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Improve Performance and Health with Iron

According to the World Health Organization, iron deficiency is the most common mineral deficiency worldwide, with women and children the most vulnerable. Others that may possibly be vulnerable to iron deficiency are those who participate in endurance related sports, those who follow a vegan diet (as vegans consume the less absorbable form non-heme iron), and those who suffer from any medical condition that causes blood loss.

What is Iron?

hemoglobin_molecule_iron_oxygen_heme_blood_cell_picIron is an essential trace mineral that needs to be provided in our diets. Two thirds of iron is found in hemoglobin, the protein in red bloods cells that carries oxygen to cells. This is one reason why an optimal level of iron is important for endurance athletes. Optimal levels of iron are also essential for optimal health and a healthy immune system, as iron has an important role in the production of DNA, energy, and cognitive function.

Heme and non-heme iron are two forms of dietary iron. Heme iron is found in animal-based foods such as steak. Non-heme iron is found in plant derived foods, such as spinach. This is the form of iron added to iron enriched or iron fortified foods. It is important to understand which form of iron you consume as some forms of iron are absorbed better than others.

What are the Symptoms of Iron Deficiency?

Minor iron deficiency can lead to symptoms like tiredness, fatigue, lack of stamina, and decreased concentration levels. If iron levels are not addressed at this stage, more serious symptoms may arise, such as dizziness, insomnia, breathlessness, headaches, etc. This stage of iron deficiency is termed iron deficiency anemia.

If iron levels continue to decline at this stage, more serious health related conditions may present themselves, including impaired immunity function and possible heart problems. Athletes with low iron levels may experience a reduction in their performance as well as several other symptoms.

Supplementing with Iron

green_smoothie_juice_spinach_healthy_picThe body does not absorb iron very well. And the form of iron affects how much iron the body absorbs. One form of iron, ferrous sulphate, which is commonly prescribed by doctors, has as low as a 3–10% absorption rate in the body. This may lead to possible side effects like upset stomachs, caused by the iron not absorbed.

The RDA for iron is between 8 mg and 25 mg. Higher dosages may be needed to build up iron levels if you are anemic. This should only be done under the supervision of a qualified doctor.

For optimal performance levels, your iron levels will need to be in the upper (safe) range.

A word of caution, however, if you do consider supplementing iron. While low levels of iron have a detrimental effect on your health, supplementing with iron when you do not need extra can be just as dangerous. A simple blood test can determine if your iron levels are low and if you need to supplement extra iron.

Any parent considering supplementing iron may consider using iron in the form of carbonyl iron, as this is one of the safest forms. (In case your children accidentally gets hold of the iron supplement).

Regular blood tests while supplementing with iron will also inform you when iron levels have returned to optimal levels. To achieve optimal body composition, it is essential you have optimal levels of iron. It is also worth mentioning that certain nutrients can enhance iron absorption. Vitamin C for example, enhances the absorption of iron. Therefore, if you are eating a less absorbable form of iron, other types of food can be eaten in combination to enhance iron absorption. Polyphenols, phytates, and calcium can also decrease the amount of iron absorbed.

The Bottom Line

orange_lemon_lime_juice_vitamin_c_healthy_picMo Farrah's coach, Alberto Salazar, stated that iron was one of three supplements he administers Mo as part of his supplementation program. (Telegraph Feb 20, 2013) Vitamin D and beta alanine are the other two.

As long as you get regular checks to determine if your iron level is within the safe range, iron supplementation may be considered for anyone who is looking to improve their performance in endurance related sports or anyone experiencing iron deficiency related symptoms. Supplementing with iron will have numerous benefits for people requiring extra iron, but supplementing when it is not needed may be dangerous to your health.

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