While iron deficiency is a common problem among athletes, many athletes unnecessarily take an iron supplement. On the other hand, when iron supplements are actually needed, best practice protocols are not always followed. As a result, iron levels may not be increasing optimally despite taking a supplement. This blog covers all things iron supplement.
First off, you should only take an iron supplement if you have had a blood test to show that your iron levels are low as taking too much iron can be harmful to health. Ferritin represents iron stores in your body. When ferritin levels are <35 ug/L then this would warrant the need for an iron supplement. Alongside ferritin levels, your doctor will also likely measure something called haemoglobin. If both haemoglobin and ferritin levels are low, then this is referred to as iron deficiency anaemia. It’s important to stop and fix iron deficiency as this can easily progress to iron deficiency anaemia if not addressed. Other blood markers will need to be measured alongside your ferritin levels. This is important in order to determine if low ferritin levels are due to inadequate iron intake rather than another cause unrelated to diet.
For those with ferritin levels < 35 ug/L due to an iron deficiency then your healthcare practitioner will likely recommend an iron supplement. Here are some tips to help you get the most out of your iron supplement:
- Choose the right iron supplement: Different iron supplements are made up of different iron salts. Look for a ferrous sulphate preparation containing 100 mg of elemental iron. You should take this supplement each day, but if it is causing you gastrointestinal issues then consider taking it every other day.
- Take your iron at the right time: Consider taking your iron supplement in the morning as this is when it is best absorbed. This is because there is a natural rise in a hormone called hepicidin throughout the day. Hepcidin decreases iron absorption. If you exercise in the morning, then aim to have your supplement within 30 minutes of finishing exercise. This is because hepcidin spikes about 3 hours after exercise. By taking the supplement immediately after exercise there is enough time for iron absorption before the post-exercise hepcidin spike.
- Watch the foods and beverages you consume: There are certain foods and beverages that interfere with iron absorption. These should be avoided within the 30 minutes before and after taking your iron supplement. This includes: tea, coffee, red wine (shouldn’t be an issue if taking in morning), calcium rich foods and supplements, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
- Add some vitamin C: Iron absorption can be enhanced by vitamin C. With your iron supplement, try to consume some vitamin C rich food or beverages, such as a cup of orange juice or a citrus fruit. Alternatively, you can take a supplement containing 50-100 mg of vitamin C to enhance the absorption of iron. Some iron supplements will also contain vitamin C, so be sure to read the label.
Iron supplements shouldn’t be required long term. Iron levels should be re-evaluated in about 3 months to ensure that ferritin has risen to an appropriate range. If they are still not within the normal range despite taking an iron supplement regularly then there might be something else going on that needs to be evaluated. Even if your iron levels are within the normal range, they should still be continued to be regularly monitored afterwards to ensure that they stay in an optimal range despite no longer taking a supplement.