BY EMMA ANDREWS, RHN
It took me a while to realize I was anemic. I wrote off many of the common signals, assuming they were just signs of stress. I was catching the common cold or flu all too often. Then I realized how sluggish I felt in the mornings, even when I tried to catch up on sleep. It wasn’t until I started fainting that I realized I needed to make changes. But I’ll come back to that. First, I think we should look at how I got there. How does a nutritionist – and an athlete – become anemic?
2 years ago I was in the midst of training for multiple marathons, racing two within a week’s time span in fact. It was a level of fitness some would consider crazy. I considered it fun. I’d been vegetarian for at least a couple years at that point, and my job had me immersed in the world of sports nutrition. The work I was doing at the time had me traveling all over North America, pulling long days, and on a sporadic eating schedule. Looking back now, I realize my body was under a lot of stress, and it was the highest volume of training I had ever done.
While I emphasized nutrient dense and iron rich foods in my diet, my gut health was not in top-form due to all the stress of training and travel. This was red flag #1: you can eat all the healthy foods in the world, but if you’re not properly absorbing the nutrients in them, they won’t do you much good.Knowing females, vegetarians, and endurance athletes are prone to becoming anemic, I (occasionally) took an iron supplement. There was red flag #2: inconsistent supplementation combined with a trio of factors predisposing me to anemia.The repeated pavement pounding runners undergo causes hemolysis, or the rupturing of red blood cells. When we don’t have enough red blood cells, our immune system is suppressed and our heart must work harder to compensate for a lack of oxygen. Combine this with consuming iron from non-heme (plant-based) sources (with lower rates of absorption compared to animal based sources), and monthly blood loss (due to menstruation), and consistent supplementation becomes vital.
My symptoms came to a peak in the summer of 2015. I was getting really overheated and lightheaded – easily – especially when working out. I often felt ‘gassed’ and lacked stamina, but this persisted even when I backed off training. Finally, I fainted. At a Foo Fighters concert. It was embarrassing, terrifying, and ultimately revealing. Something was physiologically out of balance, the instrument (aka my body) was not in tune. It was at this point that I sought outside help from a reputable naturopath. As a side note, I highly recommend all health professionals seek an outside perspective for their own health issues, it’s critical for an unbiased perspective. I also came across Pranin Purefood Iron when researching supplementation options that were whole food based. I loved that it was made with 100% real, organic food, and came in a powder format (not a tablet or capsule), as I always prefer to “eat” my supplements.
I had blood work done at the start of my recovery journey, and roughly every 3 months for a year after that. This was a very important step in monitoring my progress. Within a month of taking Purefood Iron I was feeling better, and within 3 months my blood work had recovered from anemic to normal. I was elated! But I also had a couple relapses during my recovery… including subsequent fainting episodes. While this was frustrating, it also served as a reminder that I had to be patient, I couldn’t rush the process, and that healing takes time. A great lesson in surrender and acceptance.
Every action adds up, and consistency is key. I’ve not stopped taking Purefood Iron, I use it 5 times a week in my Monday-Friday smoothies, like this Turmeric & Pineapple Smoothie. I am more consistent about eating gut friendly foods, like sprouted, probiotic enriched, and fermented foods. And as part of a holistic approach to gut health I’ve also really embraced stress management techniques like meditation, and not over-committing myself.
I’ve run 3 marathons since I first became anemic, and am training for another this fall in Chicago. I feel strong once again, I haven’t been sick in ages, and I wake up with energy. I can honestly say I feel amazing. It is possible to recover, and become a more resilient version of yourself, I am proof of it.
I hope my struggles and research help educate other athletes, vegetarians, and women to take a more proactive approach to their iron intake, and anemia prevention. It’s far easier to maintain good health, than to have to get it back. Tune in, and listen to the signals from your body. Ask yourself regularly: Do you feel as well as you should? Is there something that feels out of alignment?
Comment and let us know what habits you practice to help you flourish as an athlete (male or female!), or as a plant-based enthusiast. We’re in this together.
Emma Andrews is a Vancouver based Holistic Sports Nutritionist (RHN), longevity educator, culinary explorer, and endurance athlete.