The best time to take your iron supplement for maximum absorption, according to dietitians

Do you feel low energy, short of breath, dizzy or cold more often than usual? If these symptoms sound familiar, you may be wondering if you have an iron deficiency, a condition also called anemia. Iron deficiency is recognized as the most common nutritional deficiency in the world. It is estimated that 30% of the population is affected by low iron levels.

Iron is a mineral that helps form hemoglobin, a component of red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body to maintain energy levels, says Hannah Van Ark, MS, RD, founder of Plant Forward Nutritionist. Fortunately, you can restore your iron stores by making changes to your diet and taking iron supplements.

Iron supplements, however, can be a bit fickle. That’s why it’s important to take the iron supplement at the right time of day and with the right food. Read on to learn how to improve iron absorption so your body can reap the benefits of supplements.

Factors affecting the absorption of iron supplements

Form of iron supplements

You can buy different types of iron supplements. The two main categories? Ferric iron and iron. (You can tell what your product contains by turning it over and looking at the supplement data label.)

Among the options, ferrous iron supplements, such as ferrous bisglycinate, ferrous sulfate, ferrous fumarate, and ferrous gluconate, outperform their ferrous counterparts in terms of absorption, Van Ark says. In fact, ferrous iron supplements typically have absorption rates three to four times higher than ferrous iron. Therefore, ferric iron supplements are the best option for better absorption.

Foods you take them with

Some nutrients and other compounds in food make it difficult for iron to be absorbed. For example, calcium from dairy products and protein from egg yolks can reduce iron absorption when consumed in large amounts along with iron supplements, Van Ark says. These are often the same foods we eat for breakfast. She recommends taking iron supplements separately from eggs and dairy to maximize absorption.

Similarly, polyphenols, phytates and oxalates, compounds found in plant-based foods, can bind with iron to impair iron absorption, adds Van Ark. Because of these interactions, it’s best not to take an iron supplement with oxalate-rich foods like spinach, chard, nuts, cocoa, and tea or foods higher in phytates like grains and legumes, she explains.

On the other hand, there are also nutrients that improve the absorption of iron. One of the most powerful is vitamin C, says Lizzy Swick, MS, RD, women’s health dietitian and founder of Lizzy Swick Nutrition. To get this benefit, he suggests pairing your iron supplement with foods rich in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, bell peppers, tomatoes, strawberries, white potatoes, and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts. Beta-carotene can also help increase absorption. The carotenoid is found in many bright orange foods, such as carrots, sweet potatoes, and winter squash, Van Ark says.

Other supplements

Be aware of other supplements you are taking and if you are combining them all. For example, (as noted above) calcium decreases iron absorption, so if you’re also taking a calcium supplement, take it about two hours apart from your iron supplement. Also, there is some evidence that iron and zinc are not a perfect pair when taken together. If you’re also taking zinc, one study suggests taking zinc first, then iron, to improve your response to iron.

Drug interactions

Stomach acid helps the body absorb iron. The thing is, if you take an antacid or proton pump inhibitor to counteract acid reflux or heartburn, be aware that these can interfere with your stomach acid production and change your pH level, reducing iron absorption, so take these two one to two hours apart., This is just one of the iron-drug interactions to be aware of (iron can also affect how well some medications work). It’s always a good idea to review your prescription and over-the-counter medications (and supplements) and ask your doctor or pharmacist how they may interact.

Schedule with meals

To get the most out of each dose of your iron supplements, it’s best to take them on an empty stomach, at least an hour before a meal or two hours after a meal, says Swick. However, there are disadvantages to reducing iron supplements in the absence of food intake. Some people may experience digestive discomfort, including nausea, vomiting, heartburn, stomach cramps, and constipation.

Should these symptoms appear, Swick says it’s okay to take your supplement with or at the end of a meal to avoid unpleasant side effects. If taken with a meal, she recommends eating fruits and vegetables rich in vitamin C. Avoid taking iron with coffee, tea, dairy or high-fiber foods, Van Ark says. Research suggests that taking orange juice with iron can increase absorption four times compared to taking it with coffee or breakfast.

Morning vs evening

To further optimize iron absorption, Swick says the best time of day to take your iron supplement is in the morning. This is because iron is tightly regulated by a peptide hormone called hepcidin. When hepcidin levels are high, iron absorption is low, and vice versa. Recent research has revealed that hepcidin levels tend to be higher later in the day than in the morning. That is why the morning can be a window of opportunity for a better absorption of iron.

However, it is important to recognize that the morning may not be ideal for everyone. For example, pregnant people often experience morning sickness that makes it difficult to eat or take supplements. In this case, taking iron later in the day is reasonable. Van Ark and Swick note that the most important thing is to create a routine and take your iron supplement at the time of day that makes you feel your best so that you stay consistent.

Expert recommendations for iron supplements

Take iron first thing in the morning, on an empty stomach, about an hour apart from food, coffee, tea and calcium, say Swick and Van Ark. You may want to consider drinking orange juice with your iron pill. If you experience digestive side effects from taking iron, it’s okay to take it with food rich in vitamin C. The key is to remember to take it regularly for best results.

The bottom line

When it comes to maximizing the absorption of iron supplements, there are many factors to consider, including the form of iron you take, the foods and medications you take it with, and the time of day. Dietitians agree that the ideal time to take iron supplements is in the morning, on an empty stomach, separated from calcium, tea and coffee. By following a regular routine and taking supplements as advised, you are likely to improve your iron levels. However, you should always talk to your doctor and health care team about routinely checking your iron levels and determining a schedule that works for you.

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