A Nutritionist’s Guide to Iron Supplements

Published on November 20, 2019

Iron is an essential mineral to consume through our diet. Without enough iron in our body, we cannot make hemoglobin, the substance in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body. Iron is also essential for delivering oxygen to all of our tissues and cells so that they can produce energy. It plays a role in our antioxidant systems, and is necessary for our cytochrome enzymes in our liver to process drugs, caffeine, and hormones. About 2/3 of the iron in our body is found in hemoglobin of red blood cells. The remainder is found in the liver, spleen, and bone marrow. The only way we can eliminate iron from the body is through the blood (bleeding). We don’t have a way to get rid of excess iron in the body because it is always bound to proteins, and we can store excess iron as ferritin in the liver, and re-utilize it. We use ferritin first when the body is low in dietary iron. However, when we have too much circulating iron—either supplementary or dietarily—we store excess iron in the heart and pancreas (which is not good). It is a fine balance to make sure we are consuming enough, but not too much, iron in our diets everyday through a variety of different foods.

Plant-Based Iron vs. Animal-Based Iron vs. Conventional Iron Supplements

Our body is highly capable of absorbing iron from food sources above all others, and the phrase, “You are what you eat”, is much more accurate when we say, “We are what we absorb”. Food-sourced iron is the ideal form for the body to utilize and is easier on the digestive system to process. Some foods that are high in iron include oysters, eggs, brown rice, kidney beans, lamb, blackstrap molasses, spinach, and lean ground beef.

Plant sources of iron (known as non-heme iron) are ideal for those following a vegetarian or vegan diet, and typically have slightly lower levels of iron content per serving. Animal-based iron sources are a combination of non-heme and heme iron. Heme iron itself is generally easier to absorb, however the majority of our iron intake is non-heme iron (plant based + eggs + dairy) with additional heme iron intake through red meat, if we are not following a vegetarian or vegan diet. One is not necessarily better than the other, but variety in our food choices is the key.

Conventional iron supplements are usually not derived from food sources, and contain approximately 18 mg-60 mg of iron per dose. These are made from iron fillings dissolved in sulfuric or hydrochloric acids. This renders a non-soluble form of iron that is then dehydrated into an iron salt. When we consume supplemental iron in this form, this is a concentrated dose of iron, often with tablet fillers included. Although supplemental iron is effective at raising our iron levels, the body has a hard time digesting single doses of iron salt without the accompanying minerals, nutrients, and antioxidants provided through whole food sources. Thus, side effects of conventional iron supplementation may include stomach pain and constipation, leading many to concurrently take a laxative alongside their iron supplement.

Considering Iron Supplements

Pouring Gaia Herbs Plant Force Liquid Iron into a mug

There are many reasons we may be low in iron. Following a vegetarian or vegan diet, experiencing heavy monthly periods, and some red blood cell related conditions are common reasons our iron levels may be low. Pregnancy may also require extra iron in the diet or through supplementation. It is generally more common for women to need to supplement with iron (due to heavy monthly bleeding), while it is more uncommon for men to need iron supplementation. Blood testing is highly recommended before beginning to supplement with iron to know if there is a current deficiency (more on this below).

What Makes Gaia Herbs Plant Force Liquid Iron® Different?

When it comes to iron supplementation, quality and absorbability are the most important factors. Gaia Herbs Plant Force Liquid Iron® utilizes plants and herbs rich in nutrients, antioxidants, and of course iron, to deliver a highly bioavailable and absorbable form of iron the body can quickly use. The synergistic nutrients of Beet root, Dandelion, Fennel, Nettle, Parsley, Rice, Sea Buckthorn, Star Anise, and Yellow Dock are blended with water, organic honey, and citric acid to form a delicious sweet orange flavored syrup that is free of any fillers and binders. It is non-constipating, easy on the digestive system, and safe for use in pregnancy and breastfeeding women. Each 10 mL serving contains 10 mg of elemental (absorbable) iron, and with appropriate daily dosing, can help to maintain healthy iron levels.* Being a liquid, it also provides the extra benefit of adjusting your daily dose to exactly what you need.

Gaia Herbs PlantForce Liquid Iron laying on table

Formulated and blended in North Carolina, Gaia Herbs uses only the highest quality and rigorously tested sources of herbs and nutrients in their formulas. Their Plant Force Liquid Iron is free of pesticides, microbes, and heavy metals. They use DNA testing to make sure that every herb you read on the label is exactly what is inside the bottle. Check your batch of Plant Force Liquid Iron® with Meet Your Herbs.

Nutritionist’s Note: It is recommended that before you begin supplementing with iron, have your iron levels tested via blood testing to note if you are in fact deficient and in need of supplementation, and if so, what dose of iron you would require in supplement form. This is done through a CBC (Complete Blood Count). It is also helpful to have an Iron Panel (for serum iron, transferrin, total iron binding globulin capacity, and % saturation of your iron transport proteins) and having your ferritin tested (for stored iron) as well. After you begin supplementing with iron, have your iron levels re-checked every 3-4 months to note changes in your iron levels, and to know if you need to discontinue use once your iron levels are within a healthy range (and your diet has a good variety of iron rich foods included every day). If you are pregnant, have a medical condition or take medications, please consult with your doctor before using Gaia Herbs Plant Force Liquid Iron®.

Article and Photographs by Lindsay Kluge (@gingertonicbotanicals)

Lindsay Kluge MS, CNS, LDN, is a clinical herbalist and nutritionist, blogger, teacher and writer based in Lexington, VA. She is the creative spirit behind Ginger Tonic Botanicals, her wellness and herbal blog where she muses on herbal teas, simple nutritious recipes, and outdoor adventures to connect more deeply with the plant world. She spends much of her time as adjunct faculty with the Maryland University of Integrative Health teaching nutrition students, and contributes research, writing, stories, and herbal related articles to publications worldwide. Outside of her home office, you’ll find her backpacking the Blue Ridge Mountains with her dog, Gromit, pressing flowers around the fields of her home, rock climbing everywhere she can, and tending a quaint organic vegetable and herb garden.