Talking Iron with Hayley Benson
15 May 2017
“You know how, as endurance athletes, we all tend to worry about not having enough iron? We know the theory: iron is needed for energy – pass the juicy steak, raw spinach, and yummy kale please. Let’s not forget that for an extra hit of iron we should add a generous dose of vitamin C, to boost the iron absorption. Iron is a notoriously complex topic, with the primary role to carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body, maintain a healthy immune system, and for aiding energy production. So, when we get fatigued from heavy training, which we invariably do, it is all too tempting to say, “I’m anemic, I need more iron!”. Let me reach for that over-the-counter all solving iron supplement. I scream, “Please don’t!” I’ve found out the hard way that truth be told we can store too much iron in the body, and that can be toxic to the liver. In my case I was blissfully unaware that I had way too much iron in my body. The routine blood work for your annual physical exam does not usually include iron serum levels, or ferritin – a measure of the body’s ability to store iron. Now, routine blood work for a physical does include Hemoglobin levels (iron is needed to make hemoglobin) and liver function tests. These levels may be elevated if the body is storing too much iron.
Let me tell you my experience. My Hemoglobin was high/normal, although my liver function AST (aspartate transaminase), and ALT (alanine transaminase) tests were high. But if you are keen to get the full picture of your blood iron, ask for iron serum and ferritin analysis. To be precise the technical term for iron overload is ‘hemochromatosis’. The lucky ones will be asymptomatic, while others will have some, or all of, fatigue, joint pain, and darkening of the skin. Now here’s the good news! If you do happen to be the person who stores excess iron there is a simple fix. Donate blood and for good measure drink black tea with your meals to help block that iron absorption. You’ll be asking, “How often should I donate blood?” Once levels are under control it doesn’t need to be that often, maybe 3 times a year.
I found out that my iron level was high by having a few months of feeling awful, my body just felt ‘out-of-sorts’, and my feeling of fatigue was just unbearable. Exhausted, unwilling to train, it was all I could do to get through the working day. I felt like I was lost in a Bermuda Triangle of depression, anxiety and stress. Depressed because I’d, kind of, lost my identity as an athlete, anxious about the future, and that I would be able to adequately care for my family. Roadside naps are not really built into a workday. Stressed because training is my stress relief and I could no longer do this.
I needed detailed blood work to find out what was going on. You’d think, with my complaints of fatigue it was suspected that my iron would be low. Not off the charts high as it turned out to be. I was also carrying a very active form of Epstein Barr Virus (EBV). The virus that causes Mononucleosis. Whether my fatigue was related to EBV AND the high blood iron is not clear. High iron can cause fatigue, but so does the EBV.
When my symptoms were at their worst I told Shawn (my husband), “I would rather have a broken leg than feel like this. A broken leg you can see, and it has a finite time for bone healing. People look at me and can’t see there is anything wrong, people cannot understand how desperately tired I am!”
The athlete in me wanted to push through this. I am used to performing while fatigued. I’ve raced Ironman, and crushed Pikes Peak Marathon – one of the hardest marathons out there. But this is a different kind of fatigue. Not tired legs fatigue, it is a brain-fogged fatigue. Every time I tried to exert myself (and by my own standards I was not exerting myself much, just some light exercise), I would crash a few hours later. I felt the desperate need to pull over to the side of the road, and to take a nap. All I could do, no matter how much I tried to override it in my mind, was to lie down. I could not remember what it was like to not feel tired. I became scared to do anything, as I didn’t want to bring on the fatigue and to be unable to function. I must work and take care of my family, I felt like I had to really budget my energy resources.
Slowly with the help of dietary changes and supplements I am getting better, but it certainly hasn’t happened overnight. My immune system function has improved and I have my blood-iron levels under control. I had some good days, and gradually there were more good days than bad, and now only a bad day every now and again. On the good days I had glimmers of my former self, able to sneak in a run albeit short and not feel like I was at ‘death’s door’, afterwards. I ran barefoot at times to feel more connected to the earth and this seemed to help. It reawakened that aspect of ‘play’ into my life, which as adults we should do more of. I felt like my 5 years-old daughter dodging the cracks in the pavement, in my case, to avoid hurting my feet. I became able to do some yoga, to breathe and to forgive my body for letting me down, and believe that maybe things were getting back towards ‘normal’ again.
I’ve changed my goal/performance focus for now, and decided how I want to project myself – minus the athlete part of me. I am determined to model inspiration, hope, trust, and to function from a base of compassion and forgiveness.
I tell myself that I will emerge from this a stronger and better person for it all – but I’ll sure need a bit of hand-holding along the way!
We all fight our own battles; be it health battles, relationship battles, job battles. You will probably have your own. Life is fluid, and cyclical. We are all in the same ocean; it’s just that some of us are riding different waves. When you are on a high wave – cherish it. When you are on a low wave – know that things WILL change.”
Written by Hayley Benson, proud ambassador for Newton Running, proud Mom to Sierra and equally proud wife of Shawn. Worth a mention Physical Therapist, Triathlon coach, Pro-triathlete, and die-hard trail runner 🙂
Hayley’s Newton Running shoe of choice: Women’s MV3