Iron deficiency is the number one nutritional disorder in the world according to the World Health Organization. Over 30 percent of the world’s population is iron deficient. Iron deficiency is the most prevalent nutritional problem worldwide. Iron deficiency anemia and cycling do not play together well. Fortunately, it’s a condition that’s relatively easy to deal with.
The Importance of Iron
Despite food fortifications in the United States, iron deficiency is on the rise in certain populations. Iron deficiency can result in premature births, low birth weight babies, delayed growth and development, delayed normal infant activity, and movement. Iron deficiency can result in poor memory or poor cognitive skills, and poor performance in school and work. So it’s no wonder anemia and cycling effects your cycling performance.
Anemia and Cycling
Iron deficiency anemia is a common type of anemia — a condition in which blood lacks adequate healthy red blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen to the body’s tissues. As the name implies, iron deficiency anemia is due to insufficient iron. Without enough iron, your body can’t produce enough hemoglobin — which is a substance in red blood cells that enables them to carry oxygen. As a result, anemia and cycling may leave you tired and short of breath.
The Many Faces of Anemia
Symptoms of anemia are many. They may include chronic fatigue, weakness, dizziness, headaches, depression, sore tongue, sensitivity to cold (low body temp) and shortness of breath doing simple tasks like climbing stairs, walking short distances, doing housework. If that’s not enough you may also experience restless leg syndrome and pica (the weird desire to chew paper, dirt or non-food items.) Still more — a loss of interest in work, recreation, relationships, and intimacy…. Damn.
What is Iron
Iron plays a crucial role in the body. Iron is what the oxygen (O2) is bonded to in the hemogloben of which is then transported around the body. Each hemoglobin is then capable of carrying four oxygen molecules. These vehicles, also known as red blood cells or hemoglobin, carry oxygen throughout the body to release energy in the form of carbohydrates (sugars).
Iron is one of the most abundant minerals on earth. About two-thirds of the body’s iron is found in hemoglobin. An adequate supply of iron is necessary for the body to produce hemoglobin. If too little iron is available, fewer and/or smaller red blood cells are produced, leading to decreased oxygen carrying capacity of the blood. Because of anemia and cycling, you could actually become dizzy while cycling.
Co2 and Oxygen
Iron also plays an important role in carrying carbon dioxide from cells as well as many other significant functions to keep bodies running optimally. It’s pretty obvious by now that the harder you cycle the more iron is needed to transport enough oxygen to keep up with energy demands. If you don’t have enough iron circulating around your body, you won’t be able to produce adequate energy and you get tired. You may not even realize that you are declining in iron and that anemia and cycling is affecting your performance.
Women Versus Men
A recent survey of nearly 25,000 Americans found about 10 percent of young women to be iron deficient and 3-to-5 percent anemic. In contrast, iron deficiency anemia is rare among men, who lose little iron physiologically. So iron deficiency anemia, often mild and subtle, is common among female athletes. In contrast, anemia and cycling is somewhat rare among males.
Iron Deficiency Causes
Iron deficiency can be the result of numerous factors. Conditions that result in iron deficiency may include menstruation, blood donation, surgeries, and accidents. Iron deficiency can also be caused by certain medications, dietary supplements or substances that cause bleeding such as pain relievers with aspirin, and/or alcohol abuse.
Women Most at Risk
Women are most at risk. Men are rarely iron deficient; but when they are, it is generally due to blood loss from the digestive tract diseases that affect iron absorption. Except for those who are strict vegetarians, men rarely have dietary iron deficiency.
Blood consists of blood cells and liquid blood plasma. Sports anemia is characterized by a rise in blood plasma, making the percentage of hemoglobin lower. The plasma volume can — in extreme cases — shoot up to 25 percent. Due to the increase of the plasma volume, endurance athletes have a much greater circulating blood volume than sedentary humans. For example; non athletes have a blood volume of 5 liters. Endurance athletes have a blood volume from 6 to 7 liters. Plasma increase is a training effect — a physiological adaptation of the body to endurance training.
Not Typically an Issue
Sports anemia is usually not treated. If treatment is done, then athletes may be asked to refrain from training for 3 to 5 days and have blood tests repeated to produce normal results to offset anemia and cycling.
Too Much Iron
Of particular concern is athletes taking iron in the hopes of increasing their performance. They can develop iron overload and eventually experience complications. But increased iron levels do not improve performance. In fact extra iron is stored in body organs and can result in cirrhosis of the liver, heart failure, and possibly cancer.
Causes of Iron Deficiency
- Losing iron: any form of blood loss including the use of anti-inflammatory drugs that cause gastrointestinal bleeding.
- Heavy sweating
- Prolonged high demand for iron: heavy cycling training over many weeks or months.
- Lack of iron in the diet.
- A combination of the above causes.
Your Mom Was Right
Your mother and her allie Popeye (a spinach eating cartoon character) was right about spinach. Although the iron found in vegetables, called “non-heme” iron, does not absorb quite as well as iron found in animal foods called “heme iron”. A well rounded diet with both types included in your diet each week is recommended.
A few examples of food high in iron include the following:
- Cocoa powder, dark chocolate
- Liver, or chicken liver
- Clams, oysters
- Beef steak, chicken
- Tomatoes lentils, soybeans, spinach
- Dried apricots, dried fruits
If you do heavy cycle training and/or are a woman and you’re concerned about anema and cycling, get your iron levels tested sooner rather than later. At least if nothing is wrong you can use it as a benchmark for the next test.
Just Be Aware
It’s wise to just be aware and think about what you put into your body. This is one of the biggest reasons for iron deficiency; not eating right. A few small adjustments to your diet could make all the difference to your energy levels and morale a few months down the road.
When to See a doctor
Iron deficiency anemia isn’t something to diagnose online. If you develop signs or symptoms that suggest iron deficiency anemia, see your doctor rather than taking iron supplements on your own.