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How Iron Deficiency Can Affect Female Athletes

Posted by Yasodara Udayamurthy, M.D. on May 18, 2019, 9:57:07 AM

Iron plays a very important role in your body. Not only does it serve an integral role in energy metabolism and acid-base balance, but it also helps with oxygen transport. Iron is a mineral found in hemoglobin, the substance in red blood cells that helps carry oxygen from your lungs throughout the rest of your body to your organs and tissues. People with an iron deficiency have bodies that struggle to make enough oxygen-carrying red blood cells, which can leave them feeling tired or short of breath. When you consider that women are already more prone to iron deficiency than men (this is largely due to the blood loss associated with menstruation), and that exercise increases iron loss within the body, it comes as no surprise female athletes are particularly susceptible to iron deficiency (or anemia). 

Iron Deficiency Reduces Performance

Oxygen molecules bind to the iron in hemoglobin and are then taken to the rest of your body. If you’re iron deficient, your tissues and organs likely won’t be as oxygenated as someone who has enough of the mineral in their body. What this means for female athletes is they might notice a decrease in performance abilities.

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Symptoms that point to iron deficiency are increased heart rate and shortness of breath, headaches, dizziness, general fatigue, or exhaustion and weakness. Those aren’t symptoms a soccer, softball, or basketball player wants when a game is on the line. 

If you’re still not sure whether you have an iron deficiency, pay attention to specific cravings you might be having. The desire to eat ice chips, clay, dirt, or even paper can point to the issue. If you’ve noticed yourself feeling sluggish, tired, short of breath, or headachy, especially in the middle of exercising, combined with the craving to eat ice chips, there’s a good chance you may have an iron deficiency. 

Why Women Are More Prone

The biggest contributor to iron deficiency in women is menstruation. The blood loss during this time will leave most women naturally low in iron. That situation gets worse when it’s combined with exercise. Training forces your body to create more red blood cells, which increases the need for iron. Iron is also lost in your sweat, so training or playing hard, especially if you’re already iron deficient, is a double hit on your body. Iron almost exclusively comes from diet, so women who avoid red meat, which is a great source of dietary iron, may have some trouble meeting their body’s iron needs. 

How to Boost Your Iron

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To address an iron deficiency, you first need a diagnosis to make sure that’s what the issue is. Make an appointment with your physician, who will likely run a panel of blood tests to pinpoint what’s causing your symptoms. If it’s determined you’re indeed iron deficient, your doctor may have you take iron supplements if the deficiency is substantial, but it can likely be addressed through dietary modification. Eating iron-rich meat, fruits, and vegetables can help, especially when training or menstruating. Foods to consider are spinach, broccoli, strawberries, clams, mussels, oysters, beef, baked beans, lentils, perch, salmon, tuna, and halibut. 

It’s important to remember that you shouldn’t try to diagnose an iron deficiency on your own – only a blood test will be able to determine if that’s actually what you’re dealing with or not.


Dr. Yasodara Udayamurthy is a board-certified Internal Medicine physician at Kelsey-Seybold’s Spring Medical and Diagnostic Center. Her clinical interests include Cardiology, diabetes, Geriatrics and preventive care.


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