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Tired of Being Tired: How I Optimized My Iron Levels

By Emily Wei, July 1, 2015

Last week, I shared some important information on how to maximize iron absorption and ferritin levels. However, I want to emphasize that InsideTracker is not solely a package of blanket recommendations to fix non-optimal biomarker levels; it is a lifestyle tool that provides a highly individualized experience to help you carve your own path to health and wellness. Below, I highlight some of the changes that I made to get my iron levels optimized and to win the fight on fatigue. While some of these interventions might not be suitable for you, I hope to inspire you to start brainstorming strategies you can use to optimize up to 30 biomarkers and achieve holistic wellness using InsideTracker!


My Iron Initiative

In 2013, I felt like I had finally hit my (running) stride. Though I ran cross-country recreationally in high school, and became more serious about running in 2011, it wasn’t until 2013 that I decided I wanted to take things up a notch. At this point in my life, I was running upwards of 40-50 miles a week, at speeds faster than I had ever run before. With my heart and eyes set on the prospect of the 2014 Boston Marathon, I was feeling great about all the places that running was taking me.

Suddenly, after weeks of crushing my newly ramped-up work-outs, I literally felt like I had not only hit a wall, but had collided head-on with my own body. I can recall so many days when I came home from classes, or a run, and could do absolutely nothing but collapse on the couch in sheer fatigue. My exhaustion escalated to the point where it took everything I had to simply get up and move. Even the task of fixing myself some food or jumping in the shower seemed insurmountable in these intense bouts of exhaustion. At the same time, I noticed that I was more irritable than I had ever been. Though I couldn’t put my finger on it, I knew that something was not right.


At this point, you are probably thinking to yourself, “young,” “female,” “long-distance runner,” and, “Isn’t the problem obvious?”. Despite my background in nutrition, and awareness of iron deficiency prevalence and symptoms, I still wasn’t putting the pieces together. Looking back, I was relying on my non-vegetarian status, thinking it would keep any threats of iron deficiency at bay. I felt there was no reason that my body shouldn’t be able to handle the work-outs I was prescribing myself. I was increasing my calories according to my needs, was in excellent shape, always made sure to stretch, and constantly got plenty of fluids.

When I first heard about InsideTracker, I thought to myself, “Wow. This will give me a glimpse of what’s actually happening inside!”. In my mind, I thought that the results would show that I was at, or near optimal, in most of my biomarkers because of my dedication to exercise, nutrition, and overall well-being. At the same time, I was tired of being tired, and had some suspicions that something might be a bit off. As much I wanted to hear that everything was perfect, I had also hoped that InsideTracker might help me identify the cause of my exhaustion. It wasn’t until I got my test results back that I finally heard the iron deficiency alarm sound. While I was relieved to know that there was a cause underlying my bouts of fatigue, I was worried about whether I would be able to change my status as necessary.

Flash forward to today; we’re now approaching the end of 2014. I am happy to share that my ferritin levels are not only optimized, but that I have not experienced any more episodes of pure, inexplicable exhaustion. I did indeed run the 2014 Boston Marathon, and though I was understandably tired afterwards, I didn’t experience any of those, “can’t even THINK about moving off the couch” periods of fatigue in my training. So exactly what did I do to optimize my ferritin levels?



When I first found out that I was iron deficient, I began taking an iron supplement about three times a week and did so for about a month. I believe this was a good initial approach to combat days when I was utterly exhausted. However, as someone who is personally and professionally a proponent of “food first”, I have since completely taken myself off any supplements. Although I personally achieved optimization of my ferritin levels without any supplementation, ample research  suggests that iron supplements can be a useful tool, in both the short-term and long-term, to help manage iron levels

Added Heme Rich (Meat-Based) Sources


I increased my intake of heme rich sources.  Like many runners, I gravitate strongly towards carbs, carbs, and, oh yes, more carbs!  Previously, I was only eating meat a maximum of four times a month.  Now, a variety of heme rich sources are essential components of my diet: lean ground beef, ground turkey, salmon, and tuna are some of my staples.

  • Ground beef (90% lean): 4 oz serving provides 14% DV of iron
  • Ground turkey: 4 oz serving (cooked) provides 12% DV of iron
  • Salmon: 4 oz serving provides 4% DV of iron
  • Canned albacore tuna: 4 oz serving provides 4% DV of iron

It is important to note that all heme-rich foods are from meat sources. But fear not, vegetarians, vegans, and others with a meat-restricted diet: the majority of our iron comes from plant, nonheme sources!  Below, I outline some of the plant-based foods I used to increase my nonheme iron absorption.

Add Nonheme (Plant-Based) Sources


I started paying attention to factors that affect nonheme absorption. Previously, I was already eating tons of nonheme rich foods, but that alone wasn’t enough. As a result, I tweaked my diet and played with meal timing a bit in order to make the most of my nonheme foods.


  • I added banana to my oatmeal.  Bananas contain fructose, which can help increase nonheme iron absorption.  Oatmeal, which is a great source of nonheme iron, is my go-to breakfast.  It’s hard to quantify just how much this small change has increased my ferritin levels, but as of now, I’m happy with the results.
  • I’ve increased the length of time between my coffee and oatmeal.  Previously, I had these two things side-by-side.  Now, I try to have my coffee one to two hours before chowing down on oatmeal.  Again, this is hard to quantify, but it does help prevent the polyphenols and tannins in the coffee from interacting as much with the nonheme iron in the oatmeal.

Personalized Approach 

It is essential to keep in mind that there is no “one size fits all” solution; the methods I used may or may not be best approach for you. While I was able to optimize my ferritin levels through the steps above, it was through continual monitoring and modification of habits that I was able to achieve this. It is also important to keep the whole picture of health in perspective. There are many complex interactions between different biomarkers to consider, and what helps improve one biomarker may result in a change in another.  As such, I believe that InsideTracker helps identify areas for change, provides tools to help you fix those problems, and also keeps the whole picture in mind.

Ironing out the Details

I’m sharing my story today because it is one of struggle and success. I recognize that we are all set in our habits, and some of these can be, at least initially, incredibly difficult to change (Even if it is switching up what’s for breakfast!). I am so thankful that InsideTracker helped me to not only identify my iron deficiency but also helped me to fix it. I’ve not only had zero episodes of extreme fatigue since (even while training for a marathon!), but my athletic performance, energy levels, and mood are better than ever. I challenge you to look within yourself with InsideTracker; I know I’m glad that I did.

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