Despite your best intentions to get in your workouts, if fatigue hits, it’s hard to meet your resolutions. So if you are tired of being tired, you just might need to have your blood iron levels checked.
Iron is a master player in the body, leading the way for several important physiological functions, including transporting oxygen to your red blood cells and producing ATP, adenosine triphosphate production (ATP), which is essential for cellular energy. Low levels of iron are associated with fatigue, decreased athletic performance, concentration, mood and even hair loss or increased hair shedding.
A recent study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found an association between depression and decreased ferritin levels before the occurrence of anemia. Adequate iron levels are also necessary for proper thyroid production. Clearly optimal iron levels are important for both hormones and overall health.
While this may come as a surprise, iron doesn’t only affect your energy. According to recent research it can also have an impact on your waistline, and vice versa. One study published in the British Journal of Nutrition, evaluated adolescents between nine and 13 years of age for body fat and visceral fat (otherwise known as fat around the organs in the abdominal area), along with measurements of iron status. The subjects with the highest percentage of body fat and visceral fat mass were over two times more likely to have insufficient iron status.
Obesity and iron absorption
By the same token, obesity has also been found to affect iron absorption and the response to iron production. Obese women are more likely to suffer from iron deficiency than their normal weight counterparts, according to a study published in the Obesity journal. For those who have experienced low iron and the fatigue associated with it, however, it’s a catch 22 since activity tends to decrease with depleting energy levels.
Determine your risk factor
Ferritin is considered an iron-storage protein that keeps the iron in a dissolvable and usable state, which also makes the iron non-toxic to cells around it. A blood test for ferritin measures the iron that is readily available for use. Optimal levels in women should be close to 70 and 100 for men. Women with heavy menstrual bleeding are more susceptible to low iron levels, which makes it one of the top must-have blood tests.
Who else is at risk for low iron
The following groups are those that are most at risk for becoming deficient:
– pregnant women
– marathon runners
– people who take aspirin
– individuals with parasitic infections
– ulcerative colitis
– Crohn’s disease
– gastrointestinal cancers
– other conditions that cause blood loss or malabsorption.
Too much iron?
On the flip side, abnormally high levels of ferritin can increase the risk of heart disease in both men and women because of the tendency to increase inflammation. If your ferritin is too high (more common with men or post-menopausal women), you should speak to your doctor about the possibility of donating blood;
Treatment for low iron
If your iron is too low, use a supplement of iron citrate. This form is non-constipating (one of the most common complaints with iron supplements). In addition, I recommend taking your iron with 1,000 mg of vitamin C, which promotes the absorption of iron in the digestive tract.
Maximize absorption: Supplements 101
If you find after a few months of supplementation your energy still hasn’t hit an upswing, you may want to look at items that decrease absorption of iron. For example, excessive consumption of caffeine and alcohol can affect iron absorption in intestines. Even calcium interferes with iron absorption, so be sure to separate these two supplements by at least four hours or more. Instead, take your iron at lunchtime and your calcium before bed. This schedule works even if you are on thyroid medication and take it in the morning, since both iron and calcium will reduce the effectiveness of your medication if they are taken to close together. It may take months to get your ferritin levels up, so diligence is key.
Natasha Turner, N.D. is a naturopathic doctor, Chatelaine magazine columnist, and author of the bestselling books The Hormone Diet and her newest release, The Supercharged Hormone Diet, now available across Canada. She is also the founder of the Toronto-based Clear Medicine Wellness Boutique. For more wellness advice from Natasha Turner, click here.