Iron supplementation in athletes--first do no harm

Nutrition. 2004 Jul-Aug;20(7-8):615-9. doi: 10.1016/j.nut.2004.04.006.


Although it generally does not improve performance, iron is often used by elite athletes. The physiologic changes induced by exercise can mimic iron deficiency and decrease hemoglobin and ferritin concentrations. Determination of serum transferrin receptor concentrations may identify true iron deficiency, which occurs particularly in young athletes. In contrast, increased iron stores in the body are a frequent finding in elite athletes who have used long-term iron supplementation. Elite runners have increased intestinal blood loss, but this usually can be compensated by enhanced absorption of dietary iron. The combination of exercise-induced hemolysis with enhanced intestinal blood loss in various endurance sports leads to severe abnormalities of routine tests, and extreme physical activity may be responsible for positive fecal occult blood determinations. Indiscriminate iron supplementation carries the risk of inducing hemochromatosis in individuals homozygous for the widespread C282Y allele of the HFE gene. This polymorphism is common and can be found in about 1% of individuals of Northern European descent; moreover, iron supplementation can modify the presentation of important underlying diseases such as celiac disease or colon carcinoma. In conclusion, iron supplements should be prescribed for athletes with iron-deficiency anemia and carefully monitored if given for prophylaxis; unless a therapeutic response occurs, investigations to establish the cause of iron deficiency should be initiated.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Dietary Supplements
  • Exercise / physiology
  • Ferritins / blood
  • Hemochromatosis / chemically induced
  • Hemoglobins / analysis
  • Humans
  • Intestinal Absorption
  • Iron Deficiencies
  • Iron, Dietary / administration & dosage*
  • Iron, Dietary / adverse effects
  • Iron, Dietary / pharmacokinetics
  • Risk Factors
  • Sports / physiology*


  • Hemoglobins
  • Iron, Dietary
  • Ferritins