Iron deficiency anemia is a condition that leads to smaller than normal, and decreased amount of red blood cells. This is a bad thing, because red blood cells are responsible for carrying and delivering oxygen throughout the body. Smaller cells have less room to carry oxygen molecules.
Iron deficiency typically occurs when a person doesn't get enough iron in their diet, or from blood loss (injury, surgery, or female reproductive cycles).
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. Lastly, endurance athletes (especially runners), are at risk which we discuss in detail below.
In athletes, iron deficiency is probably the most common cause of anemia.
In some cases, there are hidden sources of iron loss such as sweating (not a major cause but doesn't help) and in the gut during intense exercise (some bleeding occurs in the gut with intense, long term exercise). Other causes include urinary iron loss and exercise induced hemolysis (red blood cell damage due to repetive force).
Lastly, undiagnosed gluten sensitivity can be a reason why a person has low iron or chronic anemia without explanation.
Symptoms of Anemia
Fatigue (that never really goes away)
Rapid heart beat
Shortness of breath
Causes of Anemia in Athletes
Excess Iron loss through sweat
GI Tract related blood loss
NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs)
Urinary Iron loss
Exercise induced hemolysis (red blood cell damage/loss due to repetitive force)
Diagnosis & Treatment Of Anemia
The first step is to identify the cause through appropriate lab testing. It's important to find out the why of iron deficiency before beginning treatment.
Replacing iron in the diet with iron-rich foods (both animal and plant based) like clams, oysters, liver, beef, turkey, sardines, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds and dark leafy greens is a simple way to start treatment.