Iron is an important mineral that helps to manufacture hemoglobin. The red blood cells in your body need hemoglobin to carry oxygen to your organs and tissues. Without enough iron, you can become deficient.
Some of the symptoms of iron deficiency include unexplained fatigue, dizziness, and shortness of breath. When iron deficiency becomes severe, and the total amount of iron in your body continues decreasing, it may lead to iron deficiency anemia.
The symptoms of iron deficiency anemia include:
- Shortness of breath
- Rapid heartbeats
- Pounding in the ears
- Brittle nails
Several groups of people are at a greater risk of iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia. They are:
- Menstruating women
- Pregnant women
- Women who breastfeed
- Anyone who has undergone surgery
If you fall into any of these groups, you want to make sure you are getting enough iron into your body. While iron is available in many iron-rich foods, there are two types of iron: heme iron and non-heme iron. As your body treats these two types of iron differently, it is important to understand the differences in the roles of heme vs non heme iron.
What is the difference between heme and non heme iron?
The difference between heme and non heme iron is that heme iron is available in meat and fish while non-heme iron is available in plants.
Some sources of heme iron in foods are:
- Beef liver
- Chicken liver
- Organ meats
Some sources of non heme iron in foods are:
- Fortified cereals
When you eat a varied diet consisting of meat, fish, vegetables, and beans, you may be getting both heme and non heme iron into your body. Depending on how much heme iron (from meats and fish) and non heme iron (from plants) you are getting, your body may still be iron deficient.
How much non heme iron is absorbed?
There are several reasons why your body may be iron deficient, such as:
- Not enough iron in the diet
- Blood loss
- Inflamed bowels
In your body, iron is absorbed in the small intestine, specifically in the upper jejunum and the duodenum. However, non heme iron is not absorbed as readily as heme iron.
How much non heme iron is absorbed by your body depends on two factors.
First, your stomach needs to be slightly acidic. Most non heme iron exists in the ferric state (Fe3), which is an insoluble chemical state. In this state, your body cannot readily absorb non heme iron.
This is why you need a slightly acidic stomach. In an acidic environment, non heme iron converts from its insoluble ferric state to a soluble ferrous state (Fe2). When non heme iron is in the ferrous state, your body can absorb it better.
Once in the ferrous state, iron is transported into your cells through a protein called Divalent Metal Transporter 1 (DMT1).
However, the conversion of iron from its ferric state to ferrous state causes numerous side effects. A result of this conversion is excess ferrous iron, which forms free radicals. These free radicals can damage your tissues. Some of the additional side effects include abdominal pain and constipation. The second factor that determines your body’s non heme iron absorption is food. Taking non-heme iron with food significantly reduces the absorption of non-heme iron. Further, there are certain foods which hinder the absorption of non heme iron. These are foods and drinks containing:
- Tannins such as tea, coffee, and chocolate
- Oxalate acid such as spinach, sweet potatoes, and peanuts
On the other hand, your body absorbs heme iron using the Heme Carrier Protein 1 (HCP1). Unlike the DMT1 protein which transports iron and other metals into your cells, the HCP1 is a receptor that only absorbs heme iron.
Heme iron also doesn’t need to be converted into a different chemical state for absorption. It is easily absorbed as is by your small intestine.
Caffeinated drinks and stomach acidity don’t affect the absorption of heme iron either. When it comes to choosing between heme vs non heme iron, the ease of absorption clearly make heme iron the better option.
How to increase iron intake in vegetarian diet?
Even with better absorption rates of heme vs non heme iron, there are many people who may choose the latter. For example, vegans and vegetarians may want to get their iron exclusively from plant sources.
As outlined above, iron from plant sources is non heme iron and your body does not absorb it as easily as it absorbs heme iron.
Without enough iron, you can become iron deficient. Iron deficiency negatively impacts your health and its symptoms can cast a shadow over your daily life.
This is where iron supplements can help. If your body isn’t getting enough iron from dietary sources, supplements can fill that gap and help prevent iron deficiency. Just like there are two types of iron, there are two types of iron supplements: heme iron supplements and non heme iron supplements.
OptiFer Alpha is a heme iron supplement. It is based on natural bovine heme iron and is readily absorbed by your body to keep your iron count at an optimal level.
While there are many vegetarian iron-rich food options, their non heme iron content can leave you susceptible to iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia. The associated symptoms can greatly hamper your health and daily activities. OptiFer Alpha heme iron tablets offer an easy way to increase iron intake in vegetarian diets.
As an end note, it is important to know your micro nutrient needs while on a vegetarian diet. Discuss your micro nutrient levels with a professional dietitian or nutritionist for more insight into your iron stores and heme iron needs.