A healthy immune system requires the intake of a balanced nutritional diet that is rich in macro as well as micronutrients. Iron is a vital nutrient that is needed to maintain healthy immune and non-immune functions in the body.
Iron deficiency is a worldwide issue that mainly affects women of reproductive age and growing children. As a result, it is important to understand the role iron plays in boosting immunity and health.
How Does Iron Boost Immunity?
There are two primary types of immune defenses.
- Non-specific: General mechanisms that our body adopt to keep us safe from diseases (or disease-causing agents). These mechanisms include our skin, gastric juice, and specialized blood cells such as neutrophils, macrocytes etc.
- Specific Immunity: This refers to immunity against a certain disease or infection and is generally achieved after an active infection or through vaccination.
Iron boosts our bodies’ non-specific immunity by building and strengthening the first and second line of defense against infectious agents. Moreover, the human body has a tightly regulated system to maintain normal iron levels in the body. While iron plays an important role in our health, there are several ways in which it helps strengthen our immune system.
Growth and maturation of cells responsible for killing viruses and bacteria:
Healthy levels of iron are needed for the growth, development, and maturation of immune cells especially lymphocytes, macrophages, and microglia. These immune cells act as guards when a disease-causing bacteria or virus enters your body. These cells not only kill viruses and bacteria (and other disease-causing invaders) when they first enter the human body, but they also create memory cells to prevent re-infection from happening.
Limiting the availability of iron for disease causing elements:
Just as human cells are dependent on normal iron levels for optimal functioning, disease causing agents like bacteria, tumor cells, and parasites also rely on iron for their growth. If the body has excess stores of iron, tumor cells use the extra iron to maintain a steady oxygen supply using binding properties of iron.
According to a study reported in the peer-reviewed journal Genetics and Immunology, investigators suggested that the genes that control iron metabolism in the body are also responsible for controlling the availability of iron to the bacteria and viruses. In simple words, if iron metabolism is intact, the delivery of iron can be restricted for bacteria and viruses thus preventing disease and infections.
Cellular response to bacterial and viral attacks:
When a bacteria or virus attacks the human body, cells throughout our body communicate through chemical signals to better prepare the body against infections or inflammation. All such chemical molecules require iron for activation.
According to a study reported in the journal Medicine (2), investigators discovered that the chemicals that are released after a bacterial or viral infection, were significantly lower in children with iron deficiency anemia than their normal counterparts. This means that since the cells are not communicating efficiently, the help needed to fight the virus or bacteria is delayed leading to:
- More serious infection as internal body defenses are delayed
- Prolong illness after minor ailments
Non-immune functions of iron:
Besides boosting immunity, iron also serves several other functions in the human body:
- Improving energy levels
- Generation of energy from dietary sources
- Maintenance of metabolism
- Formation of red blood cells
- Transportation of oxygen throughout the body
Who Is At Risk Of Developing Iron Deficiency?
Females of reproductive ages require more iron than males because of menstrual loss of blood. As a result, they are at a higher risk of developing iron deficiency. Others at risk are:
- Adolescents or young growing children
Can Chronic Inflammation Affect Serum Iron Levels?
A lack of iron can make you more vulnerable to diseases. On the other hand, chronic and poorly managed inflammatory conditions can also significantly compromise iron stores in your body. Consequently, this leads to health issues like anemia of chronic disease. Some chronic health issues that are associated with low iron levels in the body are:
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Rheumatoid arthritis
How To Increase Iron Levels
If you are suffering from frequent infections or are at risk of developing iron deficiency, modifying your diet can help. For instance, increase your intake of iron-rich foods. Some great dietary sources of iron are:
- Dried fruit
- Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage
In addition to this, some other helpful tips to increase your iron stores include:
- Avoiding foods and beverages that may interfere with absorption of dietary iron in the gut. For example, coffee reduces the absorption of iron in the gut.
- Use iron pans or cast-iron pots to cook your food.
Talk to your healthcare professional to ascertain what might be causing iron deficiency. Also, ask to check your blood levels. In some cases, besides managing the underlying health issue, oral iron supplementation may help.
- Chandra, R. K. (2002). Nutrition and the immune system from birth to old age. European journal of clinical nutrition, 56(3), S73-S76.
- Hassan, T. H., Badr, M. A., Karam, N. A., Zkaria, M., El Saadany, H. F., Rahman, D. M. A., … & Selim, A. M. (2016). Impact of iron deficiency anemia on the function of the immune system in children. Medicine, 95(47).