When working to address the root cause of your thyroid or autoimmune condition, it’s critical to consider all possible contributing factors.
While mainstream medicine may simply focus on your thyroid lab values or antibodies, in the nutrition community, we also know that nutrient deficiencies play a huge role in hormonal imbalances and can even contribute to related symptoms.
Low iron—and more specifically, low ferritin (your iron storage protein)—is common in the hypothyroid and Hashimoto’s community. And the hair loss/alopecia community.
Many have iron-deficient anemia and don’t know it because the symptoms can overlap with those of low thyroid function: fatigue, hair loss, inadequate levels of B vitamins, heart palpitations, breathlessness, muscle aches and pains, and brain fog.
To add insult to injury, low iron and ferritin can inhibit thyroid function.
If your iron levels have been tested (via hemoglobin, serum ferritin, or total iron binding capacity (TIBC) labs) and they appeared to be problematic, chances are you were prescribed iron or told to buy over-the-counter ferrous sulfate.
While this may seem like the obvious choice to raise your levels, there are some drawbacks with iron supplementation.
Firstly, supplementation is notorious for causing an upset stomach and making people feel nauseous even when taken with food. It can also cause constipation, which can affect the gut microbiome, where beneficial bacteria may not thrive because of the toxic accumulation of waste.
Secondly, this approach doesn’t address why someone may have low iron to begin with.
The health of our digestive environment and our food choices have a direct impact on how much iron we absorb. By making some strategic choices with diet, and possibly supplementation when necessary, you can work to naturally elevate your ferritin levels without having to resort to harsh iron drops or pills.
Firstly, consider the state of your gut health. We need adequate levels of stomach acid to absorb the iron we’re taking in from foods. If you’re prone to indigestion, acid reflux, or gut infections (bacterial, fungal, etc.), these could all be signs that you lack the essential amounts of hydrochloric acid, or stomach acid, needed to break down and absorb iron. (Hydrochloric acid also helps with protein metabolism.)
You can rely on acidic foods and drinks such as raw apple cider vinegar or other fermented foods such as kimchi, raw sauerkraut, or kombucha (before meals) to stimulate HCI production.
Next, you also want to make sure you’re eating enough iron-rich foods to begin with.
Meat products, especially red meats and organ meats, are a powerful heme iron source. Heme iron (from meat and fish) comprises 40 percent of the iron in meat products and is a very bio-available form of iron.
For the squeamish, start with small amounts of chicken livers that tend to be the most mild and can easily be blended into ground meats to make burgers, meatloaf, and sautés, along with spices and flavorings, without affecting the flavor of the meal.
Leafy greens, nuts and seeds, mushrooms, and even potato skins are non-heme iron sources. Non-heme iron isn’t absorbed quite as well and makes up the remaining 60 percent of iron in meat and fish. To that end, all the iron found in plant-based foods isn’t absorbed as well as iron from animal products.
It’s important to know that there are substances found in some foods that may prevent iron absorption. For example, phytic acid, as found in grains, beans, and legumes, can bind with iron, making it unavailable to the body.
For someone who’s not anemic, moderate amounts of phytic acid many not be an issue. But for someone who’s anemic, it can become problematic. To get around this issue, buy soaked, sprouted, or fermented grains, beans, and legumes, or learn how to do this yourself at home.
For example, don’t buy brown rice or beans and cook it directly from the package. First soak the grain/legume in a bowl of acidic water overnight, then drain and rinse to remove a portion of the phytic acid, then cook as normal.
Additionally, there are other naturally-occurring food chemicals that can also bind with iron. Oxalates are a big one.
Oxalates are tiny calcium crystals found in the plant foods we eat. For many people, oxalates pose no real issue and they’re able to safely eliminate them in their urine or bowel movements.
For others, especially people who have an altered gut microbiome (and who lack acidophilus or oxalobacter formigenes (an oxalate-degrading bacteria)), digestive diseases such as Crohn’s or celiac, altered kidney function, or who have gene mutations that make them susceptible to oxalate sensitivity, oxalates can end up wreaking havoc.
Unfortunately there’s no real way to remove significant oxalates from the foods we eat, although boiling high oxalate foods such as potatoes, beans, beets, spinach, and chard can reduce oxalate levels.
If necessary, iron supplementation could be beneficial. Like I mentioned, iron drops and pills do pose temporary risks such as digestive upset and constipation, so there are a few other options.
- Desiccated liver: If the thought of eating liver doesn’t agree with you, you can also take liver in the form of pills to boost your intake. Jill feels that this is one of the best ways to raise iron and ferritin.
- Ferrochel: This is also a highly bioavailable option and is non-constipating.
- Floradix: This is plant-based, so it’s very easy to absorb and is non-constipating.
Important note about Floradix: It’s in a juice base (look at that label) and can really throw blood sugar off unless taken with food. Many in the functional medicine community don’t recommend it for this reason, but it’s been used widely in the hair loss community and many hail the benefits of Floradix for raising not only iron, but also ferritin.
If you’re trying to improve your iron levels based on testing, just remember it starts with your gut health and the foods you’re consuming. Work to heal low stomach acid and/or leaky gut, then put an emphasis on iron-rich foods and perhaps, depending on your situation, limit foods that contain naturally occurring substances that bind with iron.
Foods rich in iron include: spinach, Swiss chard, turnip greens, collard greens, mustard greens, beet greens, romaine lettuce, asparagus, bok choy, sea vegetables, organ meats, bage, sauerkraut, kimchi, leeks, potatoes (skin on), beef, chicken (dark meat), lamb, oysters, tuna, shrimp, clams, mussels, tempeh, natto, miso, peanuts, adzuki beans, garbanzo beans, lima beans, lentils, yogurt, kefir, cumin, parsley, turmeric, basil, oregano, thyme, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, almonds, hazelnuts, cashews, amaranth, buckwheat, millet, oats, quinoa, chili peppers, chili powder, blackstrap molasses, and…dark chocolate (!).