Iron Deficiency Among Athletes

April 19, 2016

By Jenny Schmidt

A common reason for fatigue in athletes is iron-deficiency. Iron is needed for thyroid hormone production involving the conversion from the inactive thyroid hormone, T4, to the active hormone, T3.

Female athletes can benefit from iron-deficiency treatment more than male athletes since women are more prone to developing iron deficiency due to monthly menstruation cycles and a possible diet lacking iron-rich foods.

Athletes practicing and performing during summer months are also at risk for iron deficiency anemia because iron can be lost through sweat.

Severe iron-deficiency leads to iron-deficiency anemia, which is noticed from low hemoglobin and hematocrit levels. Nevertheless, according to endocrinologist Dr. Friedman, mild iron-deficiency leads to low ferritin levels before the drop occurs in hemoglobin and hematocrit levels.

Research shows that patients with low ferritin levels and normal hemoglobin and hematocrit levels experience fatigue that can be reversed by iron treatment. Therefore, it is recommended that athletes who experience fatigue or other iron deficiency signs and symptoms get their ferritin levels checked in order to get an early diagnosis of the treatable disease.

Treatment goals are achieved by taking an oral iron supplement as well as to increase intake of fiber and fluids in order to abstain from being constipated or acquiring black stools.

Daily habit suggestions to increase iron levels and iron absorption include: eating red meat several times a week, cooking in an iron skillet, eating vitamin C-rich foods and avoiding dairy products within two hours of eating the iron-rich food. Taking one or two over the counter iron supplements can help iron levels return to normal in about three to five weeks.

It is important for athletes to monitor serum ferritin, hemoglobin and iron levels every six months for not only low iron levels but high iron levels as well. High iron levels are common among male athletes since they do not have monthly menstruation episodes like women.

If an athlete would like to increase or decrease their iron levels, it is recommended to start modifying their diet first before taking supplements or seeing a medical professional. Maintaining adequate iron levels makes a difference in one’s performance, whether the sport is endurance running or golf.

Eating iron-rich foods at the right time with the right foods will preserve the athlete’s success.