The One Nutrient You May Be Missing & Not Know It, From A Longevity Expert
When it comes to nutrient deficiencies, there are a few vitamins and minerals that gain a ton of hype. Vitamin D is a standard one, as are magnesium, omega-3s, and, of course, those precious B vitamins. So when we spoke to Gil Blander, Ph.D., internationally recognized biologist, longevity expert, and founder of InsideTracker, on the mindbodygreen podcast, we had to ask: Are there any underrated nutrients we're still missing?
His answer? Another common—yet still overlooked!—player: "I was surprised to see how often premenopausal women, especially women who are exercising, have a significant issue with iron, and they are not aware of that," he says.
Why women are predominantly low in iron.
It makes sense that Blander sees so many individuals low in iron; iron deficiency affects about 20 to 25% of the world's population, after all, primarily women. That’s because common causes of iron deficiency include heavy bleeding during menstruation and pregnancy (as the growing baby needs greater amounts of blood)—both of which predominantly affect premenopausal women. Of course, these are not the only causes of iron deficiency (others include inadequate nutrition or certain medical conditions), but it does make sense why the stats are higher in women.
As for the exercising bit, an intense workout increases your red blood cell production (which is where your iron lives), but you can lose more of it through sweat as well as a concept called exercise-induced hemolysis, which is when those blood cells become ruptured during high impact (like, say, when the soles of your feet hit the pavement while you run). In other words, high-intensity exercise causes a high turnover rate for your red blood cells—and if you don't have enough iron to meet the demand, a deficiency isn't out of the question.
"That's a big problem," says Blander, not only for your workout itself (specifically, it can impair endurance and cause shortness of breath) "but also if you are trying to improve your performance at work." When you don't have enough iron, you can feel tired, get headaches, or feel restless—all of which are not so conducive to a productive work environment.
So what can you do?
First things first: Blander suggests you get your iron levels tested to determine whether you're lacking the nutrient. Oftentimes, people opt for a complete blood count, which checks your hemoglobin, but Blander suggests testing for ferritin as well. "I think that is the most important [molecule] other than the hemoglobin," he says. Ferritin stores and releases iron, so this test would measure how many of those iron stores are in your blood; research has shown that ferritin is the most sensitive biomarker to test for early stages of iron deficiency and perhaps yields more specific results than the hemoglobin check.
If you do find yourself low in iron, you can get your fill of the nutrient with both animal- and plant-based food sources (find a full list here) or perhaps talk to your doctor about supplements (although, many experts recommend trying to reach adequate levels with food first). Either way, you can easily incorporate more of the nutrient into your every day to reach your iron goals.
Specific symptoms from an iron deficiency look different from person to person, but if you think you may be low in the nutrient, it may be worth it to get your levels tested. According to Blander, issues with iron are commonly overlooked—but it's not so difficult to get back on track.
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