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How to boost iron levels with food as low intake linked to long COVID

Foods such as beans and lentils can help to boost your iron levels. (Getty Images)
Foods such as beans and lentils can help to boost your iron levels. (Getty Images)

Low iron levels have been named as a trigger for long COVID, according to a new study.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge have found that patients exhibiting signs of COVID long after their initial infection often also had low iron levels in their blood.

To find these results, the scientists began recruiting study participants soon after the pandemic began who had tested positive for COVID and monitored their blood samples over the space of year.

"Iron levels, and the way the body regulates iron, were disrupted early on during SARS-CoV-2 infection, and took a very long time to recover, particularly in those people who went on to report long COVID months later," study author Dr Aimee Hanson says.

"Although we saw evidence that the body was trying to rectify low iron availability and the resulting anaemia by producing more red blood cells, it was not doing a particularly good job of it in the face of ongoing inflammation."

However, Dr Hanson says it may not necessarily be the case of not having enough iron in the body, but that the iron is "trapped in the wrong place".

"What we need is a way to remobilise the iron and pull it back into the bloodstream, where it becomes more useful to the red blood cells," she adds.

tired woman lying down with hand on head
One common sign of both long COVID and low iron levels is fatigue. (Getty Images)

Yet, numerous studies have shown that an increase in iron intake can help you to feel less fatigued – which is a common symptom of long COVID. Which is why it could be worth increasing your iron intake as a preventative measure.

Signs you may have low iron level

If you suspect you may have low iron levels, it’s likely you’ll have some of the following signs:

  • Fatigue

  • Paleness

  • Brittle nails

  • Heightened sensitivity to cold

  • Cravings for non-nutritive substances like ice or clay

"Recognising low iron levels is pivotal for maintaining overall health," dietician Dr Rimas Geiga tells Yahoo UK. "While these signs may seem disparate, they can collectively indicate an iron deficiency. Always be attuned to your body's nuanced messages."

Best foods to boost iron levels

While an obvious solution to boosting iron levels may be taking iron supplements, you should never introduce a new supplement before consulting your doctor first. However, there are plenty of foods that are packed with iron.

"Iron comes in two forms – heme iron from animal sources and non-heme iron from plant sources," Dr Geiga explains. "Combining both types strategically can enhance absorption. Opt for lean meats, poultry, and fish for heme iron, which is more readily absorbed.

"Simultaneously, integrate plant-based sources like lentils, beans, and fortified cereals, rich in non-heme iron. Enhance absorption further by pairing these plant sources with vitamin C-rich foods such as broccoli or citrus fruits. The synergy between heme and non-heme iron, along with strategic pairings, provides a well-rounded approach to boosting iron levels."

White bowl of lentils soup with broccoli over a marble countertop
Vitamin C-rich food such as broccoli can help the iron absorption of foods like lentils. (Getty Images)

So you know what to eat, but how much of it should you be consuming to bolster your iron levels? Dr Geiga says this will depend on individual factors such as age, gender, and overall health – so sticking to a diverse, iron rich diet is a good rule of thumb.

"For example, a serving of red meat or shellfish, coupled with a variety of dark leafy greens and legumes, contributes to a comprehensive iron intake," she adds. "For precision, consulting with a nutrition professional can help tailor recommendations to your unique needs."

Signs your iron levels are rising

Dr Geiga says that increasing your iron intake should lead to increased energy levels, improved concentration, and a general sense of vitality.

"However, maintaining balance is crucial – excessive iron intake can lead to toxicity," she adds. "Regular blood tests are the most accurate measure of your iron status. Engage in open communication with your healthcare provider, allowing for adjustments in your nutritional approach based on evolving needs."

Additional reporting by SWNS.

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