Ladies, do you ever feel like this (minus the bodice drama)? Guys, do you ever nod off mid-sentence? Do you spend half your life asleep on the couch?
There are lots of reasons for feeling tired, run-down, and chronically exhausted, but the one I’m going to focus on is iron-deficiency anemia. Anemia is one of the most common adult presentations of celiac disease and the prevailing symptom of that type of anemia is overall fatigue—as in reduced physical work capacity, impaired athletic performance, and a funky attitude.
Who wants to shuffle through life bleary-eyed and drained of energy (not to mention unaware of potential wardrobe malfunctions)?
In order to have the energy you need to enjoy life and thrive, you need healthy, functioning red blood cells (RBCs). RBCs contain an oxygen-carrying protein called hemoglobin, which is the pigment that gives blood its red color. Heme is the iron-containing component, globin is the protein. Unlike most cells, mature RBCs have no nucleus. That way there’s more room to cart around the oxygen you need to work, chase your kids, climb mountains, play tennis, and walk the dog. RBCs only last about 120 days because of the wear and tear they take zipping around the body, squeezing through capillaries, exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide, and supplying all our cells with nutrients.
Capillaries are the microscopic blood vessels between arteries and veins. They’re called exchange vessels and are found near almost every cell in the body, but their number varies depending on the oxygen and nutrient needs of the tissue. Muscle tissue has lots of capillaries because of the high metabolic demand, especially if you’re an athlete. The same goes for your hard-working liver. If all the capillaries in the human body were placed end to end, the collective length would be about 25,000 to 30,000 miles. Now, imagine how busy your little RBCs are and how many miles they put in each day keeping you upright and functioning. Incredible, isn’t it?
As I mentioned before, RBCs wear out after about 120 days. In order to maintain healthy numbers, we need to be cranking out new mature RBCs at the rate of at least 2 million per second. Yes, you read that right. TWO MILLION PER SECOND. And each RBC contains about 280 million hemoglobin molecules (no typo, 280 million). Each hemoglobin molecule can carry up to 4 oxygen molecules.
Seriously, tell me you’re not totally impressed with yourself. Aren’t we amazing?
Here’s the deal, though. We need to provide our bodies with stellar building blocks to make all this magical stuff happen as planned. Plus, we need to make sure we don’t have something sabotaging our good intentions. Something like celiac disease, which when undiagnosed or unmanaged, can cause nutrient malabsorption so we don’t get the proper building blocks (like iron and animo acids) we need to make all these red blood cells.
Bottom line (short-story version)? If you’re not absorbing your iron, you can’t replace your lost RBCs. If you can’t replace the high rate of RBC loss, you’ll end up with a reduced number of RBCs, a decreased amount of hemoglobin, and less oxygen-carrying capacity. In other words, you’ll be chronically fatigued, have a bad attitude, and simply getting through your day will be a monumental effort. That’s no fun.
First off, find out if you have iron-deficiency anemia. Poor absorption of iron (could be celiac disease), excessive loss of iron, increased iron requirements, or insufficient dietary intake can cause the condition. Celiac disease fits into that scenario, so make sure to consult a medical professional and get tested before taking supplements. Too much iron is toxic and can accumulate in body tissues and organs after normal needs are met.
Getting your nutrients from food should be your priority unless you have a verifiable deficiency. Here’s a list of iron-rich foods. If you’re an athlete, especially one with celiac disease, your iron-related concerns may be compounded. Add foods from this list to your diet and if you want to know more about athletically-induced, iron-deficient anemia, leave me a comment at the end of this post. Your reward for sticking with me to the end of this post is a chance to win a copy of my book, The Gluten-Free Edge: A Nutrition and Training Guide for Peak Athletic Performance and an Active Gluten-Free Life, co-written with endurance athlete, cookbook author, and good friend Peter Bronski of the blog No Gluten No Problem. We go into great detail about nutrient absorption, iron loss, and the critical role deficiencies play in overall health and athletic performance. I’ll choose one winner in a random drawing. This book is a great guide for anyone who wants to “gain an edge” in life and in sports by going gluten-free. Plus, it makes a great Christmas present.
A Sampling of Iron Rich Foods (courtesy of The Gluten-Free Edge)
organ meats (liver, giblets)
bison and beef
pumpkin and squash seeds
oats (make sure they’re certified gluten-free*)
* My favorite sources for uncontaminated, certified gluten-free oats are Montana Gluten-Free Processors and Gluten-Free Prairie (same oats). These oats are rich in iron and protein, making them good building blocks for RBCs.
Are you curious if you get iron from using a cast-iron skillet. Check this post of mine for the geeky details: Heavy Metal Skillet Breakfast.
Peace, love, and the Gluten-Free Edge.
PS Leave a comment for a chance to win and make sure to add your email address (it won’t be seen), so I can contact you if you win. You can also check in with Pete and me on Facebook and/or Twitter. We share lots of good information.
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Pete: Facebook, Twitter
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons