor might recommend iron supplementation. Supplements are available in tablet and liquid form, and many daily multi-vitamins (especially those designed for women) contain iron.
Iron deficiency anemia is common among people of childbearing age and those who are pregnant because they need twice the amount of iron to make more blood to supply oxygen to the baby, per the Mayo Clinic. This is why it's often recommended for those who are pregnant or trying to get pregnant to take iron supplements.
The most common form of iron used in supplements is ferrous iron salts, which include ferrous fumarate, ferrous sulfate and ferrous gluconate, per the NIH.
Ferrous fumarate is the most readily absorbed type of iron supplements, although ferrous sulfate is the most commonly used.
Iron supplements can be tricky; the iron is often best absorbed when taken two or three times over the course of the day with foods containing vitamin C.
You'll want to be in communication with your health care professional before taking iron supplements, as it's possible to overdo it: Iron overload in the blood can lead to organ damage.
Additionally, some experts suspect that calcium can interfere with the absorption of iron from supplements, so it's often recommended to take your iron supplement at a different time than your calcium supplement.
Risks Associated With Iron Supplements
Although increased dietary intake is usually safe and free of side effects, iron supplements can cause undesirable side effects, like a metallic taste in the mouth, nausea, vomiting, headache or rash, per the Cleveland Clinic.
Always consult your doctor to determine the best way to increase your iron levels and decrease the chances of negative effects.
3. Cook With More Cast Iron
Some love cast iron for the timeless and authentic feel it gives to the cooking experience. Another benefit? Cooking with cast iron skillets can increase the iron content in your food.
Foods simmered in iron pans can absorb some of the mineral and pass it along to you when you eat the food. Acidic foods such as tomato sauce, lemon juice and red wine are especially prone to absorbing iron from cooking pots.
A systematic review of 11 studies found significant evidence that using cast iron cookware could help reduce the risk for iron deficiency anemia (IDA), a type of anemia caused by a lack of iron in the body, especially among children, per a September 2019 study in PLOS One.
A November 2018 study in Public Health and Nutrition evaluated the differences in iron content between cooked black beans and beets in a cast-iron pan and a non-cast-iron pan, finding that the iron content for both foods increased when cooked in a cast iron.
While these findings are promising for raising your iron levels, you shouldn't necessarily depend on them to do so. It can be difficult to quantify exactly how much iron is being picked up by the food, so it's important to focus on getting iron in your system through other methods.
4. In Rare Cases, You Might Need Iron Injections
In rare cases of iron deficiency that are not alleviated by dietary changes and supplementation, doctors may recommend iron injections, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Those who get iron supplementation intravenously most often do so because they cannot take supplements orally.
Shots must always be administered by a trained professional in a medical setting, such as a hospital or doctor's office. Potential side effects include anaphylaxis, a serious and sometimes life-threatening allergic reaction, as well as nausea, dizziness, fainting and low blood pressure.
Iron shots are commonly used for patients who take erythropoiesis-stimulating agents (ESAs), which boost blood cell production and therefore increase iron needs.
- National Institutes of Health: "Iron"
- Mayo Clinic: Iron Supplement (Oral Route, Parenteral Route)
- World Health Organization: Iron Deficiency Anemia
- PubMed: Diagnosis and management of iron deficiency anemia in the 21st century
- Cleveland Clinic: Intravenous Iron Supplementation
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Iron"
- PLoS One: "Iron-containing cookware for the reduction of iron deficiency anemia among children and females of reproductive age in low- and middle-income countries: A systematic review"
- Public Health and Nutrition: "Effect of cooking utensil on iron content of food"
- Mayo Clinic: "Pregnancy Week by Week"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Intravenous Iron Supplementation"