Iron deficiency increases risk of heart disease, but so does the wrong type of iron

Our bodies are finely balanced machines, but for many of us, this only becomes evident when we suffer a lack of a vital nutrient or mineral and start feeling the effects. Extra exam or other stress, for example, has left many of us depleted of vitamin B, and as women get older, they are often advised to increase their consumption of calcium. There is another vital mineral that needs to be finely balanced in our bodies to prevent disease, including the threat of coronary artery disease: our intake of iron.

Heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women in the United States, and claims more lives than all cancers combined. It kills around 380,000 people each year.

There are several very important lifestyle factors that can contribute to the development (or prevention) of heart disease. Maintaining a healthy weight, cutting out sugar and artificial sweeteners, increasing the intake of healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil, and incorporating daily exercise, are all vitally important in the quest to prevent heart disease. [Related: Eating unlimited amounts of healthy fats significantly slashes risk of breast cancer, diabetes and heart disease, study finds.]

Now, the U.K.’s Daily Mail is reporting that a study by researchers from Imperial College London, published in the journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, has found that low iron levels also increase the risk of developing coronary artery disease (a type of heart disease.)

“[It] could well be the case that if their iron levels are low, we could give them an iron tablet to minimize their risk of cardiovascular disease,” said lead author, Dr. Dipender Gill. “For those people who have already had a heart attack, and whose iron status is low, we could potentially reduce their risk of having another heart attack just by giving them an iron tablet.”

A recent U.K. government survey has found that a quarter of all working age women have low iron levels, partly because of recommendations to reduce red meat intake.

While medical professionals are often quick to advise popping a pill, it is always better to find natural, easily absorbed sources of vitamins and minerals, including iron. Excellent sources of this mineral include dried fruits, fortified breads, red meat, beans, nuts and green leafy vegetables, particularly spinach. [Relate: Uncover the sources, health benefits, nutrients, uses and constituents of spinach at]

A word of warning though: An earlier study by researchers at Indiana University, published in the Journal of Nutrition, found that high levels of heme iron, which is only found in meat, can actually cause coronary heart disease (CHD), increasing risk by as much as 57 percent! The study found that the body is better able to absorb iron from vegetable sources, and even iron supplements, than from meat sources.

“Heme iron is absorbed at a much greater rate in comparison to nonheme iron (37 percent vs. 5 percent). Once absorbed, it may contribute as a catalyst in the oxidation of LDLs, causing tissue-damaging inflammation, which is a potential risk factor for CHD,” the authors concluded.

Balance is clearly the key here. It is obviously important to ensure that iron levels do not fall too low or become too high. The signs and symptoms of iron deficiency to be aware of are tiredness, shortness of breath, dizziness, headaches, cold hands and feet, chest pain, physical weakness and pale skin. Other possible problems include brittle nails, cracks on the sides of the mouth, frequent infections, restless leg syndrome and difficulty sleeping.

If a blood test reveals an iron shortage, it is important to increase your intake of iron by eating more of the foods listed above, or to get an iron supplement. Do be aware of not over-doing it though, and talk to your natural health practitioner about the best sources of iron for your particular condition.

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