Do you ever feel sluggish or completely crash after a gym class or a run around the park? Whether you work out once every couple of weeks or are a full-blown athlete, bursts of intensive exercises can seriously deplete your body of the iron it needs and can put you at risk of developing iron deficiency anaemia. Feelings of lethargy and irritability, or even feeling a loss of interest in exercising all together can be an effect of lack of iron rather than willpower! If you are in fact an athlete, these feelings will heavily impact your training and be detrimental to your progress and mental state. 

Your body needs iron as it’s an essential nutrient, and the best way to get what you need is through your diet and nutritional choices. If not low amounts of iron are consumed, it can impair your body's ability to transport oxygen – aka. iron deficiency anaemia. Considering that dietary iron recommendations are 1.3 to 1.7 times higher for athletes than non-athletes and 1.8 times higher for vegetarians than meat eaters, you can easily find out or feel if your diet is off in some way. Signs of low iron in women​ and adolescent athletes are important to note as they're especially common.

Function of iron in the body​

what causes low iron

Iron is part of haemoglobin, which is a protein in the blood that transports oxygen to all the cells in your body. The brain demands a large amount of oxygen from the body, so without enough iron in your system you’ll find it hard to concentrate and feel tired and irritable. Inadequate iron in the body can feel like a massive energy crash as it impairs aerobic metabolism which decreases the delivery of oxygen to tissues. It also reduces the capacity of muscles to use oxygen in order to produce energy. Therefore iron is a necessity in the creation of red blood cells, the release of energy from the cells, to support a healthy immune system and supply oxygen to the muscles and entire body. 

Iron deficiency symptoms​

Iron deficiency can be easily misdiagnosed as it’s symptoms are quite common, like  chronic fatigue, lack of energy, recurring illness and injuries, irritability, loss of appetite and loss of interest in exercise. The only surefire way to diagnose an iron deficiency is through a blood test. 

If you feel like you could be deficient and would like a blood test, visit your medical practitioner for further help and advice.

How do I know if I have low iron​

Iron deficiency doesn't just happen overnight. It starts slowly and is exacerbated by poor nutrition and diet choices. This then forces the body to tap into its reserves. Over time, these reserves become depleted causing the body to manufacture red blood cells that are smaller and carry less than normal levels of haemoglobin.

This might not seem like a big deal but as the average lifespan of a red blood cell is 120 days, over time the smaller and more inferior red blood cells start to out-number the good ones. This severely impairs the body's ability to carry oxygen around the body, resulting in your heart needing to beat faster to ensure oxygen delivery. Over time, you feel lazy, tired, low of energy and feel generally uninterested to do anything.

Does exercise make anaemia worse

iron deficiency symptoms

There are a few reasons why athletes are at a higher risk of experiencing iron deficiency.

Higher requirements for iron use:

• Red blood cell mass increases, meaning athletes have higher iron needs. 
• Iron needs are higher during times of growth.

Increased risk of iron loss:

• Iron is lost in sweat. Athletes with high sweat loss have higher iron loss.
• Iron can be lost through gastrointestinal bleeding. Gastrointestinal bleeding is common during strenuous exercise due to minor damage to the stomach and intestinal lining.
• Habitual use of anti-inflammatory drugs leads to iron loss.
• Foot strike hemolysis, which is caused by repeated pounding of the feet on hard surfaces, can destroy red blood cells, allowing for iron to be lost.

What is the cause of sports anaemia​

There are two types of anaemia to be aware of. Strenuous exercise can increase the volume of plasma in the blood, diluting the levels of haemoglobin. This increase, called sports anaemia, can sometimes incorrectly suggest there is a deficiency through a blood test. This condition does not need any treatment as it’s generally found in people who are only in the early stages of a training program so is temporary.

Best foods to eat for anaemia​

best foods to eat for anemia

As we know, the human body cannot produce iron so we need to rely on nutritious foods to eat for anaemia. Although there are various foods that are high in iron, some sources are better absorbed than others. Two types of iron exist in foods – heme iron and non-heme iron.

1. Foods that contain heme iron

Heme iron is found in the muscle meat of animal foods like beef, lamb, liver, seafood, pork and poultry. 15 to 18% of this type of iron is absorbed. Lean cuts of red meat contain three times as much iron as chicken or fish, making it one of the richest sources of iron.

2. Non-heme iron is found in plant-based foods

Non-heme iron is found in sources including cereal grains and fortified cereals. Eggs, legumes, dark green vegetables, dried fruits and nuts are also good sources and are suitable for vegetarians. Absorption of non-heme iron from these foods is substantially lower than heme iron at around 5%.

Absorptions can either be hindered or enhanced depending on the foods you eat alongside them. Non-heme iron from plant sources is sensitive to these other components. Adding meat or vitamin C rich foods in the same meal can increase the absorption of non-heme iron foods by up to four times. On the other hand, drinking tea or coffee can decrease absorption due to the tannins.

Should I take an iron supplement​

Should I take an iron supplement

In order to recover from an iron deficiency, supplementation and diet are key. Supplementation generally involves 100-300mg of iron per day in conjunction with vitamin C to enhance absorption. Switching up your nutritional choices alone will take too long to correct the problem. Some doctors give out iron injections but supplements are preferred as recovering your iron stores is a slow process and can take up to three months.

Always check in with a qualified nutritionist before you begin to take the best iron supplements for you. Regular use of un-needed iron supplements can interfere with zinc and copper absorption and may have negative effects on the immune system! And remember, it’s impossible for a healthy, normal person to absorb too much iron from food, so the best choice is to make adjustments to your diet. Adequate intake of iron rich foods is the key to maintaining exercise performance and achieve maximum results.


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Are you constantly tired, lazy and low on energy? Discover whether you have an iron deficiency or iron anaemia and the best foods and supplements you need to prevent further symptoms.

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