“BUY SOME DAMN IRON!!!”
That’s what I told a client back in late 2019. As a coaching client, I was asking her to turn in her food logs to make sure she was hitting her prescribed macronutrient targets.
For most people, tracking and hitting their macro targets can be a big problem. Francesca, however, had a small problem. At least that’s how it seemed on “paper,” which was really more of a screenshot, actually.
And that little problem turned into a much bigger problem during the summer of 2020. But we’ll get back to that a little later.
Micronutrients vs. Macronutrients
If you’ve been reading our posts for a while, you know we talk a lot about macronutrients. Also referred to as “macros,” carbs, protein, and fat, are the main nutritional components found in all food. In addition to macronutrients, though, food also contains micronutrients: vitamins and minerals.
Before we go any further: we aren’t doctors. We don’t even play doctors on the internet, let alone TV. While we’re not in a position to give anyone specific recommendations for vitamins and minerals, we can talk about some vitamins and minerals that people tend to be deficient in, and how those deficiencies affect your health, overall well-being, and your results in the gym.
If you’re really interested in your own specific micronutrient needs, the best thing to do would be to get some blood work done. Even if your doctor doesn’t find any issues, it’s still a good idea to learn how various vitamins and minerals affect your body. You might find some issues you’ve been dealing with can be markedly improved by taking a fairly inexpensive supplement.
In this article, I’ll talk about some oft-overlooked micronutrients, why you need them, and where you can find them. I’ll also make some claims without getting into the science. If evidence-based information is your jam, I’ll link to the exmaine.com entry for each micronutrient. Just click the name of the micronutrient/heading.
Why do I need it? If the weather where you live requires you to be covered up most of the year, you might need some extra vitamin D. For those of you lucky enough to live in Florida, California, Texas, etc., you’re not entirely off the hook just yet: if you’re tan or have darker skin, the pigment in your skin makes it harder for you to get as much vitamin D as people with lighter skin tones.
And, if you’re like me, Latino and living in the Northeast, well then you can be sure you’re going to need some extra vitamin D, especially during the colder months of the year, when the sun isn’t out as long.
Vitamin D handles a lot of important things, including but not limited to: regulation of mood (alligators are ornery because they don’t get enough vitamin D, regardless of what your momma told you), immune system health, bone density, and testosterone production.
How to get it: Sun. High-fat fish, eggs.
As a fat-soluble vitamin, an oil-based D3 supplement will provide better absorption; ditch the tablet and make sure to get a liquid or capsule. Vitamin D levels build-up, so you can start high. as high as 10,000 IU/day for a week, and then work your way down to 10,000 IU once or twice a week. Again, people with darker complexions will probably need more.
There’s no reason to stop during the summer, though. You’re probably still not spending enough time out in the sun unless you’re tanning often. In that case, you might want to just lower your dose, but there’s no need to stop taking it completely.
Why do I need it? Your cells need zinc for about 100 different enzymes to function correctly. Some of the things it helps with/regulates are skin health, eczema, prostate health, cognitive function, hair loss, and bone loss.
Zinc is also important for testosterone production, so make sure you don’t ignore your zinc intake.
It’s not the sexiest micronutrient out there, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important.
How do I get it: Mostly found in legumes (beans, peas, green beans). Odds are you’ll probably need a supplement, though, to maintain optimal zinc levels. How to supplement with zinc will be covered in the next entry.
Why do I need it? Magnesium is an essential dietary mineral. A deficiency increases blood pressure, reduces glucose tolerance, and causes neural excitation.
From a health standpoint, it’s important to have lower blood pressure (lower risk of heart attack and stroke) and increased glucose tolerance (lower risk of diabetes). From a performance and appearance standpoint, these things are also vital: lower blood pressure means better blood circulation which is important when working out. As for glucose tolerance, the better your body can partition carbs, the more likely the food you eat will be stored in your muscles instead of fat. Better circulation and better glucose management also mean better pumps in the gym, and no one wants to miss out on that.
Magnesium also helps with neural inhibition. Not getting enough magnesium limits the production of neurotransmitters that help you relax and recover. As such, some people report improved sleep quality once they start taking magnesium.
Magnesium supplementation has also been reported to help in coping with depression.
And last, but certainly not least, magnesium helps with… you guessed it, testosterone. In this case, the benefit is two-fold: increased bioavailability and increased production through improved sleep quality.
How to get it: Kelp, nuts, grains like millet, and buckwheat. You will probably need to supplement, but it’s better to get it individually, not in a ZMA (zinc/magnesium/aspartate) product. All-in-one products tend to be underdosed, despite what the label claims. Your best bet would be to buy them individually.
The usual ratio of magnesium to zinc, the one found in most ZMA supplements, is 15:1. Take 450 mg of magnesium and 30 mg of zinc every night before bed.
On women and testosterone
Zinc and magnesium will help your body maximize natural testosterone production. If they helped any more than that, they’d be illegal. Furthermore, women’s natural maximum testosterone levels are about 1/10th – 1/40th the amount of a man’s. In either case, women also need testosterone, which is why the female body already produces it. The only thing these supplements will do is to make sure that your body is producing as much as it can, regardless of your sex.
In closing, don’t worry, ladies. ZMA will not turn you into a bodybuilder.
Also, sorry, fellas. ZMA will not turn you into a bodybuilder.
Why Do I Need it? Sodium gets a bad rap, but if you’re a person who exercises regularly, you probably should get more sodium than you think. Sodium is responsible for hydration, which is crucial for muscle contraction. The more you sweat, the more water and salt are lost.
Sodium is also responsible for regulating blood volume and blood pressure. When exercising, low blood volume means less oxygen and nutrients being delivered to muscles, which in turn affects performance and recovery.
How to get it: Odds are you’re probably not suffering from a sodium deficiency. Just remember that as long as you’re an active person, there’s no need to be worried about your salt intake. Also feel free to consume extra salt during the summer months, since you’ll be sweating more.
Why do I need it? Unless you happen to live in Kazakhstan, which as everyone knows is the world’s largest exporter of potassium, you’re probably not consuming enough. Along with sodium, potassium is a key mineral that plays an important role in hydration. As mentioned above, adequate hydration is necessary for working muscles to perform at their best.
Some experts recommend that the potassium to sodium ratio be 2:1. As most people tend to consume too much sodium, the recommendation is usually to decrease sodium intake. Unless your doctor has specifically told you to monitor your salt intake, you’re probably going to want to bring up your potassium intake instead.
In addition to hydration, potassium is also useful in protecting against strokes, as well as having some minor bone and joint benefits.
How to get it: For most people, consuming a diet of fresh fruits and vegetables should do the trick, so add in some high potassium foods such as bananas, avocados, spinach, and coconut water to help bring up those potassium levels. Considering that the most effective way to supplement potassium is through an intravenous drip… just eat your vegetables, ok?
A final point about sodium, potassium, and hydration
As you may already know from years of watching Gatorade commercials and wanting to be like Mike, sodium, and potassium are electrolytes. And as mentioned above, replenishing those electrolytes can have a positive effect on performance, both in terms of duration and intensity.
Here’s something easy and inexpensive you can try during your next workout: crush a caffeine pill into a medium-sized bottle of Gatorade bottle (and it’s even more inexpensive if you get Gatorade powder). You’ll get the buzz from the caffeine, the hydration from the electrolytes, and energy from simple sugars. Make sure to wear a tank top, because you’ll want to properly document the pump-itude of your forthcoming swole.
Why do I need it? Well, you might not. Especially if you’re a man. Women, on the other hand, lose a lot of iron during the menstrual cycle.
In either case, there are a few symptoms that can tell you if you need to take a look at your iron levels. First, if your doctors told you that you’re anemic or have a history of anemia, in which case you’ll want to follow their recommendation.
This brings us back to Francesca.
Why women need more iron or why you should listen to your coach
About a year ago, after looking at her MyFitnessPal logs, I noticed she was low on iron.
While she wasn’t suffering from any symptoms of low iron, yet, I made sure to mention it. I made sure to remind her. I did it several times, in fact. It almost became a running joke between us, hence the tone of my email response. After a while, we both forgot about it.
Earlier this summer, she mentioned that she was suffering from unusual fatigue. Despite the fact that she was lighter and in better shape, she was suddenly feeling winded going up a flight of stairs. And these symptoms were even more prevalent during her period. She was also suffering from a mental fog at work, and some evening restlessness which made it hard to sleep.
She was taking caffeine pills, which worked for a little bit. After a while, though, all the caffeine and lack of sleep were starting to take their toll on her nervous system, which made it harder to fall asleep at night. Which made her take even more caffeine, which further affected her ability to sleep at night. A vicious cycle to say the least.
“That sounds like you might be low on iron,” I said.
Feeling terrible and willing to try anything, she went on Amazon and got some iron. In a nutshell, this was her experience:
After one day, she felt “whole;” like something was missing and it was finally back.
By the second day, her energy was finally coming back, and she was finally able to get some deep sleep.
By the third day, she was feeling like a new person. She was even accused of being on uppers at the office, despite not needing caffeine anymore. She was able to sleep well that night, too.
By the fourth day, “I’m back, baby!”
She was super happy and grateful that I was able to give her a simple solution to something that had been plaguing her for months. And then, she stumbled on the email I sent her last year and remember that this wasn’t the first time we talked about iron.
How do I get it? Leafy green vegetables, pistachios, dark chocolate, and beans. Supplementing with iron pills is fairly easy. For men, take a single 65 mg pill, once per week, just to cover your nutritional bases. Women should take two pills per week.
Putting it all together
As mentioned at the beginning, we’re not doctors nor do we try to be. However, in dealing with dozens of clients and our own personal experience and research, we understand how little things can turn into big problems.
Before you start supplementing with any of the micronutrients described above, get your blood work done and make sure to pay close attention to your micronutrient levels. If you have any serious deficiencies, your doctor may even prescribe a prescription-strength version of the supplement.
Make sure that you’re at least getting the recommended daily allowance of the vitamins and minerals we’ve discussed, but note that this is especially hard to do with whole food when you’re in a caloric deficit. In any case, it’s never a bad idea to make sure to look at your food log and pay attention to both your macro and micronutrients. If you’ve been dieting for more than three months, you’re going to want to pay special attention to your micronutrient intake. Better health and better gains await.