Iron deficiency is not just an iron issue

While most people in developed countries today don't think much about their iron levels, nearly a quarter of the global population are thought to be deficient in this essential nutrient. When I learned that a lot of the time, an iron deficiency is *actually* driven by a copper deficiency, I was shocked because I thought of so many people I knew who were supplementing with iron and iron supplements, thinking that this was solving the problem. The truth? Sometimes it's just band-aiding the problem, and actually, the root cause goes way deeper. In this case, into the realm of copper deficiency too!

The holistic health world understands how much deeper this goes than being just 'about iron'. Clinical copper deficiencies are now more frequently becoming recognized as being able to present as anemia, and not only that, but it's being explored the long term copper deficiency (which is very common today) can also lead to reduced functioning of the immune system, collagen loss *AND* neurodegenerative symptoms connected to multiple sclerosis! This stuff is super important, so I'm happy you are here reading about it. 

Let's start with the foundations of understanding iron and iron deficiencies before we get into their connection with copper deficiencies and how to manage this all better. 

So, iron deficiencies start light (showing up as low ferritin levels) and, over time, can develop into low iron saturation in the bloodstream. At this point, it will then progress into an *actual* iron deficiency, also known as microcytic anemia (which is more commonly heard as just anemia). These are the three main types of iron deficiency that you'll see.

The traditional health world will tell you that it is just an iron deficiency from heavy periods or 'just genetic', but the holistic health world goes deeper. Holistic practitioners will understand that there is always a deeper root cause. Chronic infections (particularly viral ones or activation of viruses that should be dormant), absorption issues or deeper bleeds (often from the gut and sometimes driven by long-term reliance on NSAIDs) or hypothyroidism, as well as low dietary intake of iron, can all lead to low ferritin levels and low iron saturation - but for the big guy, the more intense iron deficiency known as microcytic anemia, we need to go one step deeper.

First up, you should get your bloods done, and your gut checked to ensure there is no hidden bleed somewhere in the body. Looking to the gut is a significant place to start because research is beginning to show the compelling role that the gut plays - not only because it is actually the trillions of bacteria in our gut that decide whether we should absorb iron or not, but also because, if we have a leaky gut, our body physically won't be able to absorb anything (iron included) in the way that it intends to.

Once you've ruled out dietary deficiencies, chronic infections, gut dysbiosis, and hypothyroidism as the driver behind your iron issues, it's time to look into copper deficiency.

To understand this, you must understand the connection between copper and hemoglobin.

The vast majority of copper in the blood is tied to ceruloplasmin. Ceruloplasmin is involved with oxidizing iron and helping transfer it around the body through the iron transport protein, moving it so it can finally be built into hemoglobin. The levels of copper in the body are directly related to your ceruloplasmin levels. So lower copper means lower ceruloplasmin levels. And if these levels are low, it means that the body can't do what it needs to do and can't effectively move iron around the body to get it to where it needs to go. This is why low copper levels in the body can lead to low iron levels and, over time, iron deficiency anemia.

It's quite a weird connection, and to understand why this situation might be happening, you need to realize that it isn't unusual that you might be low in copper. The reason for that is that our bodies aren't great at storing copper and in addition to the fact that the foods that are high in copper don't traditionally make it into our diet (like organ meats, for example), it means that our processed-based diets can lead us to be not getting enough copper intake.

Next up is understanding absorption. Sometimes we can take enough copper in but not absorb it properly. Copper absorption takes place in the small intestine and particularly the upper part. Anyone with interference with their digestion (irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn's disease, gut inflammation etc.) will not be absorbing it properly.

This is where NSAIDs appear again because absorption is dependent on stomach acid. Drugs like NSAIDs block the secretion of this acid and inhibit copper uptake. NSAIDs also require copper to activate them (copper is the active metabolite for NSAIDs), so frequent reliance on NSAIDs or long-term use can not only interfere with absorption but actively deplete copper levels too.

Chronic, long term or prolonged stress can deplete copper as well. This is because copper is needed to produce norepinephrine (better known as adrenaline) from dopamine and constant stress triggers the neurotransmitters that will deplete copper (and also Vitamin C). Taking that even further, when the body is stressed, the adrenals then use an enzyme to neutralize the byproduct of the steroid and stress hormones - and this enzyme (known as superoxide dismutase, without getting too technical) ALSO requires copper and zinc as cofactors!! So, if you are long-term stressed, you are likely depleting your copper levels too.

High fructose consumption also increases the demand for this superoxide dismutase, and considering how many high-fructose corn syrups are in the American food system and daily diet; these can also interfere with how our body is supposed to work too.

Understanding the connection to zinc is so important too. Copper levels are also intrinsically linked to zinc levels in the body. They work in a delicate balance that needs to be fine-tuned with attention, and the reason for this is that if you have high zinc levels, this can suppress copper absorption, which, in turn, will stop iron absorption. So, anyone who has been supplementing with zinc, or been following a heavily plant-based diet for a long time now, needs to be aware of this because it's likely that you may be over supplementing to the detriment of copper (and iron). It's the same with hypothyroidism because zinc and selenium are critical for thyroid function, so when the body is not absorbing these properly, or have too much of them, it impacts the delicate balance of the thyroid and can exacerbate a hypothyroidism cycle.

Taking it one step further, if you've ever been taking chelating agents like chlorophyll, oxalic acid, citric acid, you could also be removing copper from your body in the process.

So, suffering from low iron levels and want to take control of this situation? Want to take control of your copper intake? Don't know how to balance it with your zinc? Here are your top tips and tricks:

  • Get your bloods done to see what you are working with in terms of, at the bare minimum, iron, zinc, and copper;
  • Increase copper-rich foods into your diet - beef liver, dark chocolate, sunflower seeds, cashews, chickpeas, raising, lentils, hazelnuts, dried apricots, avocado, sesame seeds, quinoa, turnip greens, shiitake mushrooms, and more.
  • Supplements - look into Beef Liver Capsules by Ancestral Supplements, and a high-quality bee pollen that is thought to be a potent support for iron absorption within the body. We also love the AOR Zinc-Copper balance to ensure you are supplementing zinc and copper in a balanced manner;
  • Reduce NSAID intake / reliance immediately;
  • Reduce chronic stress (try outdoor walks, grounding, therapy, somatic bodywork, reduced caffeine intake, etc)

These are great places to start but make sure you don't go crazy overnight. Copper can also be toxic in large amounts, so it is important to go on this journey with blood work to support and the nurturing guidance from a health practitioner who understands the intricacy of the human body to minimize follow-on impacts.

I hope you took some value into this. If you or a loved one are struggling with low iron levels, please look into this more.


Jena x