Coffee and Iron Absorption – Everything You Need to Know

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For many people, coffee is an early morning ritual as common as brushing your teeth. People all over the globe awaken in a morning, stagger downstairs into their kitchen and make themselves a delicious steaming cup of coffee, ready to set themselves up for the day ahead.

Good coffee tastes great, and it does wonders to help perk you up in a morning when you’re feeling tired and run down, but is it having a detrimental effect on your health?

We know that coffee is rich in caffeine, which is a stimulant that, in large doses, can be very dangerous, but what about some of the lesser-known side effects.

Did you know that between 2 and 20 percent of the general population (dependent on gender and race) suffer from an iron deficiency? We need iron to perform a wide range of physiological processes, so a lack of iron can be very dangerous.

Recent studies have linked iron deficiencies as a result of inadequate absorption to the consumption of coffee.

Here’s a detailed look at coffee and iron absorption.

 

What is coffee?

Coffee is a deliciously dark nectar which many consider to be a gift from the Gods themselves.

For a lot of people, it is the human equivalent of gasoline in a car, as it is the liquid responsible for helping people to wake up in a morning and become functional, coherent, attentive adults.

We know that coffee helps people to wake up in a morning, and provides a temporary increase in energy thanks to its high caffeine content, but what exactly is coffee, where does it come from, and why does the caffeine it contains help to perk us up so much?

If you’ve ever visited one of the many fancy coffee shops or cafes on High Streets all across the globe, you’ll likely be very familiar with what a roasted coffee bean looks like, as well as what it smells like, and what it tastes like.

Raw coffee beans from coffee plants, however, are very different.

If left alone in the wild, coffee plants would grow into coffee bushes and shrubs, before becoming large coffee trees. When coffee trees are cultivated for coffee, though, they’re trimmed nice and small in order to stop the trees putting energy into producing new leaves, and instead, to encourage them to put their energy into producing coffee cherries.

The coffee cherries form across the branches of the bushes/trees. Many people believe that coffee beans are the coffee cherries, when in fact the coffee beans which are roasted and ground into the delicious beverage that we all know and love, are the seeds from within the coffee cherries.

Within each cherry you will fine two beans, separated by a thin membrane, although some cherries only have one bean inside.

The coffee seeds (beans) are green when raw, and are then harvested and are gently roasted until they turn a deep brown colour. The beans are then processed and ground into a fine powder, where they can then be filtered and steeped in hot water to make the drink known as coffee, and all of the many variants of this awesome beverage. (1) (2)

 

What is iron?

Okay, as we’re looking at coffee and iron absorption, now that we know more about coffee, we’d better take a look at what iron is.

Iron is an essential trace mineral which is used by the body for a whole variety of different physiological processes and functions.

Most commonly, iron is associated with the production of hemoglobin, which is a protein found within red blood cells that allows them to transport oxygen around the body and deliver it to the other cells in your body, where it is then used as a source of fuel for a number of natural processes.

It is also important for the production of myoglobin, which is a protein which transports oxygen to your muscles. This is why bodybuilders and athletes often supplement with iron, and consume diets rich in iron and protein.

On top of that, iron is also used by the body in the natural synthesis of a number of hormones.

We need a certain amount of iron each day to function, though the exact amount will depend on your age, your gender, your fitness levels, your activity levels, and your genes in general.

Whereas we all need different amounts of iron, one thing that is for certain is the fact that an iron deficiency can negatively impact your health in a whole host of different ways. (3) (4)

 

Coffee and iron absorption

As we’re looking at coffee iron absorption facts, we’ll now take a look at how drinking coffee can impact the amount of iron that you absorb from food, drink, and supplements.

Now, cutting straight to the chase, coffee can inhibit iron absorption considerably.

Interestingly, tea also inhibits the absorption or iron, despite the fact that tea contains less caffeine than coffee. There have been numerous studies conducted on this, including one which found that drinking a cup of coffee can reduce the amount of iron absorbed from a hamburger (red meat is a notoriously high source of iron) by as much as 39%.

A cup of tea, however, reduced the amount of iron absorbed by a whopping 64%.

It has been found that drinking a cup of instant coffee with a meal, can reduce iron absorption from the norm, which is roughly around 5.88% to 0.97%. (5)

 

Does drinking coffee before and after a meal inhibit iron absorption?

So, we’ve established that coffee does indeed inhibit iron absorption, but does the time in which the coffee was consumed play a role in determining whether or not your body struggles with iron absorption?

Well, yes it does.

You see, in the studies we mentioned above looking at coffee iron absorption rates, the studies were conducted on individuals who drank coffee with their meal, I.E sipping on a cup of coffee between bites.

Studies carried out on people who consumed a cup of coffee one hour before a meal however, found that there was no reduction in the amount of iron absorbed by the body, so basically, it had no effect at all.

Now, here’s where things get interesting because when individuals drank a cup of coffee one hour AFTER a meal containing iron, it was found that the rate of absorption was reduced to the same percentages as when coffee was consumed simultaneously with a meal.


How long should you wait to drink coffee after taking iron?

Okay, so, assuming you’re looking to increase the amount of iron that you absorb, as well as consuming iron-rich foods, you may also wish to take an iron supplement just to help ensure that you’re getting enough iron on a daily basis.

We’ve looked at coffee and iron absorption and at how it can inhibit the amount of iron you absorb, so how long should you wait to enjoy a cup of coffee after eating a meal rich in iron and/or using an iron supplement.

As we previously looked at, iron absorption rates were reduced significantly when coffee was consumed with an iron-rich meal, as well as when coffee was consumed one hour after taking/eating iron.

Some people incorrectly believe that waiting an hour is sufficient enough, but that’s not the case at all.

According to experts, you should ideally wait at least 3 hours to drink coffee after consuming iron if you wish to ensure that you absorb as much of this important trace mineral as possible.

 

Is tea bad for iron absorption?

Assuming that you were paying attention earlier on, you may have noticed that we mentioned that tea was also detrimental when it came to iron absorption, but to what extent precisely?

Well, let’s take a look in a little more detail now, shall we?

Tea is believed to be even worse for iron absorption than coffee, despite the fact that tea is naturally much lower in caffeine than coffee. Whereas caffeine does indeed inhibit iron absorption to a certain degree, it isn’t just caffeine that is detrimental.

Tea is enriched with tannins and oxalates, which are naturally occurring compounds which can inhibit iron absorption in numerous ways. The tannins and oxalates in teas bind to iron, particularly non heme iron which is found in plant-based foods rather than animal-based ingredients such as red meat.

So, whereas tea can reduce the amount of heme and non-heme iron, it has been found that the tannins and oxalates found in tea produce far more dramatic reductions in the rates of non-heme iron from plant-based foods.

Vegans and people who consume mainly plant-based diets, who are already at risk of an iron deficiency, are often encouraged to limit their intakes of tea between meals to help reduce the risk of an iron deficiency and to ensure that they absorb as much iron as possible.

 

What are the symptoms of an iron deficiency?

We’ve established that iron is important for general health purposes, and we’ve looked at coffee and iron absorption, but what about iron deficiencies?

An iron deficiency occurs when your body doesn’t have sufficient amounts of iron, which in turn can reduce the amount of red blood cells you produce. When this occurs, you are at risk of anaemia.

There are two types of anaemia, yet iron-deficiency anaemia is the most common all over the globe by a considerable margin.

To make matters worse, there are a lot of people out there who suffer with iron deficiencies without even realizing.

Here are a few common signs and symptoms of an iron deficiency:


Tiredness and fatigue

Arguably the most common symptom of a deficiency of iron is a feeling of tiredness and fatigue.

The main reason for this is because your body requires iron for the production of hemoglobin.

Hemoglobin, as we looked at earlier, is a protein responsible for transporting oxygen via the red blood cells.

Less hemoglobin means less oxygen reaching your tissues, cells, and muscles, which means that they have less energy and can’t produce as much energy as they should.

If you find yourself feeling tired and lacking energy, even if you are sleeping well, this could be due to a lack of iron.


Shortness of breath

Another common sign of an iron deficiency is shortness of breath.

Due to an iron deficiency, hemoglobin will be scarce, which means that oxygen levels will be low, which means that the cells in your muscles won’t have as much energy so your muscles won’t function as efficiently.

This means that even basic physical functions like walking will become harder and as a result you’ll find that your breathing rate increases as your body attempts to procure more oxygen.

If you find yourself panting and short of breath, despite not doing much physical exertion, this could be due to an iron deficiency.


Headache

If you find yourself experiencing frequent headaches, despite being adequately hydrated and there being no obvious reasons for why, this could be down to the fact that you suffer from an iron deficiency.

Because an iron deficiency means that not enough oxygen can reach your brain, this can cause blood vessels located within the brain to swell and expand, which then causes pressure and can result in a headache.


Pale skin

Another common symptom of an iron deficiency is pale skin.

The hemoglobin found in red blood cells is what gives blood its deep red colour. The less that you have in your body, the less red your blood will look.

This is why people with iron deficiencies often have pale skin, rather than healthy looking rosy skin.


Final thoughts

That just about brings things to a close today.

As you can see, coffee and iron absorption are not conducive to one another, so if you are indeed worried that you aren’t getting enough iron, it is strongly recommended that you cut back on the amount of coffee you drink, whilst also monitoring the time in which you consume it.

We need iron to perform a wide variety of processes, and too much coffee, or drinking coffee at the wrong time could hinder the amount of this mineral that we absorb, and nobody wants that.

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