Zinc: The antioxidant that’s stronger than iron

While some iron is needed to keep the body functioning optimally, too much of a good thing can be a problem. For women taking iron supplements, it might be a good idea to add some zinc to your regimen to keep the effects of iron in check.

The rusty mineral

Low iron stores can cause anemia, depression, learning difficulties, hair loss, difficulty concentrating, and heavy menstrual periods. Many women of childbearing age—especially those in developing countries—are deficient in iron, prompting groups like the World Health Organization to advise them to take iron supplements.

The problem with taking iron is that it is prone to oxidation in the body. Think of a hammer that is left out in the rain—the rust that forms is a product of oxidation. Similarly, tissues in the body can be damaged by oxidation of iron. Zinc is a well known antioxidant—a substance capable of offsetting the negative effects of oxidation.

The new study, which was published in the Journal of Nutrition, looked at how zinc might help counter the unwanted effects of iron supplements, while still allowing people to reap the benefits. To test this idea, women between 22 and 31 years old were given 50 mg of iron every day for eight weeks; during the next eight weeks, they were given 25 mg of zinc (as zinc gluconate) per day in addition to the iron. They took the supplements at different times of the day.

During the iron-only period, iron stores increased, but so did oxidative stress in the body. When iron and zinc were combined, iron levels still improved; however, the antioxidant effects of zinc helped to counteract the ill effects of iron.

Where’s the zinc?

For a zinc boost, try adding some raw pumpkin seeds to your breakfast cereal or muffins. Oysters are exceptionally high in zinc, containing 77 mg in just six oysters. King crab, venison, and beef are also rich zinc sources.

Iron, without a pill

If you are looking for ways to keep your iron levels up without taking a supplement, try some of these ideas:

• Cook in a cast iron pan. Iron is released from the pan during cooking, especially when the ingredients are acidic, like tomato sauce.

• Go ahead—eat your meat. While many plant sources contain iron, it’s not as absorbable as the form found in meat. Limit red meat consumption to no more than eight ounces per week, and make sure you choose lean cuts. Wild game meats are great sources of iron; they also contain healthier fats than grain-fed meat.

• Drink some o.j. with an iron-rich meal. The vitamin C in orange juice can help boost iron absorption.

• Don’t mix your milk and iron. Calcium and iron compete for absorption in the body; if you’re loading up on an iron-rich steak for dinner, wait till breakfast to have a glass of milk. Also, limit your black tea, green tea, and coffee consumption. These beverages can interfere with iron absorption when you drink them with a meal.

If you have iron deficiency-anemia or low iron stores, you may need an iron supplement in addition to trying the tips listed above. Talk with your doctor before starting an iron supplement, as a percentage of the population is unable to eliminate iron from the body, which may lead to an unhealthy build-up.

(J Nutr 2008;138:2186–9)

Kimberly Beauchamp, ND

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