Iron deficiency is thought to be one of the causes of secondary RLS. Secondary RLS is when the troubled legs are the result of a complication of a certain condition or the result of a health-related factor, such as iron deficiency.
In this blog I want to take a closer look at this:
- What is iron?
- What are the consequences of an iron deficiency and what are the risk groups?
- Which foods contain iron?
- Is iron measurable in blood tests and which iron supplements are there?
What is iron
- As heme iron
- As a non-heme iron
Heme iron is better absorbed by the body and is only found in animal products. Non-heme iron is found in both animal and vegetable products.
Vitamin C ensures that non-heme iron is better absorbed. Grains, legumes, coffee and tea actually hinder the absorption of non-heme iron. Products with calcium (such as dairy) are unfavorable for the absorption of both heme iron and non-heme iron.
Iron is important for the formation of hemoglobin. This is part of red blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen around the body. You also need iron to produce energy in body cells. Iron contributes to the normal functioning of the immune system and is indispensable for the production of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin.
The human body contains an average of 4 to 5 grams of iron. It occurs in the body with a variety of auxiliary agents, including:
Ferritin is a protein and is mainly used for the storage of iron in the liver, spleen, bone marrow and muscles. Transferrin transports iron through the blood and plays a role in the defense system against infections.
Vegetarians and vegans mainly consume non-heme iron and must therefore pay extra attention, to ensure they get enough iron. Girls and women of childbearing age who are still menstruating, as well as pregnant and breastfeeding women are also more likely to have iron deficiency. Growing children, the elderly, people with intestinal complaints and (intensive) athletes are also referred to as risk groups.
Signs of possible iron deficiency are:
- Pale skin
- Hair loss and brittle nails
- Out of breath quickly
- Restless legs
The Nutrition Center indicates that the chance of an iron deficiency with a balanced diet is not that great. However, an organization such as Orthokennis Foundation (from Orthomolecular Medicine) is of the opinion that an iron deficiency does occur regularly.
What food contains iron
Heme iron is only found in animal products such as meat and fish. Beef and lamb contain relatively more heme iron than other animal foods.
Non-heme iron is found in both animal and vegetable food. Egg and meat substitutes contain only non-heme iron. Examples of foods with non-heme iron are:
- Whole-wheat products
- Leafy vegetables and beets
- Dried fruit
Not everyone needs the same amount of iron per day. Women of childbearing age need more than men because of their monthly blood loss. In pregnant women and in nursing mothers, the daily requirement is even higher. From the menopause, there is generally no longer a difference between men and women in terms of iron requirements.
About 25% of heme iron is absorbed by the body. With non-heme iron this is about 10%. Vegetarians and vegans have to eat relatively more to get the same amount of iron.
Blood tests and supplements
If you are dealing with restless legs, you can have your iron measured by blood tests at the doctor. You may benefit from taking extra iron. There are different levels of iron that can be measured during a blood test.
For restless legs it is the ferritin content that matters. The ferritin level in the blood is a good measure of the total iron supply in the body. Studies have shown that people with restless legs benefit from a higher level than a doctor normally takes. The doctor will normally assume a level that should not be below 20 mcg/l. In people with restless legs, the level should not be below 50 mcg/l. If that is the case, an iron supplement may be a beneficial measure.
Iron preparations are available in tablets and dietary supplements in the form of powder, capsules, drops. Some are for sale at the drugstore, others you can get – with or without prescription – at the pharmacy. Don’t be your own doctor, but have your blood tested first. You can also get too much iron. This can be detrimental to your health.
How long the iron preparations have to be taken depends on how big the shortage is and how much iron the body needs. Iron is best absorbed on an empty stomach. Normally it takes 40 to 50 days for the reserves to be replenished. Possible side effects are stomach pain or constipation.
Have you ever had your iron level measured?