Iron is absolutely integral to humans, make no mistake, without sufficient replenishment of iron we would die. Sorry to be morbid, but there appears to be this misguided conception that only women (specifically menstruating women) are risk of low iron levels aka iron deficiency anaemia. The fact is iron is vital to numerous bodily functions, and integral ones at that, it is fair to say that iron is an indispensible element to the human body.
It is beyond the scope of this post to discuss the full mechanisms and reasoning of why iron is so important to us, but here are some quick fire facts:
1.) Men & Women need iron- Males and females need iron daily for optimal functioning and performance, males need approximately 8mg a day, teenage boys need approximately 11mg, whilst women, and specifically female athletes need around 18mg a day in order to maintain homeostasis (constant internal and external bodily functions).
2.) Iron needs- Women need more iron than men to compensate for menstruation cycles. The monthly period results in bleeding, and consequently a loss of iron which is one of the main components of haemoglobin.
3.) Iron deficiency anaemia- This is all too common in females, but also has a relatively high prevalence in athletes, but this can usually be rectified by some dietary amendments.
4.) Haem (animal) & Non- haem (plant) iron- Although iron can be consumed from both animal and plant sources, the iron in plants (non-haem) is not as readily absorbed by the human body, so red meats, poultry or fish should be consumed to make up for this when possible.
5.) Blood loss from endurance exercise- Endurance athletes have been known to lose iron via bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract) from episodes of runners colitis (for example). Runners colitis is where the colon bleeds in response to the impact of running and associated poor blood supply to this area. The acute bouts of blood loss can result in discomfort and energy depletion because of the low iron levels and consequent reduced oxygen delivery. The blood in stools is not always visible, it’s known as occult (hidden) blood loss.
6.) Other causes of blood loss during exercise- Iron loss via bleeding from the GI tract might also occur because of regular aspirin or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. The drugs can cause irritation to the walls of the GI tract which can result in bleeding and iron loss. It is therefore important that you monitor your iron levels when on anti-inflammatory medication, and it’s a good idea to consume iron rich foods such as red meat, poultry and fish, as well as non-haem (plant) sources including green leafy veg. If your intakes of these food sources are low then consider a multi vitamin and mineral.
7.) Sweating- Iron is also lost via sweating, albeit these losses are quite low but over time this can add up resulting in a deficit that may lead to anaemia.
8.) Blood in urine- Similar to how endurance activities can cause blood in the stools, the jarring nature of running might also result in blood in the urine. This can be worsened by dehydration, so be sure to consume a minimum of 6-8 gulps of fluid every 15-20mins of physical activity.