Essential for several biochemical reactions of both immune and non-immune cells in the body, iron is a vital micronutrient for human longevity. Iron helps in boosting the hemoglobin levels in the blood, which in turn, helps to improve the oxygen supply to the damaged organs, tissues and cells, thereby strengthening your immune system.
And, a great way to maintain a strong and healthy immune system is by ensuring that you get a healthy and balanced diet with an adequate intake of iron, which is fundamental for the development and functioning of the immune system.
Why Is Iron Important?
Iron is an extremely important nutrient and among the most vital minerals for the body. Most of the human cells contain iron; however, it is mostly found in the RBCs (red blood cells).
Apart from supporting a healthy immune system, iron helps in various other body functions including:
- Production of hemoglobin
- Proper transportation of oxygen to all parts of the body
- Formation of blood cells
- Normal energy metabolism
- Reducing tiredness and fatigue
- Proper brain development and cognitive function
- Production of proteins and collagen
- Converting beta-carotene into vitamin A
Importance Of Iron To The Immune System
As discussed earlier, iron is extremely important for various functions of the body including supporting the immune system. There is a close link between iron and immunity and iron is essential for the first and secondary immune response. The iron stores are strictly regulated by the body to avoid having too much or too little of it.
Too little iron can cause deficiency, causing the non-specific immunity of the body, which is essentially the first line of defense of the body against pathogens to degrade. Iron deficiency can cause symptoms such as lack of energy. Tiredness, pale skin, shortness of breath and heart palpitations in the short term.
If left untreated, iron deficiency can cause more serious problems in the long run, including the weakening of your immune system, making you more prone to infections. Apart from problems with your immune system, iron deficiency anemia can cause lung and heart problems, including very fast heart rate (tachycardia), heart failure and even complications in pregnancy.
A good, balanced, iron-rich diet is essential for the optimal functioning of your immune system. However, if you’re not getting sufficient amounts of iron from your diet, then you can consider taking iron supplements to treat anemia, mainly IDA (iron deficiency anemia).
Sources of Iron
Spinach is a great plant-based source of non-heme iron and is also rich in vitamin C, which increases iron absorption. Around 100 grams of spinach contains about 2.7 mg of iron, which comprises 15% of the daily requirement.
Spinach is also an excellent source of carotenoids or antioxidants that can help to reduce inflammation, reduce the risk of cancer and protect from eye disease.
Delicious and extremely nutritious, shellfish such as mussels, clams, oysters, etc. are excellent sources of iron. For example, 100 grams of clams can contain around 3 mg of iron, which constitutes 17% of the average daily requirement.
The iron found in shellfish is heme iron, which is more easily absorbed by the body compared to the non-heme iron contained in plant sources.
Legumes such as lentils, beans, peas, chickpeas and soybeans are wonderful sources of iron, especially for vegetarians. A cup of cooked lentils contains around 6.6 mg of iron, which constitutes 37% of the daily requirement.
Also, rich in other nutrients like magnesium, folate and potassium, legumes can help to reduce heart disease, inflammation and can also help in weight loss.
Rich in high-quality protein, B vitamins, zinc and selenium, red meat is a good source of iron. 100 grams of red meat contains around 2.7 mg of iron, which comprises 15% of the daily requirement. Red meat is an excellent source of heme iron and is great for people who have an increased risk of anemia.
Dark turkey meat is a great source of iron and 100 grams of the meat contains around 1.4 mg of iron, which is 8% of the recommended daily intake. Further, dark turkey meat is high in protein, zinc, selenium and B vitamins.
A pseudo-cereal that has become extremely popular in recent years, a cup of cooked quinoa provides around 2.8 mg of iron, which is 16% of the recommended daily intake. Quinoa is a gluten-free grain that is rich in protein and other nutrients such as magnesium, folate, manganese, copper, etc. Quinoa also contains antioxidants that protect against cell damage caused because of free radicals.
A soy-based food, tofu is rich in iron and just ½ a cup can provide around 3.4 mg of iron, i.e., 19% of the daily requirement. Tofu is also an excellent source of protein, thiamine, calcium, selenium and magnesium. Tofu also contains compounds known as isoflavones that have many health benefits.
Not only is dark chocolate super yummy, but it's nutritious too. Just 1 oz of dark chocolate contains around 3.4 mg of iron, which constitutes 19% of the DV. Dark chocolate is rich in minerals like magnesium and copper, prebiotic fiber and antioxidants.
Fish like tuna, mackerel, sardines and haddock are rich in iron. 3 oz of tuna contains around 1.4 mg of iron, which constitutes around 8% of the DV. Fish are also packed with omega-3 fatty acids that boost immune function, improve brain health, growth and development. Fish also contains many other essential nutrients like vitamin B12, niacin and selenium.
Some of the other foods that are rich in iron include cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, pumpkin seeds, liver and other types of organ meats including kidneys, heart and brain, poultry, potatoes, etc.
How Much Iron Your Body Is Getting?
There are essentially 2 aspects that determine the amount of iron your body is getting i.e., the iron content or how much elemental iron you are getting and the bioavailability or how much iron is absorbed by the body and used by it.
While it is possible to get iron from the food you eat, depending on the type of iron contained in the food, it may either not be absorbed properly by your body or may not be enough to meet the requirements.
Dietary products contain 2 types of iron i.e., heme and non-heme. Typically, the iron found in plant-based sources such as legumes, nuts, vegetables, etc. in non-heme iron, is absorbed by the body at a much lower rate compared to heme iron which is mostly found in animal-based foods such as meat, mostly red meat.
Further, the bioavailability of iron is reduced by drinking coffee or tea after your meals, which can reduce the iron absorbed by your body and hence, your intake of iron. Also, processes such as freezing and cooking meat can reduce the content of heme iron.
Further, foods like milk, eggs and veggies contain natural compounds like tannins, polyphenols and phytates that prevent proper iron absorption by the body.
You can boost the iron absorption by your body by avoiding drinking coffee or tea after your meals. Using cast-iron pots and pans and combining foods with iron with vitamin C-rich foods can also help to increase iron absorption.
Does Iron Help The Immune System? Wrapping Up
In conclusion, iron is extremely important for your body for its optimal functioning, especially the immune system. Iron deficiency can cause several health problems and can lead to a weakened immune system, making you prone to illnesses and diseases.
However, at the same time, too much iron can also be harmful to the body and suppress your immune system. So, if you feel that you aren’t getting sufficient iron from your diet and decide to take a supplement, then it is important to consult your medical practitioner and take the right dose that is appropriate for you, lest the iron causes more harm than good.