In today’s episode, we continue our mineral series to expand the conversation around two important minerals that are often misunderstood: copper and iron. The health and wellness community focuses so much on iron–recommending iron supplementation, multivitamins or prenatals with iron, and recommending ferritin levels 80-100 for things like hair growth. Iron deficiency is so much more complex than the health community presents it to be. Most of us already have iron accumulated in the body; adding more iron on top of this creates more inflammation and hormone problems. And then we are told that copper is toxic and that we need to get rid of it when in reality, it’s just not in the most available form. There’s a lot more to the copper and iron picture than the mainstream health community presents, and we can’t wait to share more with you in this episode.
Amanda: Hey, this is Amanda, women’s health dietitian.
Emily: And I’m Emily, nutritional therapy practitioner.
Amanda: And this is the Are You Menstrual? podcast where we help you navigate the confusing world of women’s hormones and teach you how to have healthy periods.
Emily: Each week we will be diving into a different topic on women’s health and sharing our perspective using nutrition, female physiology, and metabolic health.
Amanda: Our goal is to help you wade through conflicting health information and empower you on your healing journey.
Emily: We hope you enjoy it.
Amanda: In today’s episode, we are continuing our talk around minerals and we are going to expand the conversation around two really important minerals that we feel are probably the most misunderstood. And that’s copper and iron. So, both conventional and functional medicine focus a lot on iron. I’m guaranteed that you probably have had your iron levels tested at some point. And there’s this big recommendation around iron supplementation if levels are low, or making sure your multivitamin or prenatal has iron. And a lot of times they’re not even looking at iron for this, they’re actually measuring your ferritin on your bloodwork and saying things like we need 80 to 100 ferritin levels in order for things like hair growth to happen.
The reality is that iron deficiency is a lot more complex than I think both conventional and functional medicine communities present it to be. And a lot of us already have iron accumulated in the body. So, if we’re adding more iron on top of this, we’re just adding fuel to the fire and creating more inflammation which leads to a lot more hormone problems. And then we’re told that, like, copper is toxic, like, I’m sure you’ve heard about copper toxicity and how we have to make sure that we are getting rid of copper in the body if you’re someone that maybe has been diagnosed or seen, like, bloodwork or something with high copper levels. But in reality, it’s just not available for use. So, there’s just a lot more to the copper and iron picture, and people, like, they just want to measure minerals and see is that high or low and go off of that. Like, they’re not looking at how are they interacting with each other. So that’s really the goal of what we’re going to go through in today’s episode.
Emily: I think you hit the nail on the head, Amanda, talking about iron deficiency and how common it is. Unfortunately, it’s not just looking at one isolated thing in the body to determine whether you have an iron deficiency—it’s simply not that easy. And unfortunately, people are being told left and right that they are deficient in this mineral when it’s not true—their bodies are just not equipped with the vitamins they need in order to transport it. And that’s basically what we’re talking about. Because if you’ve been told that your iron levels are low, there’s more to the picture than that. You can’t just look at, you know, a blood test or your lab work that says you have low ferritin or low iron levels in general—you have to look at so many other things.
And this is because nothing is isolated in the body. So, our minerals all work synergistically in the body, meaning that they all impact each other and some more than others. But if you want to read more about this, we actually have a whole mineral series on the blog, and we’ll put that in the show notes for you guys. But just as an example, low levels of one mineral, like copper, can lead to low levels of other minerals. So, iron is a big one. And we use vitamins to help us properly convert and move those minerals throughout the body. So, a big one, and you’ve probably heard us talk about this one multiple times on different channels, but vitamin A is absolutely critical to help with the iron recycling system, which we’re going to talk about. Amanda, can you go into more detail on how this recycling system works and why things like vitamin A and copper are so crucial?
Amanda: Yes. Let’s dig into the iron recycling system. Because I think that at this point, a lot of people are probably, like…wait, what? Iron is not good for me to supplement with? And I actually don’t need iron? Iron [is] not the issue. I’ve been told I’m anemic my entire life….right? And so I think what takes away all of the confusion around iron is understanding how our iron recycling system works. So what happens is we actually…iron is so important. And so just, like, an aside, like, we are not saying that iron is bad. It is so important that our bodies actually have a system that recycles and produces 24 milligrams of iron every 24 hours. So that’s how important it is. We’re not saying that it’s unimportant, we’re saying that it’s just essential to regulate it properly rather than just adding more iron, because we actually already have it in our bodies to make. Our bone marrow is what uses this iron, and then that’s what makes red blood cells. So if we don’t have enough iron, of course, you’re not gonna have as many red blood cells—that’s gonna impact oxygen delivery and definitely make you not feel great. Like, as soon as people are fatigued, I feel like the doctor’s like, you need more iron, right, you’re, like, deficient, then you’re anemic. And so that’s why you can definitely feel that.
But it’s not just the iron that’s the issue—it’s that we have to look at the big picture. So once these red blood cells are getting that iron, they’re gonna live for about 120 days, then they’re broken down, and the whole process is repeated. So, this is a sophisticated iron recycling system. But don’t let that confuse you. Right? Like, I think sometimes we just feel like, I don’t understand this, like, I don’t have the ability to grasp it. But if you can understand that you have this system, it makes 24 milligrams of iron for you every day, and it just needs certain things to function properly. That, that just hopefully empowers you and makes you feel like you do kind of grasp this concept better. Then if we think about what, what the whole RDA is right? Like, what’s the recommended daily allowance for iron: it’s eight milligrams for men, and it’s 18 milligrams for menstruating women. But this is where the whole, like, do we really need that much iron? Do we need to supplement with it piece comes in. Because remember, we make 24 milligrams of iron a day, we need 25 milligrams of iron to make those red blood cells. So ideally, if our iron recycling system is working well, we really only need one milligram from our diet. Hopefully, you’ve listened to our previous episodes. And you know, you know, Emily and I talked about creating a nourishing nutrition foundation. We believe we should have a mix of animal and plant foods that would give you well over one milligram of iron a day, so there’d be no reason to really supplement.
Emily: Yeah, I find that crazy that that’s all we need. Because if you think about how much we get in our diet, it’s pretty insane. Like, we don’t need a whole lot. What’s interesting is you mention you know, what we, we need in order to utilize that iron in our body…that’s going to come down to two things. And that is your copper and your vitamin A and here’s why. So, as Amanda said, iron is meant to be in constant circulation with the recycling system. So that’s super important in order to keep our levels…the actual iron that we can utilize at an appropriate level in our body. So there’s an enzyme called ceruloplasmin that is made from copper and vitamin A. And that’s what helps make this happen. That’s what transports the iron throughout our body and gets it to where it needs to be. So if we don’t have enough copper or vitamin A in our diets, our iron is not going to be…it’s just going to be stored in our tissues. It’s not going to be moving to where it needs to be, this recycling system is not going to work effectively or efficiently. And that’s what we’re seeing when we see this “iron deficiency.” So it’s not about being deficient as much as it is about being dysregulated, which is why from now on I will refer to it as iron dysregulation and not iron deficiency so that we don’t confuse you guys. But another interesting thing is that…just to kind of shine the light on copper right now, which we will more in a little bit, but while iron gets all the credit for transporting oxygen and hemoglobin, copper is actually the mineral that is responsible for moving oxygen. And it’s the only metal that activates oxygen and turns it into water. So just kind of a little tidbit of information there on why copper is also so important not only to the transport of iron but also for oxygen.
Amanda: Well, because I think people associate iron with energy. You know, like, I have so many women that I’ve worked with that talk about how, like, they’re so low in energy, so they need their iron supplement. And they do typically get that initial boost when they first take it and then it goes back down. And it’s in reality, it’s like, yeah, the iron does…it’s important for your red blood cells. But you if you don’t have the copper [and] vitamin A…it’s just not really going to matter. And copper is how we make energy. So if we don’t have enough copper, then we can’t make that energy. And it’s called ATP. That’s a body’s kind of like main energy source. One heartbeat requires 1 billion ATP. So 1 billion of those energy molecules…that I feel like just shows you, like, how much we need that copper in our diet. And not even just that, but the vitamin A because remember we need the vitamin A to use it. If we don’t have enough, then we’re…and we have too much iron. And basically it’s just this imbalance of copper and iron then we aren’t going to produce enough energy. And remember, we did that whole episode on metabolism. So if we…and then we talked about like taking in enough energy. So if we’re not producing enough energy, our metabolism slows down. When our metabolism slows down that’s when we get the hormone imbalances. So that’s why we’re talking about copper and iron today, because they do have a very big connection with our metabolic health and our hormone health.
Emily: And you did go into how much iron we need per day, which is only one milligram. So I want to talk about why iron deficiency is so unlikely. And just to kind of bring it into scope here, 36% of the planet is actually made of iron. So it is the fourth most common element. Eight different types of iron are fortified into the foods we eat, like breads and pastas, anything that’s iron-enriched or fortified, which is a lot of foods. Unfortunately, we’re consuming these foods. And even if we don’t eat red meat, most of us are gonna still have enough iron from our diets.
So going back to the red meat. A lot of the research says that, you know, if you’re anemic, chances are it’s from, like, a vegetarian diet or you’re not eating enough iron-rich meat. But what’s interesting about this is that only about 20%, excuse me, 20% of the population is anemic, but only about 8% is vegetarian. So there’s a disconnect here, right? There’s more people are anemic than our vegetarian. So that tells us that there’s something deeper going on—it’s not just an iron problem. At the end of the day, it’s a copper problem or a vitamin A problem. And, you know, unfortunately, when we talk about getting copper in our diets, it’s, it’s tougher because our soil in the US has been deficient in copper for so many years. And so this has led to lower copper levels, both in plants and animals, which makes it hard no matter, you know, if you eat all the foods, if you are totally, you know, omnivore and you eat everything. It still makes it hard to get enough copper in our diets, which just throws off this iron recycling system to begin with.
Amanda: And stress. Like I think that’s the other piece. So it’s like, hopefully, by now you’re kind of understanding that, like, most of us have iron accumulation, right? Because if we don’t have enough copper and vitamin A, we’re gonna accumulate that iron. But stress is also a big one because as hopefully you’ve learned in the other mineral episodes, that stress depletes sodium and potassium and magnesium, then that creates more mineral dysregulation. The more stress we have in the body, the more iron accumulation that we’re going to have. I know it’s just hard to grasp, because it’s like, but my iron says low on my blood work. We just…we have to remember that it’s, like, it doesn’t mean it’s low inside the body, like, inside your tissues.
And when we’re kind of thinking about, okay, so why does this matter? Right? Like, why did, why did…why should I care so much about iron, especially, like, if we, if I have hormone concerns. I mean, hopefully the Minerals 101 episode kind of told you why minerals are important for hormones, but I think iron specifically is just not really talked about especially for estrogen. Like, most people that are coming to us have complaints that line up with estrogen dominance. Either they, they know that they have high estrogen or a lot of their symptoms line up with estrogen dominance—like things like difficulty losing weight, or lots of weight gain, mood swings, tons of PMS, period pain, that sort of thing. Even irregular cycles, acne, thyroid issues, all those things. Well, iron and estrogen have a very close connection. And there’s a lot of research on this, especially around iron and breast cancer. It, like, amazes me that we are not talking about this more as a society. I’ve a lot of very big family history of breast cancer. So when I started learning all this stuff about iron, I felt very strongly, like, people need to know this. And just women in general, because we bleed so then people say that you need to replace that iron because you’re having a period every month and it’s just not the case.
So if we’re going to add a whole other layer to this with estradiol, it’s really that estrogen [and] how it relates to iron. So when we have excess estrogen, and the most common one is estradiol, that’s like our strongest one. So if you think of all, like, the PMS, period problems, think estradiol—that’s what’s typically gonna lead to that. When we have excess estrogen, we are going to get a decrease in a hormone called hepcidin. And I know that the words can feel like a lot, but we’ll make it make sense. So hepcidin is a hormone that regulates iron balance. It’s actually in charge of suppressing iron absorption when we have too much iron stored in our tissues. So when estradiol goes up, when we’re estrogen dominant, hepcidin goes down. And that means that we get an increase in iron absorption from our food. So as estrogen goes up, iron absorption goes up is the basic takeaway. So then we get more iron being stored in our tissues, and then that’s going to exacerbate the estrogen dominance. So it’s basically just a vicious cycle, right? So I think that’s the other big takeaway. It’s not just like minerals and food and stress, but it’s also like our sex hormones can impact our iron balance in the body. And this is why you cannot just test one thing, right? There’s, there’s a lot more that kind of goes into assessing iron status.
Emily: Right, because even when we do have that iron stored in the tissues, it’s going to be out of our blood, which makes our bodies appear as if we need more iron. So then, of course what happens? We go to the doctor, we get a blood test, we get iron supplementation thrown at us. And then the cycle is just continued and perpetuated. And again, the estrogen dominance continued, perpetuated. It’s really good, like Amanda said, to be aware of what’s happening and what could be happening. And how this all relates back to metabolism too is that if you’re someone who’s having cold hands and feet or a cold sensitivity, that is one big symptom of iron dysregulation. And it’s also a symptom of, as many of you probably know, hypothyroidism. And there’s actually a study that showed that this cold sensitivity due to iron deficiency anemia was accompanied by inadequate thyroid responses. So the two kind of go hand-in-hand, and it was Dr. Broda Barnes that discovered that measuring your body temp is an excellent way to monitor your thyroid function. And we talk about this so much. Just by keeping tabs on your, your body temps every day and making sure that they’re above a certain level is going to help you maintain that thyroid health and make sure that you’re staying in a good state with that and not letting your metabolism slip or your thyroid under function, if that makes sense. So again, this, this does relate back to hormones and metabolism for sure. And that’s just one of the ways to know, hey, do I have these hypothyroid symptoms? It could be iron dysregulation as well.
Amanda: Yeah and I would just say, like, if you’re wondering if you’re, like, taking my temperature, what is…how do I do that? We have a blog post—it’s called Helpful Data Tracking, we’ll link it in the show notes—along with a lot of other blogs that we have on iron and copper. We mentioned the symptoms because I feel like this is what I see clients go through with doctors. It’s like they say the symptom and the doctor’s, like oh, it’s probably, you’re probably anemic, right? Like cold and like probably anemic, when in reality, it’s, like, this could be a thyroid issue or a metabolic issue. And adding more iron is going to drive your metabolism kind of further into the ground. So iron…we know that it’s complex, but it’s not confusing. At least I think once you understand your iron recycling system, you can get the gist of what’s going on and think about, okay, so I have this system, it makes all this iron for me every single day. If I have iron issues, if you have a health history with iron deficiency, even things like sickle cell, I will say very, very connected to copper and vitamin A. My husband has sickle cell. And we’ve completely reversed all of it with using copper and vitamin A. So it’s…sometimes we can feel like our issues are more complex or that we are having this specific symptom. And it’s like, no, I really do have low iron. But if you understand how it works in the body, hopefully you can recognize that, like, you can benefit from this too.
Emily: Yeah, I think the only confusing thing about it is that this is not applied in our doctors offices, unfortunately. And so we’re just we’re getting information that is not complete. And that’s honestly what makes it so confusing. So hopefully y’all are enjoying and kind of following along with this episode and appreciating the information
Amanda: And the kind of next big step to understanding this. So we know that we make a lot of iron, we know that we have this system. How do we keep this going? Right? Like how are you going to optimize how your iron recycling system is working? And that’s really copper. Copper is not just only important for iron in the body it’s important for a lot of other things. But that copper is how you’re going to keep the iron recycling system moving. So I always just think about if we always want iron in motion, because then it’s not inflammatory, right? It’s not, it’s actually beneficial for us—we need to have enough copper—but it’s important for a lot of other things too. A big one is it helps us make energy from the foods that we eat. So if we don’t have enough copper, then we’re gonna have a really hard time making energy. And that’s going to slow down our metabolism, which is of course gonna lead to hormone issues.
It also protects our body from stress, which is funny because excess iron obviously leads to a lot more stress and inflammation within the body. Copper helps to balance that out. And it helps us with balancing things like serotonin. Serotonin…we won’t go into this a lot, but just to give you a little tidbit. A lot of people know serotonin for mental health and mood, right? We can actually have an excess of it and that can lead to a lot of gut and digestive issues. And when we have excess serotonin typically we’re going to be dealing with more, like, anxiety, depression, digestive problems. Copper is really important for keeping serotonin in check. So it’s not only helping us make energy, reducing stress response, it helps us balance serotonin, and it’s really important for the immune system. There’s a lot of really cool…I think, I mean, vitamin A, too, is a really big part of that not just copper, but it supports specific parts of the immune system, which is why it’s so important for things like endometriosis.
Emily: Speaking of the immune system, nothing works in isolation. So copper actually also works really well with vitamin C. And so it does several things with, in tandem with vitamin C. It strengthens your collagen, supports bone health, it also supports your adrenals, and helps to make enough adrenaline in order to appropriately respond to stress. So that’s really important for hormones. And then another big one for hormone health is how copper and vitamin C impact thyroid hormone production. So we’ve talked about thyroid, how it relates to metabolism, how it affects hormones—it all works together in the body. So specifically tell the brain that we need to make thyroid hormone, and then this signals to the thyroid and help support on metabolism and sex hormone production. So again, super important.
Amanda: When I learned that about vitamin C, I was like, does it get any cooler? Like I just, I just thought that was so…because I think vitamin C is so known for your adrenal health, you know, and it…for sure it’s important [to] like your immune system. But I just was like, wow, that’s very interesting that it also has a huge impact on just making thyroid hormone, because and, thyroid is just, like, it’s just like iron, right? It’s one of those systems that, like, we measure in the blood, it’s normal or it’s not, and then we take it…and thyroid hormone, usually, like, a medication, right? Where in reality, it’s, like, there are so many other things…not that we think thyroid medication is bad. Emily takes thyroid medication, you know not a big deal. And, like, plenty of our clients do. It’s just more of, like, are we really addressing the whole picture? And why do you not feel better when you take your thyroid meds.
Emily: I take thyroid meds on top of vitamin C and eating copper-rich foods and all the other stuff that goes into it. So it’s a whole picture.
Amanda: And vitamin A.
Emily: Yes, and lots of vitamins.
Amanda: And we have a blog on vitamin A and your thyroid, it’s a good one. So how do we support this right? So we know copper…we need copper for iron, we need copper for a billion other things in the body. We really, really love beef liver and the, the main reason for that is because it doesn’t just have copper it also has vitamin A. And hopefully by now you understand that we…even if you add in, like, a bunch of copper in the form of like cacao…cacao is another good one. Chlorophyll. Liquid chlorophyll is, it gives you a lot of copper. We are not getting the vitamin A from those foods, right? So we can’t leave out that part of the picture. So beef liver is our favorite. Duck liver also has very comparable vitamin A and copper levels. Chicken liver is lower in copper, but it’s still good. So we don’t need to be like, oh, I can’t do beef liver. What can I do? Well, I know we’ll probably get those questions. And did I find a kosher beef liver supplement? I can’t remember. Do you know of one?
Emily: I don’t actually know off the top of my head.
Amanda: I don’t think that there is one? Let us know guys. Do you know of a kosher beef liver supplement? That’s a question that I’ve gotten quite a bit. Honestly, we have a few women in our group program that are kosher and they just get kosher…they buy kosher beef liver, cut it up, freeze it and swallow like capsules. I can’t remember now, but I know that I’ve looked like a million times and I usually come up empty-handed. But beef liver is a big one, or duck liver, chicken liver, but those are going to be like the most bang for your buck. And you don’t need a lot of it, which is nice. And I would say start very slow. We don’t want to just, like, start taking a ton of…whether it’s, like, supplements, like, we love ancestral supplements for beef liver. That yes, like, it’s a great option but it’s very nutrient dense. We always call it like nature’s multivitamin, because it’s got lots of copper, vitamin A, B vitamins, zinc, selenium…like there’s so many nutrients in there. Some other great foods like citrus, you know, like, citrus has whole food vitamin C, which also has copper. So it’s, it’s definitely a really important one that you’re going to get a lot more than just copper from. Bee pollen, royal jelly…those are going to have copper and B vitamins. Shellfish, you know, I mean, I even just think, like, oysters, like, they have so much zinc but also have copper. Shrimp, stuff like that. And then like cacao like I mentioned.
Emily: Right and along with eating copper-rich foods, we want to make sure that we’re avoiding things that deplete copper. So there are two common supplements that do deplete copper in the body. And the first one might surprise you. It’s actually zinc, which I know everyone loves taking their zinc especially when they’re feeling under the weather or think they might have a cold I know it’s been praised during pandemic times for helping us with our immunity. And zinc is not bad. We definitely need zinc Of course, but we need zinc and copper to be in balance, because they are antagonists. So when we supplement with zinc, this is increases metallothionein, I hate that word sorry, production.
Emily: Metallotionein production. Thank you, Amanda. And that binds to copper and makes it unavailable for use in the body. So just keep that in mind, if ever someone tells you to supplement with zinc that it’s going to throw off your copper.
Amanda: And I know that sometimes people are going to get their bloodwork done, they’re going to be like, but my zinc is low. And we see this all the time. We have to remember that if we run out of something like zinc, like if you’re getting plenty in your diet—which if you kind of went through that episode with us, you likely are—we want to think about what am I…what, what is deficient that could be leading to an imbalance, right? Because minerals always work together. Magnesium is a really important one. And I think the majority of us do not get enough magnesium, even if we supplement you might just need more, especially if…the more stress you have, the more magnesium we’re going to use. And magnesium and zinc have the same valence. So if your body runs out of magnesium, it’s going to use up zinc. So whenever people have really low zinc stores, that’s what…like a huge red flag goes up. And we want to think about, do you need more magnesium? You know, same thing with vitamin D. Typically low vitamin D is much more related to magnesium than actual vitamin D status. And we’ll probably do a whole episode on that. But yeah, just wanted to add that tidbit about zinc. Because if people see low levels, I would say, like, one: oysters are going to be the best source— eating them or taking like a supplement. Oysterzinc from Smidge is a great one. They’re very high in iodine, though. So talk to your doctor or practitioner before you start taking it. And adding magnesium, right, we don’t want to leave that out piece of the puzzle out.
Emily: And I’ll just jump in real quick, Amanda, and say that a couple of the prenatals without iron is going to be, if you want to look into, Seeking Health and then Full Circle, they have prenatals without iron. So just anyone who’s interested in that.
Amanda: And we’ll, we’ll do an episode on prenatals I think probably, right?
Emily: Ooh can’t wait.
Amanda: Yeah, we have a blog post if you absolutely cannot wait for the episode. But yeah, looking at your supplements—do they have iron in them. And then the first step, looking at your foods…iron-fortified to looking at your supplements. And then the last one is just starting to add in copper and vitamin A-rich foods. So like we talked about beef liver, duck liver, chicken liver, that sort of thing. Vitamin A, like, if you’re going to do the copper-ri