Real Life Ironlady

I’m not a doctor by any stretch. I’m a writer, a business owner, a student of Naturopathic Nutrition, and a runner (well I used to be).

The internet is a tool to take anything anywhere. Most of the time, I forget to be a writer and just do the business. With the last few months of athletic hibernation strongly behind me, I thought it might be good to get some dialogue flowing on what we are putting in our mouths, in addition to what we’re putting on our feet.

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I have been running for about 3 years. I’ve always been active with swimming and cycling, but was a bit of a late bloomer when it came to running. I now run in London with a crew of aspirational and inspiring people of all ages. As inquisitive as I believe we all are, naturally we want  to run faster and harder than the day before. Many of us beat ourselves up, dwelling on one bad run as us just being lazy, or unable to push through feelings of disbelief and self doubt. What if, ‘Post race blues’ weren’t purely psychological? What if there were genuine physiological conditions that made running no longer possible, let alone enjoyable?

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Four months ago, I ran Berlin Half with strength, sass, and a personal success. I just wanted to finish strong and smiling- mission accomplished. It was my favourite race to date, I finished with my friends, and I felt like a million dollars. Two months ago I ran Hackney Half Marathon in my worst time ever, dragged my feet through the whole course, and hated the race. I took my shoes off at the end, wondered around feeling beaten, and swore I would never feel like that again. A year ago, I used to be quite quick- not fast like some of the ladies I know, but I could keep a good pace for over an hour, and always push on through to a sprint finish. I actually loved running, my Nike app even clocked 55 miles one week. It was my favourite way to get rid of everything in my head, and the best way of either putting new ideas in, or just dancing down to tower bridge playing out a mix. I have only regressed from this point, and I didn’t know why. I just felt like I had been left behind, but I was still trying my very best.

Hackney made me feel so down. I felt like the last few years of making my body and mind strong had done nothing for me in those 2 hours on that day. No amount of mental power could move my legs, there was no ‘mind over matter’, I was just exhausted. Ten hours sleep still felt like two hours, 4pm everyday and I needed my bed. A month later, I was in Germany back running a couple of times a week, and spinning when I could. I was ghost white after a spin class, and my running just got even slower. At times I would have to sit on a bench, or stop running all together. I felt like my heart was racing and my head was just bobbing around, drunk, and confused. I started making lists of the tiniest things to do, and kept losing my keys, my wallet, my marbles. On one run, I couldn’t understand how I had got to the river, I felt like we had only just left the house. I was spinning out. I took my shoes and socks off and realised an old ‘runner toenail’ situation had gotten pretty nasty.

My boyfriend took me to the local clinic who ran some tests to check the infection hadn’t spread to my blood. I asked the results and the nurse said, “it’s really not ok”. She explained how my haemoglobin levels had hit 8 and that for women it should be between 12 and 16, and above 14 if you are very active. Haemoglobin is the protein molecule in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to the body’s tissues. If stores deplete, a person can become seriously unwell. I stayed in hospital that night and they ran more tests. I could’t understand how this had happened. I know so many women much more active than me who don’t eat any or little meat and who seem to run fine. The doctor told me that around 30% of women have a mild to moderate iron deficiency, and all women at some point in their life will benefit from supplements. They put me on a pretty intense iron and B12 treatment plan and sent me packing.

So, this was nearly 3 weeks ago now. Today, I feel more present than I have in the last year. I feel happier, and have only lost my phone once in the past week, as apposed to hourly. Furthermore, I successfully conquered a 4 minute run to a cafe in a tight dress, feeling fresh. Yesterday, I stood on the sidelines cheering on the Nike Women’s 10k in London. I couldn’t help thinking, amongst all these ladies, how many of them were lacking on iron stores? It must be more common than I could ever imagine. In developed countries including the UK many millions of people have mild anaemia, which is often due to dietary inadequacy and nutritional deficiencies. In college last year, I studied that women in their childbearing years have greater iron needs than men. This is a result of menstrual blood loss, the increased iron demands of pregnancy, and blood loss during childbirth. Whether you’ve had a kid or not, the best way to prevent getting a bit low, is switching on to what your body needs. If your man takes you out for a steak and a pint of stout once a week, then you are totally laughing- big tick on your iron levels for sure. Spiralizers are the current trend in our house, and much as I do like a good courgette with a bit of lemon, it’s not really packed the with the power to fuel you to the finish line.

I love animals, grew up as a veggie, and many of my active friends still love the plant and hate the flesh. I couldn’t understand why I had got so sick and they seemed ok with no supplements. I guess everyone is different and some activity’s pull is greater on some bodies vital sources than others. Iron is an odd one. It is only brought in to the body by food, it is otherwise not produced, so unless these women are chewing on a kale plantation in their sleep, I have no idea how other ladies are staying awake. Fact of the matter is its a good idea to concentrate on getting your nutrients back in to our bodies. Each to their own but it’s easy to make steps to ensure dietary intake keeps pace with your body’s demands.

So the doctor told me I had low B12 and low iron resulting in low haemoglobin. Vitamin B12 is one of the eight B vitamins. It is normally involved in the metabolism of every cell of the human body. B12 contributes in the transport of protein to energy. Contrary to many body builders beliefs, all foods actually have plenty of proteins. Protein is actually one of the easiest nutrients to get, B12 turns the proteins in to energy. The UK Vegan Society recommend that vegans either consistently eat B12 fortified foods or take a daily or weekly B12 supplement to meet the recommended intake. Like many things in the health world, how to obtain enough B12 is a heavily debated issue. I believe, eating a portion of salmon the size of a deck of cards a day, or half tofu, half eggs for the veggies will suffice the RDA on B12. Iron and B12 are super important but this all goes a little deeper. You can eat all the iron in reach, but without a source of good strong vitamin C, your body won’t be able to absorb any of this.

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So we need iron, B12, and Vitamin C and we are set to get energy levels raging, stop all moving traffic with our super powers, and run for the bus before any sort of caffeine kick. In matters of life and creation, this is the first time in a long time that I have felt like I could keep my eyes open long enough to write. I am also reading a novel, studying a biochemistry book, and packing my kit for a 2k swim tomorrow.

Writing all of this may not have an effect on anyone, I sure don’t want to cause panic or anxiety around peoples personal health, but I do think that there are huge benefits from being switched on about your own body. Other than direct blood loss, and pregnancy, iron is depleted most quickly from sweat and urine, two things that runners seem to do a lot. So, it seems, the after burn can be real. I love sport and I love taking part in a race, but as much as it gives this beautiful sense of flight and accomplishment, it can also take vital nutrients and vitamins away, if not replenished. It’s good to get on board and look inwards not only at your thoughts and willpower but your nutrients too. We work from the insides outwards, and it’s pretty interesting stuff- if you can help change yourself. As a holistic nutrition student, I try to use whole foods to cure any deficiencies whenever possible in my body. However, in some situations natural supplements can help as well.

If you have an iron deficiency, or any of the symptoms, I hope that you can use some of the below tips to help you get your sparkle on and become a real life iron lady, dead-lifting through nap time.

1. Eat iron rich foods, like meats, fish (especially oysters), and eggs. Here are some veggie options, but should be eaten in abundance where available- kale, spinach, collared greens, sweet potatoes, peas, raisins, dates, figs, prunes, molasses, artichokes, pumpkin, pumpkin seeds, AND BEETROOT!!! Beetroot is one of the greatest sources of iron.

2. When eating iron rich foods, make sure to combine them with foods that are high in vitamin C (kiwi’s, chilli’s, and red peppers are actually higher in Vit C than oranges),

3. Avoid substances that inhibit iron absorption at least 3 hours before and after consuming iron-rich foods (caffeine drinks and dairy).

4. Eat plenty of B12 rich foods, including meat, tofu, coconut milk, soy, eggs, yoghurt, and fish (especially salmon).

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Really nice post, Tilly! I wasn’t aware of your health issues after Hackney. Having suffered from low haemoglobin (and platelet and neutrophil) levels for about 9 months leading up to my bone marrow transplant, I can say first hand that you’ve described the feeling of low Hb really well! I used to tell people it was like living underwater – everything’s foggy and slower than usual… Hopefully your post will prompt others to get checked out if they’re feeling the same.

    1. tillystasiuk says:

      Thanks Melissa. Thanks so much for reading and commenting. You are such an inspiration for anyone who has dealt with becoming ill and getting over it. I have been so emotional in the last few months and didn’t know why. I thought I was becoming crazy, losing my mind, forgetting what I had for dinner, and what we watched at the cinema. Just a shell bobbing underwater it just it. I am waiting on a few more tests from a specialist to learn more so hopefully I will know more about this before I see you again. Really does mean a lot to me that you took the time to read this. I hope other ladies can spot the signs too.

  2. Thanks for a really valuable post. I have so much to say about this.

    First of all, well done to you for investigating your symptoms and learning what practical action you can take to address the deficiencies. So many people never get to this stage, or don’t take the advice they’re given.

    One of my sisters suffers from extremely low iron absorption and she has been hospitalised on several occasions because of this. It’s very important people do get checked out if they’re experiencing any symptoms. It’s far more common than people think.

    I’ve been going through some health issues myself recently, so I can really relate to this. Mine are respiratory-related, and there’ll probably be a blog post once I’ve managed to process a bit more what’s been going on. It’s why I’ve not run with the elites for three months and I’m actually genuinely considering whether I should continue running in the way I currently do. I have to look at the bigger picture health-wise. It would be a wrench to not run with the crew on a regular basis, but running through the pollution of London is obviously not good for anyone’s health, least of all mine. So thanks for posting about your own journey. I love the balanced response you’ve had to a frightening set of situations. Take care.

    1. tillystasiuk says:

      Hi @anotherwisemonkey. I’m sorry but I don’t know your real name. I’m sure I have met you at RDC at some point. Thanks so much for taking the time to write such a genuine and detailed response to my article. I really did not think it would have such an effect on such a huge amount of women. It seems this stuff is real and so many women can relate to feeling low with these symptoms. I don’t know much about respiratory related problems but I could give you the details of some 3rd and 4th year students at my college who might be able to help you in the college practise. Pull me aside at RDC if you see me, I would love to chat to you. Take care also. x

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