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Iron: A nutrient of concern for athletes

Iron deficiency and iron toxicity are both dangerous conditions.

Day 8: A nutrient of concern for us all

I've briefly mentioned Vitamin D, calcium, and B-12 as nutrients to consider if you are a vegetarian or vegan. There is more than one nutrient that is of particular interest to not only vegetarians and vegans, but for everyone, including athletes. This guy is called iron.

iron is a mineral that is mostly found in animal products, with the exception of some plants like spinach. Similarly to calcium, the absorption rate in plants is not as high as in animals, making it a nutrient of concern for vegetarians and vegans.

The reason I have mentioned it as a nutrient of concern for athletes or highly active individuals is because, when you pound your feet, like in tennis, or run on the street, you "heel strike" each time you take a step. This destroys red blood cells. Since iron's main role is to make hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that carry oxygen to your cells and myoglobin, a protein that provides oxygen to your muscles, the ability to get oxygen will, therefore, diminish. Female athletes are the most at risk of iron deficiency since they are destroying red blood cells through exercise and menstruation. Females need 18 mg of iron a day, whereas males only need 8 mg a day.

In my practice, I see iron deficiency ALL THE TIME. Symptoms of iron deficiency are fatigue, feeling dizzy when you stand up, general weakness, cold hands and feet, brittle nails, and fast heartbeat. Most people describe it as driving with the hand brake on. Iron deficiency is easily preventable, so why drive with the hand brake on if you don't have to?

The easy solution to iron deficiency might be to go to the pharmacy and grab an iron supplement; but, please don't do that. Iron, in excess, is toxic. Symptoms of toxicity are very similar to those of deficiency. In fact, some people have a genetic predisposition to iron toxicity called hemochromatosis. This is very dangerous and leads to organ damage. The right solution? Ask your doctor for a blood test to asses your iron status and, at the very least, rule out anemia as a root cause of your symptoms. And, of course, you can click your link below to get a complete health and wellness assessment of iron and all the other pieces of your body's puzzle.

Jen Pfeilfer, MS, APD

Dr. Thomas R. Schneider, Medical Director

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