Alexandra Borrelly Lebrun is a pharmacist and has studied sports nutrition and natural medicine. She works alongside her husband, a former professional XTERRA athlete & 2005 XTERRA World Champ, Nico Lebrun, at Organicoach, where they create optimized nutrition plans for athletes of all levels.
We recently caught up with Alex to learn more about iron – how much do we need, what do we need to eat, and how can we hold onto it.
Q. So. Tell us about iron. Why do we need it?
A. There’s a reason that iron is associated with strength. Iron Man, iron will, iron fist. In our bodies, iron is found as hemoglobin in red blood cells and as myoglobin in muscles. Hemoglobin is essential for transferring oxygen in your blood from the lungs to the tissues. Myoglobin, in muscle cells, accepts, stores, transports and releases oxygen.
Without adequate iron, we tire easily, lose strength, can experience headaches and memory problems, have trouble with the cold, and even lose our hair. Known as anemia, low iron is something that sneak up on even the most fit athlete, and can be confused with overtraining, general fatigue, or even depression.
Q. How do we know if we have enough iron?
A. If you suspect that you are anemic because of iron deficiency, then definitely go see a doctor. The essential tests that check blood iron levels include a hemoglobin test, a serum iron test, a total iron-binding capacity test and a serum ferritin test.
Ferritin – the reserve form of iron - is one of the important markers. It must be between 50 and 200 nanograms per mililiter of blood for athletes. Non-athletes won’t notice a ferritin level under 50, but an athlete will notice a loss of power and VO2max under 50.
Q. What if I learn I’m anemic because I don’t have enough iron ?
A. The best way to get more iron is from animal sources, such as red meat, chicken, fish, eggs, and oysters. Offel, or the organ meats of animals, is another good source of iron if you like them.
If you don’t eat meat, you can get iron from sea vegetables such as spirulina, wakame, and dulse. Lentils, chickpeas, quinoa, and spinach are also good sources. Sprouted lentils and grains tend to have more iron.
When eating iron, it’s also helpful to consume vitamin C at the same meal through citrus fruits, kiwis, and most fresh vegetables.
Q. Is there anything I need to stay away from if I don’t have enough iron ?
A. Coffee, tea, and wine can block iron absorption when in the intestine at the same time because they contain polyphenols. Calcium and dairy products has been shown to inhibit iron by up to 50 percent when eaten in conjunction with foods containing iron.
Q. Is there anything else I can do ?
A. It’s always good to take care of your intestinal flora, so that you can absorb nutrients efficiently. Take probiotics, reduce sugar and acidic foods, and avoid gluten if you are sensitive. If you don’t eat animal products, make sure you get enough vitamin B12.