Athletes are more likely to have an iron deficiency – here’s why

By Su

iron deficiency

Marcela Soto is a female athlete (Muay Thai fighter), who has an iron deficiency. In this blog post, she talks about her experience of having low iron and competing; and also, why it is more common for athletes, especially female athletes, to have low iron levels.

Did you know that strenuous training impairs the absorption of iron in your intestine? Athletes may absorb only 15 percent of dietary iron, compared with 30 percent for sedentary people, which makes them more likely to have an iron deficiency.

Did you know that women have a higher iron requirement compared to men? And that athletes have an even higher requirement? The requirement of iron for a sedentary or lightly active woman is 15 mg of iron per day. Current research is not conclusive enough to provide specific iron recommendations to athletes, but many experts suggest that female athletes require 20 mg or more of iron per day.

Real iron intake and absorption in female athletes – iron deficiency

According to scientific evidence, an average diet often contains only 5 mg of iron per 1000 calories. This means that a female athlete will need to eat at least 3000 calories to get to her iron requirements. A normal female diet (athlete or no athlete) is 2000 calories per day or less, so a dietary deficiency is almost obvious unless you are really conscious about eating rich in iron food sources.

The thing is that most of the female athletes are health conscious, and do everything possible to eat clean and natural. With the new trend in fitness and health about the clean eating made by the so-called nutrition experts, chefs, and celebrities, it is easy to get people, even athletes, pulled into it.  

In this “eat clean” journey, most of them change red meat and fortified food for organic and many times even vegetarian or vegan food. Also, most of them want to lose fat so they can be leaner and have a better performance, so they also avoid eating some kind of food that may contain iron (naturally or fortified). This will just add up to the risk of iron deficiency and anemia.

Even though there are vegetables that contain iron, the absorption of it is really low – normally it is between 5 percent to 10 percent but it depends on the balance between other substances present in the diet of that person. The absorption of iron in meat, poultry and fish, is much higher, reaching the 30 percent, and it is less affected by other substances present in the diet.

Athletes and iron

The principle aspects that make athletes more susceptible to have lower iron stores is basically because of an increase in the loss of iron, and because of the decrease in the absorption. The oxidative stress that hard training puts an athlete in is so huge, that the production of free radicals is more than the bodies defense mechanisms, that makes iron to be or not absorbed or lost. Plus, we have to add the loss of iron through sweating and urine, is also increased by training, or in feces. In women, you have to take into a count the losses through menstruation, where most of the iron losses occur for women.

Iron plays an important role in training and performing since it helps carry oxygen to the cells when needed. So active muscles are in constant need of oxygen during a training session and also during recovery.

Most of the athletes think that a lack of energy, fatigue, loss of appetite, has to do more with the big loads of training (and in some cases, also working), than in other aspects, such as an iron deficiency. Plus, it is rare to see an athlete by his or her own means go to the clinic to have a basic blood test (unless is mandatory for being part of a team or for representing a company). So when a female athlete has a diagnosis of anemia due to an iron deficiency, it’s probably because she just couldn’t cope any longer with her training and daily life.

Don’t stay like that

It is important to detect symptoms that can be related to iron deficiency, such as the following: lost of appetite, apathy, fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness, weakness, pale color, increased palpitations during training, be more likely to get sick and/or feeling cold all the time.

When signs or symptoms like this occur, the best next step is to make a blood test and check up the hemoglobin and hematocrit measurements right away. To see if these measurements are low because of an iron deficiency, a ferritin level test must be performed as well.

When it comes to enhancing the performance, or even overall health, there’s no “one size fits all”.  But since iron deficiency is so common in female athletes, a blood test at least twice a year will be a good idea. Also, it is almost mandatory for a high-performance female athlete to have a specialized sports nutritionist to look after her diet for prevention. And in case that there is a persisting deficit of iron, a medical practitioner has to assist to prescribe oral or intravenous supplementation. This because even if the diet is full of iron-rich products, there can be more of a low of iron or absorption problems related to the sport training, so supplementation is imperative.

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About the Author

Athletes are more likely to have an iron deficiency - here's whyTom Topham holds a 1st class honours degree in Sports Science (Human Performance) from Brunel University, England. He also comes from a triathlon background, competing as an age-grouper and holds a level 2 triathlon coaching qualification.

About the Author

BochakornBOCHAKORN BOONSERM (MAAM) began her education in conventional medicine as a nurse, then shifted to embrace natural healing and integrative medicines. Her training and certifications abroad include: Nutrition and Western Herbal Medicines, Acupuncture and Moxibustion.

During her therapeutic sessions, she may also incorporate other aspects of integrative medicines when required, including: acupuncture, cupping therapy, moxibustion, nutritional, supplements and herbal recommendation.

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