Anemia is a condition that leads to smaller than normal red blood cells. This is a bad thing, because red blood cells carry and deliver oxygen throughout the body. Smaller cells have less oxygen carrying capacity.
In athletes, lack of iron is probably the most important cause of anemia. Iron-deficiency typically occurs when a person doesn’t get enough iron in their diet, or from blood loss (injury or female reproductive cycles). In some cases, there are hidden sources of iron loss such as sweating and in the gut during intense exercise. Lastly, undiagnosed gluten-sensitivity can be a reason why a person has low iron or chronic anemia without explanation.
Symptoms of Iron Deficiency
- Fatigue (that never really goes away)
- Shortness of breath
- Rapid heart beat
- Poor recovery
Who's at Risk?
Most often, women of reproductive age have the highest risk of iron deficiency anemia due to blood loss (through menstruation). Vegans and vegetarians are also at risk, if they don’t eat a diet rich in iron containing vegetables. Of all athletes, runners are the highest risk. You can lose iron through sweating, bleeding in the gut (some occurs normally), and when too many red cells are destroyed during the course of exercise.
- The first step is to identify the cause through appropriate lab testing. Its important to find out the why before treating.
- Replace iron in the diet with iron rich foods like red meat and dark leafy greens.
- Iron replacement (always take with vitamin C – it will more than double the absorbtion of iron!).
You can read a lot more about the causes and diagnosis of iron deficiency anemia in our blog article.