Tag Archives: supplements

What Your Naturally Occurring Iron Levels Say About You

Iron: too much and you’re at risk for liver disease; too little and you’re anemic. As much as 18% of Americans use a supplement containing iron, but a new study published in both the Journal of the American Heart Association and PLoS Medicine made connections between naturally occurring iron levels and more than 900 health conditions.

With more than half a million individuals’ genetic data making it possible, the study focused only on naturally occurring iron levels (as opposed to iron levels impacted by supplementation). Genetic variation leads to different levels of naturally occurring iron among individuals, just like genetic variation leads to blonde and brunette hair or short and tall people.

Interestingly, naturally higher iron levels were associated with potential benefits and potential risks that seemed, at least in part, contradictory. 

Potential Benefits of More Naturally Occurring Iron

People with genetic variants leading to naturally higher iron levels were also (on average) associated with having a lower risk of high cholesterol levels. Too much cholesterol and it’ll build up in the arteries and increase the risk of blocking blood flow. More here

Additionally, naturally higher iron levels were associated with a reduced risk of clogged arteries, like what can happen with excessive cholesterol levels in the blood, which can lead to health conditions like stroke, deep vein thrombosis, and atherosclerosis. 

Potential Health Risks Associated with More Naturally Occurring Iron

The study also found that higher naturally occurring iron levels were linked to higher risk of blood clots as a result of slow blood flow. More on poor circulation here

Higher naturally occurring iron levels was also found to be associated with higher risk of bacterial skin infection.

Making Sense of the Results

In a very unsatisfying conclusion, lead study author Dr. Dipender Gill essentially said that there is still a lot scientists don’t understand about how iron levels influence the relationship between cholesterol levels, circulation, and blood flow-related health conditions like stroke, deep vein thrombosis, and atherosclerosis. 

It’s likely that the same genetic variation responsible for different levels of naturally occurring iron influences individual risk for conditions like high cholesterol, poor circulation, or stroke. Perhaps in future studies, Gill and the research team will control for different factors (age, sex, BMI, etc) to see what health differences make higher naturally occurring levels of iron beneficial versus potentially harmful.

Iron Basics*

As a component of hemoglobin, iron helps carry oxygen around to the body’s tissues like the wheels of a taxi carrying humans from point A to point B. In addition to being oxygen’s preferred form of transportation, iron provides support for:

  • Metabolism
  • Growth and development
  • Normal cellular functioning
  • Hormone production
  • Connective tissue production

So yeah, iron is pretty important. But the name of the game when it comes to iron intake is balance. Too much? Liver damage. Too little? Anemia.

Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) for iron intake vary based on age and, for women, pregnancy status (PSA: these recommendations were developed by the Food and Nutrition Board (FNB) at the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academies (formerly National Academy of Sciences)).

Image credit: National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements

You can get iron from all sorts of dietary sources. Plants like nuts, beans, and vegetables along with iron-fortified foods contain nonheme iron, while meat, seafood, and poultry contain both nonheme and heme iron, which is more biologically available, or bioavailable, for absorption during digestion. Think of it like this: an amount of iron in a piece of steak is more “valuable” to you than the same amount of iron in your spinach salad. Heme iron gives you more bang for your buck. That being said, vegetarians and vegans need to eat a lot more to get enough iron for good health.

Iron Supplements: Synthetic and Whole Food

The average iron supplement provides 18 mg of iron. However, multivitamins for women most always contain iron while multivitamins intended for men and for seniors often do not. Iron-only synthetic supplements typically deliver more than the RDA, as much as 360% (65 mg). 

Whole food iron supplements usually contain a percentage of iron that’s closer to the RDA, closer to 10%. Ingredients in natural supplements based on whole foods are arguably more bioavailable than synthetic supplements because they imitate how those ingredients are found in nature. So the 10% of iron in a whole food supplement will be absorbed in the body at a higher rate than the 360% in the synthetic supplement. Natural supplements that deliver a nutrient in its “natural habitat” – a whole food matrix. This delivery method is more aligned with what the body needs. Although, ultimately a whole food source of iron is the superior choice to any sort of supplementation.

What other questions do you have about iron? Let me know at ScienceKara@gmail.com

*Courtesy of the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements

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To Supplement or Not to Supplement: That Is the Question

TIME reported on a new study this week that ultimately concluded that taking nutritional supplements is not the same as eating a healthy diet. Researchers report that you cannot be truly healthy without getting your nutrients from the source – from fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based foods.

My first thought: We call them “supplements” for a reason, right? They are intended to be “supplemental” to a mostly healthy diet. They are “supplements” not “replacements.”

A second thought: Not all supplements are created equal. I’m certainly not an expert on what makes a nutritional supplement effective or not, and I’m not sure how the scientists from this study qualified a “supplement,” but I do feel compelled to mention briefly the philosophy behind the nutritional supplements produced at Standard Process, my current employer.

An SP Aside

Standard Process produces nutritional supplements using ingredients from their organic farm in Palmyra, Wisconsin. Unlike other supplement companies, they boast a whole-food philosophy. This is based on the science of a whole food matrix, the idea that macronutrients (fat, carbohydrate, protein), micronutrients (vitamins, minerals), and phytonutrients (carotenoids, resveratrol, etc.) are the most bioavailable/biologically active/effective when they are consumed in the natural “matrix” in which they are found in nature. This separates Standard Process and other companies with a similar whole food philosophy apart from supplement companies that simply extract vitamin D or beta-carotene and insert them into a capsule to sell as a supplement.

That being said, I should clarify that my personal philosophy is food first, supplements second (if at all). We may not know for sure what types of supplements are most effective or if any are effective at all at improving nutrition, but you certainly can’t go wrong with getting your nutrition straight from the source (plant foods).

Okay, let’s talk about this new research.

TIME reporter Jamie Ducharme begins the story with two important facts:

I think it’s fair to extrapolate from those two statistics that many of those 90% of Americans that do not eat enough fruits and vegetables are among the 75% who are taking dietary supplements, likely because they know that they aren’t getting enough nutrients from their diet. Fair – it’s certainly easier to pop a pill than to get enough servings of leafy greens every day, but those 75% might be wasting their money on supplements that aren’t giving them the nutrition they really need.

The Study: Annals of Internal Medicine

The study’s main point is this: “nutrients consumed via supplements do not improve health and longevity as effectively as those consumed through foods.” Pretty simple. Supplements are not as good as food. Anyone surprised?

More specifically, researchers report that nutrients consumed through supplements are not as strongly associated with living a longer life as nutrients consumed through food. The data comes from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 1999-2010, including 30,000 American adults as participants who were followed for about six years (at the end of this period, there were more than 3,600 deaths).

Researchers factored in monthly supplement use and dietary habits when establishing nutrient levels for each participant. This data initially led them to the result that dietary supplements are associated with a lower risk of early death, but that result did not hold true with researchers factored in certain other details about the participants: education levels, socioeconomic status, and demographics. After controlling for these variables, researchers found that it was mostly the higher-income and better educated people who were taking supplements, and this group is on average more likely to be healthy anyway. Put another way: for this group, it wasn’t supplement usage that was improving health, it was the impact of wealth and education on health (another story for another day).

The study showed that sufficient consumption of micronutrients like vitamin A, vitamin K, magnesium, zinc, and copper are associated with a lower risk of dying early, but only when obtained from food – not supplements.

Researchers even mentioned potential negative health associations with supplement usage. For example, high doses of calcium via supplement was associated with a 53% higher risk of dying from cancer compared to people who did not take supplements. Excess calcium from food did NOT have that association.

Regulatory Considerations

I think it’s important to note that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) not does not regulate nutritional supplements as tightly or in the same way as “conventional” foods and drugs are regulated. Whether it’s safety or efficacy that one is worried about, the regulatory difference is a significant factor.

Supplements for Specific Populations

Lastly, I’ll highlight that the study scientists did mention that nutritional supplements may provide positive health benefits particularly for two groups:

  • The elderly: because the ability to absorb nutrients from food can decrease with age
  • People with dietary restrictions (allergies, vegan, vegetarian, etc.): because they are more likely to have nutrient deficiencies from lacking certain foods

Take-home Points

  1. While I acknowledge that it’s certainly easier said than done (I struggle in my own life), I agree with study co-author Fang Fang Zhang (Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy) when she recommends that instead of relying on nutritional supplements, people should just eat a healthy diet rich with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  2. There’s always more to the story. That’s why I included my SP aside earlier. The conclusion is never going to be “all supplements are bad” or “all supplements are good.” There are so many factors that affect what makes an effective nutritional supplement, and the only way to truly determine what’s effective and what’s not is to follow reputable research like this study from Zhang and others at Tufts University.