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Athletes And Iron Deficiencies

April 28, 2014

Thanks to Popeye, most of us tend to associate spinach with strength, even if it’s only a subconscious connection. But it wasn’t actually spinach that was the key to his day-saving power; it was the iron in that absurdly over-sized can of spinach. While it’s true that spinach doesn’t have anywhere near as much iron in it as people once believed, that doesn’t change the fact that iron is key to a strong, healthy body. In fact, recent studies have found that iron plays a very special roll in the diet of athletes and exercisers alike. How can iron help you in reaching your goals and performing your best? How can you make sure that you’re getting enough of this important mineral?

What Does Iron Do?

Iron is a major component of both hemoglobin and the lesser-known myoglobin. Both of these specialized cells are responsible for transporting oxygen to your muscles and throughout your entire body. As we know, this oxygen is vital in providing your muscles with fuel and allowing them to function properly. A health flow of oxygen is also necessary for the breakdown of other nutrients.

Iron, therefore, is needed for all of these systems to continue performing at optimum capacity. But iron is also a main ingredient in the synthesis of several hormones. The mineral also plays a part in building connective tissue and growth as a whole.

Looking at the many various roles of iron, then, it’s apparent that this nutrient is used by almost every system in your body to stay on track.

But, in addition to your body’s everyday functions, iron can also play a very special part in your fitness and athletic lives as well. 

Special Needs of Athletes

iron defficianciesA recent meta-analysis published in the Journal of Nutrition examined 22 different studies in an effort to understand the impact of daily iron supplementation and its effect on athletes. Specifically, this review looked at studies pertaining to female athletes.

After examining the findings of each of these studies, the researchers were able to conclude that iron can have a significant benefit for athletes. The women involved in these studies were almost uniformly able to exercise at higher intensities and with lower heart rates than would normally be possible. Essentially, daily iron supplementation allowed these female athletes’ bodies to function more efficiently.

This is especially exciting information because athletes, as a group, are more susceptible to iron deficiencies than people who lead more sedentary lifestyles. One reason is because athletes, especially those involved in endurance sports, need more oxygen then the average person. Also keep in mind the iron losses females endure monthly with menstrual cycles. This contributes in large part to iron deficiency in some athletes. Based on what we discussed above regarding the role of iron in oxygen transport, then, it stands to reason that iron supplementation should be exercised if deficiency exists.

Iron is also among the many minerals that are lost in sweat, necessitating its replacement.

Athletes are also at a greater risk for injury that causes bleeding, which will result in a loss of iron. This includes “foot strike” damage, in which the impact of running on hard surfaces damages the blood cells in the foot.

When you combine all of these facts in addition to athletes commonly following restrictive diets during training, it’s not really huge surprise that iron is a major concern for athletes. The study we discussed above also seems to suggest that fitness enthusiasts as a whole could benefit from iron supplementation as a sort of performance enhancer. So, the next question is natural: Should you start taking iron supplements.

Should You Supplement?

No, you probably shouldn’t. As important as iron is to your overall health and physical performance, this mineral could have some pretty severe side-effects. Primarily, high levels of iron can cause deficiencies in zinc and cooper, which, in turn, will create all sorts of other health concerns. One major side effect of Iron is constipation, which may lead to bloating, and abdominal pain and even worsen hemorrhoids if present. With that in mind, you should only take iron supplements under the direction of a doctor. For the most part, this will only be necessary if you have been diagnosed with an iron deficiency.

Fortunately, there are a lot of dietary steps that you can take to make sure that you have enough iron in your system to keep everything running smoothly. Of course, the most obvious precautionary measure you can take is eating foods that are high in iron.

The first thing that comes to mind for more people is red meat, liver, chicken liver, egg yolk, dried fruit, but dark green vegetables are also very high in this essential nutrient. Whole grain breads are another good source of iron. To maximize your body’s ability to absorb all that precious iron, combine animal and plant-sources of iron in the same meal. Foods that are high in vitamin C will likewise encourage proper iron absorption.

On the other hand, avoid drinking coffee or tea with your food if your goal is a quality iron boost. Both of these drinks have a way of inhibiting the absorption of iron into your body. Calcium also has an inhibitory effect on iron.

So how much iron should you try to get from your food on a daily basis? The recommendations are surprisingly low for a substance that is so widely used by the body. Adult men need about 8mg while women need 18mg of iron daily, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

All that having been considered, though, iron supplements are easy to obtain if you do decide to take them. In fact, most multivitamins provide around 18mg of iron and some iron-only products are filled with as much as 65mg of iron, which is a staggering 360 percent of your recommended daily allowance for women. This figure should drive home to point, though, that unless they are properly managed, iron supplements could drive your levels up to incredible extremes. This is especially true if your diet is already providing adequate iron, as is the case with most people who follow a traditional western diet.

Vegetarians may struggle to get enough iron from their diet, of course. It is possible, though, to carefully select plant-based foods that are high in iron. The NIH does warn, however, that the iron in plant foods is not as bio-available as that in animal-based foods so vegetarians should try to eat 1.8 times more iron than their carnivorous counterparts.

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