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Many years ago, when living in India as a sadhvi (wandering renunciant) I met a Yogi who had taken a vow to wear white and eat only white food. While this Yogi was definitely pursuing sattva, he was omitting many important nutrients for the rakta dhatu. Iron, in particular, a key component of both hemoglobin and chlorophyll, imparts red or green colors to the foods that contain it. In this article we will look at a few important iron-rich foods and herbs and how they can be incorporated into daily routine to maintain healthy rakta.
First, it is important to note that iron in food occurs in two forms: heme iron and nonheme iron (1). Heme iron is contained within a porphyrin ring structure and is found in hemoglobin (blood) and myoglobin (muscle). Hence heme iron occurs in meats, organ meats, fish and poultry. Nonheme iron may be either ferrous (Fe II) or ferric (Fe III) (1) and is found primarily in plant foods. Once iron is taken in as food, it must be hydrolysed from hemoglobin, myoglobin or the plant ligands that bind it (1). Iron absorption is extremely complex and absorption of ferric iron remains poorly understood to this day; however, well-functioning jatharagni including kledak kapha, pachak pitta ,prana vayu and samana vayu are vital for proper iron absorption.
Various food factors enhance iron absorption, including sugars, acids such as vitamin C (ascorbic acid) and citric acid, as well as meat products. Acids chelate iron, rendering it more readily absorbed (1). Iron absorption is reduced by numerous lifestyle and dietary factors. Tannins in tea and coffee greatly reduce iron absorption (1) by acting as ligands binding the iron, so it is important that patients suffering from anemia do not drink tea or coffee after meals. Chocolate and other foods high in oxalic acid, such as spinach and chard, are well known to bind minerals--and iron is no exception. Phytates found in whole grains and legumes also bind iron, rendering it insoluble (1). And consumption of mineral supplements such as calcium and zinc after meals will result in interactions that will negatively affect absorption of both iron and the other minerals (1).
A typical vegetarian Ayurvedic diet, although iron-rich, is also high in tannins and phytins that reduce the absorption of iron. Pregnant women and those with low serum iron would be well-advised either to use husked dals (such as yellow rather than green mung dal or white rather than black urad) or to sprout legumes before making dals or kitcheris, as this practice greatly decreases the tannin content and so increases the levels of absorbable iron (2). Fermentation-- such as in a sourdough bread or idali--is another method to enhance bioavailability of iron in cereal-based foods (3). Cooking greens in an iron skillet has been found to enhance the biovailable iron content of greens. (4).
Since the liver is the root of rakta vaha srotas, it is not surprising to learn that the liver plays a key part in regulating iron absorption. When iron stores are adequate or excessive, the liver sectretes hepcidin, which both reduces absorption of dietary iron and sequesters the iron being recycled from dead erythrocytes (red blood cells) within the macrophages (1). Thus, through hepcidin secretion, the liver down-regulates iron absorption when iron stores are high and up-regulates it when stores are low.
So we need adequate iron intake and proper absorption and assimilation, but we also need proper transport to deliver the iron to the tissues. Iron in the body is bound to ferritin. Only oxidized ferrous iron can bind to ferritin. The copper- containing proteins hephaestin and ceruloplasmin oxidize iron, readying it for transport to the tissues (1). Hence copper deficiency can lead to impairment of iron delivery. Patients with iron deficiency anemia need a good copper intake via food sources such as leafy dark greens (kale, mustard, turnip, chard), molasses, sesame seeds, mushrooms, asparagus and summer squash (5).
Herbal supplementation plays a vital role in supporting healthy iron levels. An individual who is iron deficient is unlikely to make up all their depleted reserves from food alone, so supplementation is required. Bhringaraj (eclipta alba) is favored for treatment of anemia because it is an excellent iron source (6). Further, it is also a good copper source (7). Triphala is excellent for anemia since both haritaki and bibhitaki are very rich iron sources and are also rich in vitamin C, which aids iron absorption (6). The humble cumin seed rates as an excellent source of iron as well as zinc (8). In addition, cumin tea enhances the absorption of iron from food (9), creating a double benefit in using cumin tea as a remedy for anemia. Anise tea, mint tea and licorice tea similarly enhance iron absorption (9). Mint and licorice are also themselves excellent sources of iron and licorice is high in copper as well (10). Pippali is another good source of iron that also enhances iron absorption (11).
Understanding the food sources of iron, the factors that increase and decrease iron absorption, cooking methods to improve iron absorption within Ayurvedic and vegetarian diets, the importance of copper in iron utilization and the use of herbs and spice teas to supplement iron, we can create a well-reasoned treatment plan for iron deficiency.
1. Gropper, S et al, Advanced nutrition and human metabolism Wadsworth Cengage Learning (2008) ISBN 0495116572
2. Rao, B. S. N. and Prabhavathi, T. (1982), Tannin content of foods commonly consumed in India and its influence on ionisable iron. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 33: 89-96. doi: 10.1002/jsfa.2740330116
3. Indumadhavi M. ; Agte V. Effect of fermentation on ionizable iron in cereal-pulse combinations Effect of fermentation on ionizable iron in cereal-pulse combinations 1992, vol. 27, no2, pp. 221-228
4. Mamatha Kumari , Sheetal Gupta , A. Jyothi Lakshmi and Jamuna Prakash Iron bioavailability in green leafy vegetables cooked in different utensils Food Chemistry Volume 86, Issue 2, June 2004, Pages 217-222
5. http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=nutrient&dbid=53 accessed 2 August 2011
6. Singh,v, Garg AN, Availability of essential trace elements in ayurvedic indian medicinal herbs using instrumental neutron activation analysis Applied radiation and Isotopes Volume 48, Issue 1, January 1997, Pages 97-101. N. GARG
7. Reddy SL, Fayazuddin Md et al Characterisation of bhringaraj and guduchi herb by ICP-MS analysis, optical absorption, infrared and EPR spectroscopic methods Spectrochimica Acta Part A: Molecular and Biomolecular Spectroscopy Volume 71, Issue 1, 1 November 2008, Pages 31-38
8. Muthamma Milan KS, Dholakia H, et al Enhancement of digestive enzymatic activity by cumin (Cuminum cyminum L.) and role of spent cumin as a bionutrient Food Chemistry 110 (2008) 678-683
9. El-Shobaki FA, Saleh Z. A, Saleh N, The effect of some beverage extracts on intestinal iron absorption Chemistry and materials Science Volume 29, Number 4, 264-269, DOI: 10.1007/BF02023083
10. T.M. Ansari ; N. Ikram et al Essential Trace Metal (Zinc, Manganese, Copper and Iron) Levels in Plants of Medicinal Importance Journal of Biological Sciences 2004 4, 2 p95-99
11. Manoj, P., E.V. Soniya, N.S. Banerjee and P. Ravichandran Recent studies on well-known spice, Piper longum Linn. Natural Product Radiance 3, 4, 222--227 2004