Iron and Vitamin C: Why You Should Pair the Two Nutrients
Iron is an essential mineral nutrient and a key player in both the cardiovascular and respiratory systems. It is mainly acquired through diet because the human body cannot synthesize it.
Vitamin C is also an essential element that plays a crucial role in multiple physiological functions.
Some nutrients work perfectly together, while others inhibit each other’s functionality. So, are iron and vitamin C, a dynamic duo or parallel nutrients?

Keep reading, and you will find out.
In this article, we look at the importance of iron in the body and vitamin C’s effect on iron absorption. We also look at dietary sources of both nutrients and how to plan your diet to maximize nutrient absorption.
Understanding Vitamin C
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is a water-soluble and essential vitamin for humans, it is also one of the most researched vitamins in the world.
It plays an important role in the formation and maintenance of bones, cartilage, teeth, gums and blood vessels because it is a vital component of collagen, an essential protein that constitutes connective tissue.
Tissue damage caused by free radicals or other oxidants can damage DNA and impair the production of new cells. Ascorbic acid is required for the synthesis of collagen, which may help protect connective tissue from damage caused by free radicals.
In addition to its role in connective tissue formation, vitamin C acts as an antioxidant protecting against free radical damage in other parts of the body such as muscles and blood vessels.
Vitamin C also plays a vital role in the formation of red blood cells and helps maintain healthy bones and nerves by supporting certain enzymes involved in the synthesis and storage of neurotransmitters.
The human body cannot store ascorbic acid, so it must be obtained from dietary sources daily. Vitamin C is obtained from many fruits and vegetables such as strawberries, bell peppers, broccoli and potatoes.
Types of Vitamin C
There are two types of dietary vitamin C:

  • Ascorbic acid and
  • Dehydroascorbic acid.

Dehydroascorbic acid is found in foods or supplements and is absorbed better than ascorbic acid (Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry).

According to some recent research, vitamin C may play a role in preventing cardiovascular disease.

A double-blind trial conducted at the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University suggests that a high intake of vitamin C may reduce the risk of heart disease because it reduces oxidant stress on low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C).

Iron and Its Role in the Human Body
Iron is one of the most abundant metals found in the human body. It plays an important role in the formation of proteins and red blood cells. Iron is a vital component of the enzyme that facilitates the conversion of sugars and starches into energy.
When iron levels are low, our bodies lack the fuel for energy production and this can cause fatigue. In addition, our bodies need iron to carry oxygen from our lungs to all of our tissues.

Iron and vitamin C

If we have too little iron, we may experience shortness of breath or feel tired even when we have plenty of oxygen in our system. This well-known relationship between oxygen and iron helps us understand why iron deficiency is so common among endurance athletes and vegetarians who eat a lot of fiber.

Iron is also essential to the synthesis of hemoglobin and myoglobin. Hemoglobin is a protein in the red blood cells that transports oxygen from the lungs to other body organs. It also transports carbon dioxide away from body organs to the lungs for exhalation.

Myoglobin is a protein found in skeletal muscle cells that stores oxygen reserves in the muscles. 70% of the iron in the body is found in hemoglobin and myoglobin cells.

Iron is, therefore, an essential element for the optimal functioning of all muscles and organs in the body and human metabolism.

Types of Dietary Iron
The two types of dietary iron are heme and non-heme.
Heme Iron
Heme iron comes from animal sources such as red meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products.
Non-heme iron
Non-heme iron comes from plant sources such as fruits, vegetables and grains. Your body absorbs heme iron much more easily than it absorbs non-heme iron. You can boost the amount of non-heme iron absorbed by eating foods rich in vitamin C at the same time you eat high-iron foods because vitamin C helps your body absorb the non-heme iron in plants.
Vegetarians have a higher risk of low iron levels due to the fact that many plant-based foods contain non-heme iron, which isn’t as readily absorbed as heme iron found in animal products.
Iron Absorption
Once ingested, iron is transported through the digestive tract to the intestines. It is then converted to either of two absorbable iron forms, namely heme and non-heme iron.
Most iron is absorbed in the duodenum section of the intestines. The heme and non-heme iron are absorbed via the mucosal cells of the duodenum. Part of the iron is absorbed into the bloodstream and taken to respective organs and cells.
The rest of the absorbed iron is stored in a protein called ferritin, which constitutes the body’s iron stores. The iron stores range for a healthy male is 600-1000mg, while for a healthy female, it is 200-300mg.
Iron and vitamin c go together because ascorbic acid encourages iron absorption.
Iron Deficiency
Despite iron being an essential element, a lot of people suffer from iron deficiency. Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world, affecting more than 2 billion people. The problem can be caused by a lack of dietary iron or a lack of absorption of existing iron stores.
The worst affected demographic are women in the reproductive age bracket, expectant women, and young children.
Vegans and vegetarians are also susceptible to iron deficiency because the non-heme iron present in plant foods is less absorbable.
Iron deficiency occurs as the iron stores get depleted. It occurs in stages, the most extreme of which is iron deficiency anemia (IDA).
The first stage of iron deficiency or mild deficiency occurs when iron is depleted in the bone marrow. If mild deficiency goes unchecked, it progresses to marginal deficiency where iron stores run out, but hemoglobin levels aren’t affected.
IDA or “tired blood” occurs when hemoglobin levels drop. Iron deficiency’s major effect is energy loss because the body’s metabolic capacity is low hence “tired blood.”
Fortunately, you can get tested for iron deficiency before it progresses to IDA.
Iron and Vitamin C: How Does Ascorbic Acid Encourage Iron Absorption
Vitamin C has a great impact on iron absorption. The vitamin, also known as Ascorbic acid, is a powerful antioxidant that has the ability to reduce free radicals and enhance the rate of iron absorption into the body.
When you consume Vitamin C along with meals, it helps to increase the bioavailability of non-heme iron from plant-based foods as well as from animal sources.
Tannins in plant foods slow down iron absorption. To help prevent tannin interference with iron absorption, take Vitamin C along with plant-based foods or during meals.
Similarly, calcium in food binds with iron and decreases its absorption. Take Vitamin C to maximize your body’s absorption of iron obtained from food sources.
Iron is a mineral found in every cell and tissue in the human body. It helps carry oxygen throughout the blood and gives red blood cells their colour. Heme iron comes mainly from meat, fish, poultry and eggs while non-heme iron comes mainly from plant-based foods like vegetables, fruits, seeds and nuts.
Iron deficiency stems in part from its absorption. As previously stated, non-heme iron is by the body. Secondly, some compounds such as polyphenols and phytates found in other foods inhibit iron absorption.
However, Vitamin C improves the absorption of iron as follows.
Enhancing non-heme iron absorption
Non-heme iron is less absorbable than heme iron because it difficult to absorb via a different pathway from heme iron. Second, non-heme iron easily binds to a group of elements called ligands that tend to bind to metals and proteins.
Once it bond to ligands present in your diet is used up for other purposes before absorption.Vitamin C in the form of ascorbic acid bonds with non-heme iron to form an iron chelate complex. The iron chelate complex passes through the intestine mucosal cells easier than non-heme iron.
But for the ascorbic acid to be effective, you have to take it alongside iron in your meal.
Reversing the effects of iron absorption inhibitors.
Compounds like polyphenols and phytates inhibit iron absorption on a dose-dependent basis; the higher their content in food the less iron is absorbed. Polyphenols and phytates are present in healthy foods like nuts, beans, legumes, berries, and even some vegetables like spinach.
Since the food sources containing polyphenols and phytates are rich in other nutrients, you cannot exclude them from your diet.
Research studies show that ascorbic acid counters the inhibitory effect of polyphenols and phytates on iron absorption.
Reduces competition
Most metal nutrients including magnesium, copper, and chromium are also absorbed in the duodenum alongside iron. The high competition for nutrient absorption is another inhibiting factor for iron absorption.
By forming an iron chelate complex, ascorbic acid eliminates competition by other nutrients.
What is the Daily Recommended Intake for Iron?
A man has an RDA of 8 mg per day, while a woman needs 18 mg daily. This doesn’t mean that they should limit themselves to exactly this intake, though. In fact, there are many foods that contain more iron than what’s considered to be “adequate.”
Still, tissue needs for iron increase at different times in your life. When you’re pregnant, for example, your body needs more iron to make a baby’s blood supply and to support the growth of the placenta.
Your body also needs more iron during adolescence — in girls, this can lead to irregular periods and in boys, it can cause testicular pain, delayed sexual development and impotence.
It’s best to get most of your iron from whole foods — a surefire way to get the nutrient in its natural form. But if you’d prefer to take it as a supplement, do research on how much you need — and how much you can safely take without getting too much.
Understanding Iron Supplements
Iron deficiency is a common cause of anemia. In the United States, about 1 in 10 women of childbearing age have iron-deficiency anemia. Iron deficiency is the most common cause of anemia.
Treatment with iron supplements should be done under a doctor’s supervision. Vitamin C helps your body absorb iron and improves your appetite, which can help you eat a balanced diet that includes foods rich in iron.

Iron and vitamin C

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved two types of oral iron supplements: ferrous sulfate and ferrous fumarate. These supplements contain elemental iron, which is absorbed best by the body.

Other forms of oral iron are not well absorbed, including most vitamins and minerals that contain only non-elemental iron, such as ferrous gluconate and ferrous succinate.

Some people who take these supplements experience side effects such as constipation and nausea. To minimize these effects, start with a low dose when first taking the supplement.

Important considerations when using iron supplements
Iron supplements can be an easy solution to low levels of iron in your diet, but they’re not without drawbacks. Iron is a mineral that is essential to the formation of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen around the body.
Tannins found in some foods can interfere with the absorption of iron from supplements. These foods include tea, coffee, cocoa and many fruits. If you eat these foods at the same time as taking iron supplements, you may want to take your iron supplement several hours before or after eating them.
Other vitamins and minerals have an impact on the absorption of iron. For example, calcium can reduce iron absorption; zinc increases it.
The best way to maximize the effectiveness of an iron supplement is to take it with vitamin C-rich foods or juices because Vitamin C helps increase its absorption. You can also drink a glass of milk to help maximize your intake of supplemental iron.
Side effects
The most common side effects are nausea, stomach pain and constipation. Side effects are more common in children than adults and are more likely if you take large doses of iron supplements or if you take them with antacids.
If any side effects manifest — such as nausea, vomiting or diarrhea — stop taking your supplement for a few days and then begin again at a lower dose
Toxicity Concerns
Iron can be toxic in high amounts. However, the amount of iron that’s included in multivitamins is highly regulated and generally safe for most healthy people.
Pregnant women should consult their doctor before taking an iron supplement, as too much iron can increase the risk of anemia in both mother and baby. Excess iron can also damage the liver and kidneys.
Other Considerations
Some people are at higher risk for iron deficiency than others. People on acid blockers or proton pump inhibitors for conditions such as heartburn or stomach ulcers may have trouble absorbing dietary iron.
Those with inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis may also have trouble absorbing it, as well as those who have had gastric bypass surgery or who have celiac disease.
If you are at higher risk for low levels of iron in your blood, consider talking to your doctor about whether an iron supplement is right for you.
How to Pair Iron and Vitamin C in Your Diet
The recommended daily dietary intake of iron is 8.8mg for men and 14.8mg for women. You can reach this iron intake target by incorporating iron-rich foods into your diet.
A food type considered rich in a certain nutrient contains at least 20% of the nutrient’s daily recommended intake.
Some animal dietary sources of iron include red meat, poultry, salmon, shellfish, and animal organs like the liver. Plant-based sources of non-heme iron include legumes, soy, nuts, seeds, whole grains, coconut milk, and leafy green vegetables like kale and spinach.
Remember that for enhanced absorption of iron to occur, you have to take your iron-rich food alongside vitamin C. Both dietary vitamin C and vitamin C oral supplementation enhance iron absorption.
You can start your day with a bowl of oats garnished with strawberries. For lunch, enjoy and enjoy a salad with fresh tomatoes and cashew garnish.
For dinner, enjoy some meat with a side of quinoa rainbow salad with orange slices.
If sourcing for and preparing iron-rich foods is a tall order for you, iron supplements will do. Take iron supplements with a vitamin C beverage like orange juice instead of water.
More Tips to Pair Iron and Vitamin C
Trying to get more iron in your diet? You may want to think about pairing it with vitamin C-rich foods. Vitamin C helps your body absorb non-heme iron – found in leafy greens, legumes and fortified cereals – from foods. Here are some tips to pair iron with vitamin c in your diet:
Eat more vitamin C-rich fruit.
Citrus fruits such as oranges and grapefruits are a great way to start your day and add more vitamin C to your diet. Add them to salads or have a glass of orange juice. Other fruits high in vitamin C include strawberries, melons, kiwis and papayas.
Toss vitamin C-rich veggies into stews or chilis.
To add more vitamin C to your meals, toss various vegetables such as broccoli, kale and spinach into soups, chilis and stews. These vegetables are also high in iron.
Note: When pairing iron and vitamin C, be aware of interactions that can occur between these two nutrients.
For example, drinking coffee with meals can inhibit the absorption of non-heme iron. If you like coffee or tea with meals, wait at least an hour after eating before enjoying them so you don’t limit the amount of iron your body absorbs from food sources.
Understanding Iron Toxicity
Iron can be an essential nutrient, but it’s also dangerous when taken in excess. Iron toxicity occurs when too much iron builds up in the body. This can happen if you take too many iron supplements or if you have certain medical conditions that cause your body to absorb too much iron.
Most cases of toxicity are accidental overdoses from taking too many iron pills. Iron toxicity symptoms are hard to miss. They include:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Low blood pressure
  • Pale skin
  • Unusual tiredness and weakness

If you experience any of these symptoms after taking iron supplements, you may be experiencing iron toxicity. If this is the case, remove the supplement immediately and let your doctor know what’s going on. If left untreated, this condition could lead to complications such as heart or lung failure.

Causes of Iron Overdose
Taking too many iron supplements is the most common cause of iron toxicity. Medical conditions that cause your body to absorb more than normal amounts of iron can also cause an overdose. These conditions include:

  • Iron-refractory anemia – Anemia that isn’t responsive to any other form of treatment except high doses of oral or intravenous (IV) iron
  • Hemochromatosis – A genetic disorder that causes the body to absorb too much dietary iron and store it in organs such as the liver, heart, pancreas, joints and skin.
  • Blood transfusions – If you receive too much blood during a transfusion, you may suffer from iron toxicity.

Treating iron toxicity depends on the severity of your symptoms. If you suspect an overdose of iron supplements or have other symptoms of iron poisoning, call 911 immediately.
Last Words on Iron and Vitamin C
We have established that iron and vitamin C literally better together. Whether taken from food sources or as supplements both nutrients will improve your iron levels. They improve the functioning of your body as a whole.