Iron and the female athlete

Iron and the Female Athlete

Iron is a major deal for female athletes. Not only do athletes require more iron than the general population – but being female multiplies those needs. Being an endurance athlete is hard work and requires increased dietary iron. Every time your foot hits the ground, blood cells are damaged. Iron is lost through sweat. Red blood cells and blood vessels are constantly being turnover. And then you have a monthly blood loss on top of that. Yikes.

Low iron or iron anemia can cause fatigue, fogginess, frequent injury or illness, loss of power or endurance, high exertional heart rate, pale skin, cold hands, headaches and irritability. It also drags your performance down. Not only for the above mentioned symptomatic problems, but for the fact that iron builds the hemoglobin that carries oxygen to your working muscles and carbon dioxide away. Pretty big deal in endurance athletics.

There are two types of iron found in food. Non-Heme iron is found in plant foods and absorbed at about 2-20%. Good sources are lentils, beans, molasses, raisins and dark leafy greens. Heme iron is found in red and dark meat and absorbed at about 15-35%. Liver is an especially good source. Crazy good.

As with any vitamin or mineral, more is definitely not better. Supplementing iron causes a whole list of gastric upset from nausea to diarrhea. It is best to get iron from whole foods, and any good doctor will encourage those with slightly low iron profiles to eat better. If you do feel like you need to supplement, I would advise getting your levels tested beforehand by your GP with a simple blood test. Outside of some very unpleasant side effects, iron supplementation has been shown to be a contributor to heart disease and cancer in some studies. This is due to the potential for iron overload when popping pills.

The other trick is to always eat your high iron food with a good source of vitamin C since it increases absorption. A bowl of oatmeal sweetened with molasses and blueberries for breakfast will certainly start the day off right. And yum! Just try to take your latte later on or well in advance, as the caffeine in coffee and calcium in milk reduces the effect. Cooking in cast iron also helps – especially if you are cooking acidic foods.

Regular: Female athletes with regular periods should look at getting over 18 milligrams per day.

Pregnant: You may be training less intensely and not loosing iron each month but making a new person and nearly doubling your blood volume takes a lot of iron. Aim for at least 27 milligrams each day.

Postpartum: Iron is one of those minerals that is passed in very small quantities in breast milk. However, it has been shown that babies can use over 50% of the iron found in breast milk as compared to the less than 12% that they can extract from infant formula. Therefore, if breast feeding, you should ensure that you eat rich sources of iron to make it as available as possible to your baby. At least 10 milligrams per day is recommended, 5-10 milligrams than that more if you are also menstruating. Don’t worry though… babies are born with an iron store that lasts 5-6 months… I am sure no coincidence that this is also when their bodies become ready to process food.

Of course, there are other factors. For instance, vitamin K helps mobilize iron from their stores. You may have a malapsorption disorder or issue.

I feel like the big reason that 30% of the world’s population may have iron deficiency anemia (WHO) is the prevalence of low nutrient, high calorie food that has flooded our lives. Nature in all her wisdom has provided us with everything we need to thrive. Thrive on.

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