Do you have an underlying fatigue that stunts your performance capacity?
If you haven't checked your iron stores lately, it might be time to pay your doctor a visit.
Iron is invaluable for your performance needs.
In fact, iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency around the world and can be a true game changer for athletes. Our bodies cannot produce iron, they must gather it from the foods or supplements we ingest.
The main consequence of iron depletion is a reduced capacity to transport oxygen in the blood and hence a reduced oxidative capacity at the cellular level.
Basically, when iron is low, the number of oxygen molecules showing up to a given cell at a given time is decreased which means the capacity of that cell to create energy (ATP) is limited.
This manifests symptomatically as:
- slowed recovery
- hair loss
- shortness of breath
- increased heart rate
- bonking during workouts
Without optimal iron levels, there is no way for body to perform at its highest level.
Testing for Iron Levels
Getting iron levels and iron stores checked is an important part of any athlete’s journey toward optimal performance.
Menstruating female athletes and vegetarians are at the greatest risk for iron deficiency anemia. However, male athletes who don't consume iron-rich foods and train at a high level, can also find themselves depleted and running into performance walls.
In testing iron, it is strongly recommended that we look at ferritin levels. Ferritin is a protein that stores iron in the body. Low serum ferritin is highly specific for iron deficiency anemia in otherwise healthy people, as virtually no other clinically significant condition will result in very low ferritin levels.1 There are only two other conditions that have been shown to lower serum ferritin outside of iron deficiency, that being hypothyroidism and ascorbate deficiency.3
Optimal Iron levels
For most athletes, a ferritin level of approximately 40ng/ml should be used to exclude iron deficiency. 2 If levels are lower than 40ng/ml the athlete could potentially be experiencing decreased performance from decreased iron stores.
Isn’t testing hemoglobin enough?
Many times, clinicians will check hemoglobin and hematocrit levels and dismiss the patient as having sufficient iron. However, many organ systems will show morphologic, physiologic and biochemical changes because of iron deficiency before any significant laboratory change is noted in hemoglobin concentrations.4 This is especially crucial for athletes and really any person whose life demands consistent optimal performance.
Individuals who are iron deficient and eating a high iron diet may find that the only way to maintain adequate iron stores is to supplement with iron and in most cases very specific forms of iron due to absorption difficulties.
In upcoming articles, we will discuss ways to raise iron stores to meet performance demands.
- Knovich MA, Storey JA, Coffman LG, Torti SV. Ferritin for the Clinician. Blood reviews. 2009;23(3):95-104. doi:10.1016/j.blre.2008.08.001.
- Wang W, Knovich MA, Coffman LG, Torti FM, Torti SV. Serum Ferritin: Past, Present and Future. Biochimica et biophysica acta. 2010;1800(8):760-769. doi:10.1016/j.bbagen.2010.03.011.
- Finch CA, Bellotti V, Stray S, Lipschitz DA, Cook JD, Pippard MJ, Huebers. Plasma ferritin determination as a diagnostic tool. HAWest J Med. 1986 Nov; 145(5):657-63.
- John Beard, Brian Tobin; Iron status and exercise, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 72, Issue 2, 1 August 2000, Pages 594S–597S, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/72.2.594S