Did you know that iron deficiency can compromise your body’s non-specific immune response?1
Your immune system is comprised of two parts: specific and non-specific immune systems. Put simply, non-specific immunity refers to “general mechanisms your body deploys every day to keep you safe.”2
Non-specific immunity encompasses many mechanisms that act as barriers to protect you and your health from outside viruses, bacterium, and disease-causing microorganisms – also known as “pathogens”. Your skin and the acid your stomach produces to break down food and pathogens that may enter the body through food are two of many examples of non-specific immunity. Non-specific immunity also includes specialized cells that work to find, neutralize, destroy and/or remove pathogens in your body.2
Because iron deficiency degrades non-specific immunity – your body’s first line of defense against pathogens – you are more vulnerable to infection and disease, and other health complications. In fact, frequent infections is a lesser-known symptom of iron deficiency.3
Most of us understand that a healthy, adequately functioning immune system is fundamental to good health. When considering the groups most at-risk for developing iron deficiency, and understanding the role of immunity, we begin to understand the very real ways iron deficiency leads to a ripple effect of possible health complications.
Pregnant & Nursing Women
Women are already more prone to developing iron deficiency than men; pregnancy simply amplifies the risk. Of the two billion worldwide affected, pregnant women are the most affected group, especially those living in poverty. The effects of iron deficiency in pregnancy and lactation range from mild (irritability), to moderate (postpartum depression), to severe (higher risk of death).
When looking specifically at immune function, what might the possible implications be for a pregnant woman and her baby?
A woman’s immune system undergoes complex changes during pregnancy. In order for her body to successfully carry the baby for nine months, her body’s immune system must be strong to avoid illness and communicable diseases, and also to adapt to “tolerate” the fetus.4 One fascinating study from 2007 found that “autoimmune disorders…such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis, undergo remission during pregnancy but ‘flare up’ during the post-partum period.”5 Further, the study found that pregnant women are 70% less likely than non-pregnant women to develop systematic rheumatoid arthritis, but that their risk for developing the disorder markedly increases during the first 3 months of the post-partum period.
How does this relate to iron deficiency? It suggests that it may be possible for a woman to minimize the likelihood, or severity, of an autoimmune disorder flare-up during the post-partum period by supporting her immune system through intaking adequate iron.
Endurance athletes – particularly those who train at the elite or sub-elite level – are more susceptible to iron deficiency thanks to losing iron through dehydration (causing gastrointestinal bleeding or bleeding in the bladder), through sweat, or red blood cell destruction.
Endurance athletes are doubly at risk for weakened immunity, especially over the short-term. Research has found that “prolonged bouts of strenuous exercise can result in a transient depression of immune function”.6 The risk is further amplified for athletes who overtrain.7
Athletes with a weakened immune system can see results such as slower recovery and greater risk of illness or illness-like symptoms such as upper respiratory symptoms (URS) and infections.7 These factors, naturally, undermine athletic performance and progression.
There are easy ways to boost iron levels for endurance athletes, luckily, usually with supplementation, which should be discussed with a medical professional.
Vegans & Vegetarians
The Dietitians of Canada recommend that vegetarians consume almost twice the amount of iron as non-vegetarians, due to the difficulty our bodies have absorbing non-heme (plant-based) iron and the presence of iron-blocking micronutrients in most plant-based diets.
Following a balanced plant-based diet is a healthy way to eat. In fact, studies have shown well-planned, whole food plant-based diets that offer an array of nutrients may actually enhance immunity.8
The tip here is that vegans and vegetarians who have been diagnosed with iron deficiency or are predisposed to iron deficiency should aim to consume a variety of fruits and vegetables and consider supplementation to protect their iron levels, and thus, support their immunity. Like anyone, regardless of dietary preference, weakened immunity increases susceptibility to viruses and infections.
Women with Heavy Menstrual Flow
All women should carefully monitor their iron levels; however women who experience heavy menstrual bleeding – medically referred to as "menorrhagia" – are at an even greater risk for developing iron deficiency than women with average menstrual blood loss.
You may be surprised to learn that a woman’s immune system weakens during ovulation.9 This makes ovulating women more prone to infections from yeast, bacteria and viruses.9
We know there's an existing risk of weakened immunity by way of iron deficiency due to heavy blood loss. So, women suffering from menorrhagia should take special care to consume iron-rich foods and consider iron supplementation throughout their cycles -- particularly immediately before and during ovulation. The gentle dose of iron from the Lucky Iron Fish is an easy way to keep iron levels up, all cycle long.
Women who have menorrhagia or symptoms of it should discuss iron supplementation with a medical professional.