What active women need to know about iron deficiency


Women in particular need to make sure their diets contain adequate iron for good health and performance.

There are several factors to consider when it comes to nutrition, from eating enough protein to including lots of fruits and vegetables. However, have you thought about how much iron you consume through food? It's a key query for active women.

Women are more likely than men to experience iron insufficiency due to biological reasons including menstruation and pregnancy. Additionally, evidence indicates that women who participate in sports or exercise may need to monitor their iron levels even more carefully.

Female athletes may have "increased iron losses linked with haemolysis (the breakdown of red blood cells ), sweating, gastrointestinal bleeding, and exercise-induced acute inflammation," according to a review article in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. The amount you lose depends in part on how frequently and how hard you exercise.

However, it doesn't just effect top athletes. In one of the studies cited, the iron levels of "habitual runners" and inactive women were compared (not Olympians, triathletes, or ultramarathoners ). It was discovered that regular runners had significantly lower iron reserves than inactive women.

Even though it seems bleak, hold off on giving up just yet. Even for those with low iron levels, the advantages of exercise outweigh the hazards, according to experts. When you exercise, you increase your red blood cell count and the turnover of your cells. Additionally, your blood volume is increasing. You're enhancing every cardiovascular health indicator that also boosts oxygen supply. Exercise should therefore be a component of your overall plan if your iron levels are on the low end of normal. Although iron deficiency is a serious health condition that can negatively impact your everyday life and athletic performance, it is typically simple to treat and avoid. What you should know is as follows.

Why is iron important?

Iron is a mineral that is essential to the health of the blood and is present in both animal and plant-based food sources. It is used by the body to make myoglobin, a protein in muscles that stores and distributes oxygen, and haemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that transfers oxygen from the lungs to the body's tissues and organs. Anaemia, a disorder in which the body lacks sufficient or correctly functioning red blood cells, can eventually result from iron deficiency.

According to Danielle Griffen, the founder of Eat Well Crohn's Colitis, "progressive, untreated anaemia develops in circulatory and respiratory abnormalities that might eventually lead to arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat ), an enlarged heart, and heart failure." However, you'll probably notice the signs of low iron well before that.

What are the symptoms you should look out for?

"Fatigue, weakness, poor activity tolerance, and difficulties controlling body temperature are symptoms I commonly see in my private practice clients with low iron levels," adds Griffen. Other warning indicators include pagophagia, pale complexion, brittle or spoon-shaped fingernails, headache, dizziness, glossitis (an irritated tongue ), and lack of appetite (a craving to chew on ice ).

And if you're going to compete, don't expect to break any records (not even against yourself ). Low iron levels, even a partial depletion of the body's stores, are a key "limiting factor" in an athlete's performance, claims Griffen. The mitochondria, referred to as the "powerhouses of our body's cells," are fuelled by oxygen, which depends on iron for transportation and storage. You lose your ability to exercise and aerobic endurance when your iron levels are insufficient. In other words, it seems like every workout is a chore.

What leads to low iron levels?

Post-exercise inflammation is common when you exercise frequently. Since the intestines received little oxygen and blood during exercise, they became irritated. And along with an increase in inflammation comes an increase in the hormone hepcidin, which prevents the gut from absorbing iron. Additionally, intestinal bleeding may contribute to iron loss. Exercise causes the protective mucosal lining of the intestines to deteriorate, which increases gastrointestinal bleeding and gastric distress. Eventually, the mucosal lining will repair, but it will take around 24 hours. Therefore, if you regularly follow an evening workout with a morning sweat session or exercise twice a day, you may have less mucosal lining. Research seems to show that woman's mucosal lining is naturally a little more delicate.

Women are more prone to gastrointestinal problems, and this is mostly due to the way oestrogen interacts with the mucosal lining and the concentration of creatine there, according to the expert. Women have almost 70 per cent fewer reserves than men do, which causes the mucosal lining to age much more quickly.

The consumption of iron is a further consideration.

Many athletic women and female athletes are picky eaters and don't get enough iron to maintain their active lifestyles. They might, for instance, substitute fewer calorie-dense foods for iron-rich foods like red meat and fortified grains.

How can your iron levels be raised?

Fortunately, the primary factor influencing your iron levels is under your control: your food.

Pre-menopausal women should ingest 18mg of iron per day, as per the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA ) for iron. For menopausal women, 8 milligrams is the target.

You should up your consumption of iron-rich foods like beef, beans, dark green vegetables, fortified whole-grain bread, and liver if you do happen to fall below the usual level (this can be determined with simple blood tests ). Also crucial, any additional meal you eat along with those iron sources may either increase or decrease the body's ability to absorb it.

Heme and non-heme types of iron are both available. "Meat, fish, and poultry all contain heme iron, of which only 15 per cent is absorbable. The absorption rate of non-heme iron, which is present in eggs, grains, vegetables, and fruits, ranges from three to eight per cent," according to Griffen.

However, by combining non-heme sources with meat, fish, and poultry, you can increase the generally low absorption rates of those items. Both kinds of vitamin C are more readily absorbed when consumed in foods high in vitamin C, such as oranges and bell peppers. So the next time you make a spinach salad, add some grilled chicken and some lemon juice to the top.

Simply avoid serving it with coffee. Coffee and tea use has been demonstrated to lower iron absorption by 39 and 64 per cent, respectively, when drunk with an iron-rich diet. According to Griffen, foods like unleavened bread, unprocessed cereals, and soybeans contain compounds and vegetable fibre that may, to varying degrees, inhibit the absorption of iron. You don't need to exclude these foods from your diet because they are nutritious. Just counterbalance them with a lot of other foods that are high in iron and improve absorption.

Should you take iron supplements?

Although a healthy, balanced diet is typically the best way to meet your iron needs, for some people, food alone won't be enough. For approval and advice on dose, speak with a doctor prior to using any supplements. When you are given the go-ahead to take additional iron, stick to ferrous iron rather than ferric iron because it is more bioavailable. Taking iron from the first day of your period is also a key recommendation provided it is cleared by your doctor. Be careful with taking daily iron supplements as it may prevent the absorption of iron, especially if your levels get high. In addition to iron, think about vitamin D supplements if you don’t get enough sunlight.

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