Updated: Nov 16
Iron is a very important mineral that we need adequate amounts of in the body to function well as cyclists.
Iron is often common subject among female athletes. As endurance athletes we need iron as it is important for energy metabolism and oxygen transportation. Iron is found in our blood and transports oxygen from our lunges to around the body including our muscles We tend to use more iron that other populations. Then as women who regularly menstruate we lose levels of iron through our blood. The condition of low iron is called anaemia and considered a common condition for female cyclists and runners. The main symptom being fatigue. Anaemia is easily treated with quite simply taking an iron supplements and increasing levels of iron in your diet.
There is also something called iron overload, usually through the following causes, through excessive iron supplementation, or the genetic condition hemochromatosis or a misdiagnosis and combination of the two due to iron over load and anaemia having similar symptoms of fatigue. Even through hemochromatosis is far less common than iron deficiency, it can be a lot more sinister.
With the presence of the HFE gene in it's worse case being a double gene the body lacks the protein to tell the body to stop absorbing iron when it has enough. Not only does excess iron cause fatigue and poor recovery on the bike, due to over oxidation. But over time if not treated it can cause liver damage, diabetes where the literally the organs turn to rust. Build up on the brain causes brain fog. Another issue is that it's so often misdiagnosed by doctors, so left untreated causing depression and anxiety for years. Unfortunately hemochromatosis is less easily treated than anaemia, although there are some things you can change in your diet, taking out iron from your diet would leave you nutritionally deficient. The most effective treatment is the removal of your blood like a blood donation, which is not ideal as an athlete and can leave you very weak.
You iron levels can be interpreted through a blood test, for women if it is below 10ng/mL it's too low and indicates you could have anaemia and if it's above 200ng/mL it may suggest you have hemochromatosis and you should follow up with a genetics test.
A big problem is that many women are taking on extra iron that don't need is as so many sports products, especially the ones marketed to women contain iron and vitamin C to help with the absorption of iron. So it's very important to know your iron levels so you can choose wisely!
I have my own story with hemochromatosis and I will be sharing my experiences as a cyclists with hemochromatosis in my next post.