What is plant-based iron used for in the human body?

Iron (Fe) plays a crucial role in our body’s biochemistry. It is an essential micronutrient for all humans and plants. 

Plants have developed strategies to absorb iron through their roots, where it forms chemical complexes. These are then distributed to the seeds, where they are stored in the form of vacuoles or in ferritin. This is very beneficial for human nutrition, since many species have edible seeds1.

Iron can be extracted from plant leaves, such as from curry tree leaves (Murraya koenigii, Rutaceae). Iron obtained through plant leaves is called plant-based iron.

Benefits of iron

For health applications, iron has seven benefits recognised by the EFSA (European Food Safety Agency)2:

  • Contributes to the normal formation of red blood cells and haemoglobin.
  • Helps reduce tiredness and fatigue.
  • Helps to maintain healthy immune system function.
  • Contributes to normal cognitive function.
  • Contributes to normal energy metabolism.
  • Contributes to normal oxygen transport in the body.
  • Contributes to the cell division process.

1. Essential for forming red blood cells

Iron is involved in the formation of red blood cells and haemoglobin in the blood. This means that the ‘manufacture’ of red blood cells in our body is directly linked to iron. European guidelines therefore recommend consuming 14 mg of iron a day.

Approximately 60% of the body’s iron is associated with haemoglobin, the protein found in red blood cells3, and which transports oxygen.

When red blood cells die, haemoglobin is removed and the iron the cells it contains is sent to bone marrow, where new red blood cells are formed. The process of producing red blood cells is called erythropoiesis. Each day, 200 billion red blood cells (RBC) are produced that require over 2 × 1015 iron atoms per second to maintain adequate erythropoiesis4.

2. Helps reduce tiredness and fatigue

It is a well known fact that when we experience persistent tiredness, iron intake can help boost our energy levels

Iron is involved in several very important metabolic processes in the human body. Multiple scientific studies demonstrate that taking iron supplements, which are well tolerated in oral form, will help prevent fatigue (5).

Although iron deficiency is often not detected in problems such as fatigue and lack of concentration, it is a key element: low iron levels can lead to anaemia. 

What is anaemia?6

Anaemia is a condition in which the concentration of red blood cell numbers and haemoglobin is lower than normal and not sufficient to meet a person’s physiological needs7. About one third of the world’s population has anaemia7.

Iron deficiency anaemia

Iron deficiency anaemia is the most common form of anaemia. This shortage causes a problem in the production of the red blood cells that carry oxygen to bodily tissues.

When does iron deficiency anaemia occur?

Iron deficiency anaemia may occur for a variety of reasons6

  • The body loses more blood cells and iron than the body can replace. Anaemia could also occur due to blood loss. For example, during prolonged or heavy menstrual periods or gastrointestinal bleeding. Bleeding can cause iron loss.
  • The body does not absorb iron properly. The body can experience difficulty in absorbing iron due to Coeliac disease, Crohn’s disease or excessive consumption of antibiotics containing tetracycline. 
  • The body absorbs iron correctly, but not enough iron-rich products are being consumed. Anaemia may occur due to lack of iron in the diet, for example in vegan or vegetarian diets, or in diets where not enough iron-containing foods are consumed.
  • During different stages of life, people may require more iron than ‘normal’, for example during pregnancy.

Iron can be replaced in our body through a diet that includes foods containing this mineral, or through supplements with iron extracts of animal or vegetable origin.

Alimentos y plantas fuente de hierro

Anastore’s plant-based iron supplement provides 100% of the recommended daily amount of iron, so offers all the benefits of this mineral. 

Pernicious anaemia 

Pernicious anaemia is a decrease in red blood cells that occurs when the intestines cannot properly absorb vitamin B128

Symptoms of pernicious anaemia may include fatigue, paleness, paraesthesia, incontinence, psychosis, and general weakness. Diagnosis is problematic due to the limited availability of diagnostic tools9

When does pernicious anaemia occur?

The most common causes of pernicious anaemia are8

  • Weakening of the stomach lining (atrophic gastritis).
  • An autoimmune condition in which the body’s immune system attacks the gastric intrinsic factor protein or cells in the lining of the stomach that produce it.

Treatment of pernicious anaemia is aimed at replenishing therapeutic doses of vitamin B12 using intramuscular injections or oral supplements.

3. Aid for the body’s defence

Our body’s iron levels and immunity are closely related. The EFSA therefore states that iron helps to maintain healthy immune system function2. Immune system cells can combat bacterial attack by regulating the flow of iron13. A shortage in the body’s iron levels can negatively affect cells’ ability to respond to a bacterial attack.

4. Keeps our brain active

Iron is an essential mineral for our body because it is involved in the myelination of neurons and in the synthesis of neurotransmitters10. This means it decisively influences cognitive function, the ability to learn, remember information, organise, plan and solve problems; and the ability to concentrate, maintain and distribute attention; understand and use language, correctly recognise (perceive) the environment and perform calculations, among other functions.

Our brain needs iron and other vitamins and elements to perform its functions normally. An imbalance in the levels of these nutrients due to an inadequate diet can be one factor influencing cognitive impairment10

People’s cognitive ability can be influenced by dietary factors, such as foods containing iron. Besides taking food supplements, adequate nutrition is always necessary for optimising brain function and to avoid developing any cognitive impairments10.

5. Contributes to energy production 

Iron helps to maintain normal energy metabolism2. The scientific community has concluded that levels of iron in our body are related to physiological, biochemical and neurological shifts. Research has studied the biological processes that could be the root cause of iron-related irregularities in the immune system, neuronal systems and energy metabolism11.

6.  Contributes to oxygen transport

One reason why this mineral is so crucial to our energy capacity is because it contributes to the normal transport of oxygen in our body2. If our iron levels are low, performance and intense physical activity can be compromised. One scientific study12 analysed the relationship between iron level, physical performance and physical activity. It involved women aged 18 to 45 with iron deficiency and participants with normal iron levels. All underwent physical exertion tests.

The result was that iron-deficient women had a significantly lower VO2 max (maximum amount of oxygen that the body can absorb, transport, and consume in a given time) at the ventilatory threshold, a test that describes respiratory changes associated with increased physical exercise. Women with greater iron deficiency spent significantly more time on sedentary behaviours, and less time carrying out light physical activity.

7. Iron contributes to the cell division process

Cell division consists of cells duplication and those cells’ subsequent division into two. Through this reproduction, the growth of living beings occurs

With recent technological advances and the development of complete transcriptomic, proteomic and metabolic profiles, new knowledge has emerged on how immune cells regulate themselves and are regulated by iron14

Research highlights the relevance of iron to cell division, giving it a crucial role in the process of mitosis, which requires a large amount of energy15.

Sources

  1. Connorton JM, Balk J, Rodríguez-Celma J. Iron homeostasis in plants - a brief overview. Metallomics. 2017 Jul 19;9(7):813-823. doi: 10.1039/c7mt00136c. PMID: 28686269; PMCID: PMC5708359.
  2. COMMISSION REGULATION (EU) No 432/2012 of 16 May 2012 establishing a list of permitted health claims made on foods, other than those referring to the reduction of disease risk and to children’s development and health. 
  3. Beaumont C, Karim Z. Actualité du métabolisme du fer [Iron metabolism: State of the art]. Rev Med Interne. 2013 Jan;34(1):17-25. French. doi: 10.1016/j.revmed.2012.04.006. Epub 2012 May 15. PMID: 22595534.
  4. Muckenthaler MU, Rivella S, Hentze MW, Galy B. A Red Carpet for Iron Metabolism. Cell. 2017 Jan 26;168(3):344-361. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2016.12.034. PMID: 28129536; PMCID: PMC5706455.
  5. Wurzinger B, König P. Eisenmangel, Müdigkeit und Restless-Legs-Syndrom [Iron deficiency, Fatigue and Restless-Legs-Syndrome]. Wien Med Wochenschr. 2016 Oct;166(13-14):447-452. German. doi: 10.1007/s10354-016-0497-3. Epub 2016 Aug 30. PMID: 27577248.
  6. U.S. National Library of Medicine
  7. Chaparro CM, Suchdev PS. Epidemiología, fisiopatología y etiología de la anemia en países de ingresos bajos y medios. Ann NY Acad Sci. Agosto de 2019; 1450 (1): 15-31. doi: 10.1111 / nyas.14092. Epub 2019 22 de abril PMID: 31008520; PMCID: PMC6697587.
  8. U.S. National Library of Medicine.  
  9. Rodríguez NM, Shackelford K. Anemia perniciosa. [Actualizado el 21 de noviembre de 2020]. En: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Enero.
  10. Martínez García RM, Jiménez Ortega AI, López Sobaler AM, Ortega RM. Estrategias nutricionales que mejoran la función cognitiva [Nutrition strategies that improve cognitive function]. Nutr Hosp. 2018 Sep 7;35(Spec No6):16-19. Spanish. doi: 10.20960/nh.2281. PMID: 30351155.
  11. Beard JL. Iron biology in immune function, muscle metabolism and neuronal functioning. J Nutr. 2001 Feb;131(2S-2):568S-579S; discussion 580S. doi: 10.1093/jn/131.2.568S. PMID: 11160590.
  12. Crouter SE, DellaValle DM, Haas JD. Relationship between physical activity, physical performance, and iron status in adult women. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2012 Aug;37(4):697-705. doi: 10.1139/h2012-044. Epub 2012 May 24. PMID: 22624679.
  13. Ward RJ, Crichton RR, Taylor DL, Della Corte L, Srai SK, Dexter DT. Iron and the immune system. J Neural Transm (Vienna). 2011 Mar;118(3):315-28. doi: 10.1007/s00702-010-0479-3. Epub 2010 Sep 29. PMID: 20878427.
  14. Cronin SJF, Woolf CJ, Weiss G, Penninger JM. The Role of Iron Regulation in Immunometabolism and Immune-Related Disease. Front Mol Biosci. 2019 Nov 22;6:116. doi: 10.3389/fmolb.2019.00116. PMID: 31824960; PMCID: PMC6883604.
  15. Robbins E, Pederson T. Hierro: su localización intracelular y posible papel en la división celular. Proc Natl Acad Sci US A. Agosto de 1970; 66 (4): 1244-51. doi: 10.1073 / pnas.66.4.1244. PMID: 4920092; PMCID: PMC335812.