If you have iron deficiency anemia (IDA), making dietary changes and your own herbal remedies can help raise your iron stores (ferritin). However, it is not universally beneficial to boost iron levels and too much can cause harm, as with many other nutrients.

A note: High levels of iron are potentially toxic and even poisonous, whether brought about through accidental overdose, high-dose supplements, or iron overload disorders.  Hemochromatosis is a hereditary condition that causes your body to absorb too much dietary iron, which is usually tightly controlled in the digestive tract. It can negatively impact your liver, heart, and pancreas and lead to life-threatening conditions. Iron balance is tied to the body’s inflammatory response. Anemic states can actually improve resistance to infection and chronic inflammatory conditions and be viewed as an adaptation, i.e. the anemia of chronic disease.  Too much iron is pro-inflammatory. In fact, serum ferritin acts as an inflammatory disease marker because cells leak when damaged or exposed to high levels of oxidative stress and increase circulating levels of “free” iron. Iron poisoning is a serious health risk for young children who may overdose on nutritional supplements, including multivitamins that resemble candy.

IDA is the most common nutritional disorder and most prevalent among preschoolers and women.i Iron deficiency is also possible without anemia, a deficiency of red blood cells or hemoglobin. The most common cause for IDA is blood loss, which can happen through the gastrointestinal tract (e.g., peptic ulcers, diverticular disease, irritable bowel disease, colonic polyps, cancer, etc.), blood donation, chronic hemolysis, and heavy menstruation. Absorption issues with celiac disease and other chronic conditions as well as low stomach acid and gastric bypass are other causes.

Dietary iron, particularly non-heme sources, is usually safe when homeostatic mechanisms are functioning properly.  The main iron-regulatory hormone is hepcidin. Humans and other mammals can’t excrete iron. Normally, hepcidin levels decrease with iron stores to increase absorption, storage, and distribution in tissues. However, low-iron diets and digestive issues can cause deficiency over time. Heme iron (the most absorbable form) comes from animals, primarily red meat and liver, whereas non-heme iron is found in both animal and plant foods.i Hepcidin mostly controls non-heme iron absorption.

Non-heme iron absorption is also enhanced by organic acids and inhibited by certain plant compounds with “anti-nutrient” effects as well as calcium.  In large amounts, phytates (phytic acid), tannins and polyphenols (e.g., green and black tea, red wine, grapeseed extract, etc.) can reduce the absorption of minerals in nutrient-poor diets, but their effect can be counteracted with vitamin C and protein, respectively. Cooking dark leafy green vegetables (preferably through steaming or quickly boiling to retain water-soluble nutrients) and soaking and sprouting legumes, grains, and nuts, also reduces the amount of oxalates and lectins and makes them more digestible.

Some of the best sources of non-heme iron may surprise you. The recipes below provide creative ways you can incorporate them into your diet, navigate “anti-nutrient” effects, and stay safe with iron supplementation. Organic ingredients are preferred as they not only contain fewer nitrates, pesticide residues, and toxic metals but also carry more nutrients (vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus).

Another note: Many medicinal plants are also food sources but various extraction methods can concentrate their active compounds and warrant caution. Herbs can have side effects and also interact with supplements, medications, and even other herbs.  Always consult your doctor before starting a new treatment and refer to the Herb Guide & Facts at the end of this article.

Herbal Iron Elixir (makes 3 cups, approx. 50 x 1 tbsp. servings). Recipe adapted from Meadowsweet Yoga & Wellness

500g blackstrap molasses (just 1 tbsp has plenty of iron (20% Daily Value (%DV)), magnesium (10 %DV), calcium (8 %DV), potassium (8 %DV), manganese, copper, selenium, and B-vitamins. Gentle laxative and low-moderate glycemic index for a sweetener)
2 tbsp dried nettle leaf / powder
1 tbsp gelatinized red maca powder
1 tbsp kelp powder

Instructions:

Add 1.5 cups filtered water to a non-aluminum pot and bring to a boil
Add nettle leaf, then remove from heat and cover. Allow to infuse for 10 – 15 mins.
Strain nettle and return tea to pot. Set to very low heat
Add molasses and stir. Gently heat syrup for 10-15 min. covered
Remove from heat and let cool
Transfer to a clean container and store in the fridge

Safety Notes:

Elixir is not recommended for pregnant women, but 1 tbsp of blackstrap molasses daily in hot water and / or nettle and maca teas are generally OK. See Herbal Mineral-Rich Teas

Herbal Vinegars (takes 5 mins. of prep time, ready in 2 – 4 weeks) – a simple type of tincture, i.e. maceration. Keeps for 2 months at room-temperature or up to 6 months refrigerated. Guidelines loosely adapted from Susan Weed’s method

Apple cider vinegar (pasteurized or unpasteurized): vinegar is effective at extracting water- or acid- soluble herbal constituents. It frees up minerals in your diet, improves digestion and metabolism, and adds flavour
Herbs (fresh or dried): parsley, lemongrass, thyme, marjoram, spearmint, etc.

Instructions:

Pick through fresh herbs and remove any decay or damaged components, only wash if necessary to avoid losing any water-soluble nutrients

May chop up fresh herbs to increase surface area and maximize strength, but whole herbs are more aesthetically pleasing
May weigh individual ingredients to determine concentration of herbs to solvent and record strength, e.g., parsley-lemongrass (33%, 66%) 1: 13 extract
May gently heat vinegar or use at room-temperature, boiling is not necessary
Pack glass or plastic container to the shoulder (or within thumb’s width from the top) with plant material and pour over vinegar to cover
Dislodge air bubbles by either poking with a chopstick or tapping on the sides of the container
Cover with a plastic lid or cork. Multiple layers of waxed paper firmly secured with an elastic band will also work, but metal will rust
Invert container daily for at least 2 weeks (up to 4, to taste) to ensure macerate is fully saturated
Store away from direct sunlight, in a stable environment like a kitchen cupboard that gets neither too hot nor too cold
Strain herbs, rebottle, and label
Add to grains, beans, salads, stir-fry, soups, and even water. Try 1 tbsp in a glass of water for a unique drinking vinegar

Herbal Mineral-Rich Teas – steep for 5-10 mins. in a closed container, using freshly boiled water and non-metallic instruments (stainless steel is OK). Best consumed within 24 hours, strained, and refrigerated, if not consuming immediately. Gently reheat on the stove and never microwave. Honey and lemon or lime juice may be added if desired

Nettle infusion: 2 tsp dried nettle per 1-cup water. May infuse overnight. Drink 3x / day, max 6x daily.
Parsley infusion: steep ¼ cup fresh parsley per 1-cup water
Lemongrass infusion: steep 1 tsp dried or 3 tsp fresh lemongrass per 1-cup water

Drinking lemongrass tea daily for 1 month can improve anemia: increases haemoglobin, packed cell volume, and red cell counts
Maca infusion: steep 2 tsp gelatinized maca powder per 1-cup water. Nice with a dash of cinnamon and / or ginger
Moringa infusion: steep 2 tsp dried moringa leaves per 1-cup water

Miscellaneous Iron Boosters

Moringa powder: blend into smoothies, bake with it, sprinkle onto food as with any other green herb or seasoning and use in soups, stews, stir frys, gravies, dressings, guacamole, etc.
Maca powder: blend into smoothies, drinks, date paste, or other recipes
Cast iron cookware: Iron leaches into food during cooking, especially when acidic foods are added. Also, consider the Lucky Iron Fish, which requires less maintenance and lasts up to 5 years with daily use!

In herbal healing and active informed health,
Dr. Vanessa