How often do you go for blood tests? Do you go at all? Not even looking at your racing and endurance goals, it’s a big health benefit to do so. On this episode of 32Gi Sports Nutrition, Mark Wolff tells you more about the benefits. We also look at what are common inadequacies that can come up, and how to supplement them.
This is 32Gi Sports Nutrition, I’m Mr Active, David Katz, joined by Mark Wolff. Something that pops up often when we are talking is blood tests and knowing what is in your blood and how that can help you. Mark, just not looking at endurance and exercise, from a health point of view it’s important for people to know and do blood tests regularly isn’t it?
Mark Wolff: I agree with you 100% Dave. I think one of the biggest things that people don’t understand is that they put their bodies under stress when they’re doing endurance sport. When you’re putting anything under stress, if the underlying engine, let’s call it because we are like a vehicle, we’re like a motor vehicle, we’ve got an engine.
If there are any issues on the inside and we place it under stress, we’re only asking for trouble. Not knowing your health status is to me a problem if you’re going to embark on an endurance journey. I’m talking about really any type of sport that requires quite a bit of physical stress.
DK: Mark, for people out there who want to go and do a blood test, what should they be looking for, what tests should they be doing?
Blood tests that will benefit your health
MW: I think even before blood tests people should just do a bit of a self-examination. Take note of the energy levels, of fatigue or sleeping patterns, maybe digestive function. Post that, I would say there’s quite a number of tests that one can perform. In actual fact I went to a cardiologist today and we can get into that a little bit later. But from a blood test point of view, I would definitely say things like, you definitely need a complete blood count to make sure that everything is 100% normal.
As an athlete, liver function is very critical. Quite interesting, liver function tests have shown to be elevated in athletes that do very intense, if you’re looking at body builders or power lifters, for seven days post, doing a very intense session. You might find elevated liver function.
That can also happen with the athletes that are performing at a very high rate, like marathon runners who are doing a marathon could also possibly elevate that. Sometimes you can get a false positive, but it should still be checked to see that it’s within normal levels.
Definitely if you’re looking at your Iron levels and if you’re looking at red blood cell count, they’re inter-related. Hemoglobin, those are very critical because that can show some signs of anaemia. Very often I have dealt with athletes that are anaemic, but they don’t understand that they are. Maybe because they’ve felt a little bit tired or fatigued but they haven’t gone to have themselves checked up. They can’t understand what’s going on from an energy point of view, so I think that’s also very critical.
Obviously your inflammatory markers are important; glucose testing, cholesterol testing, anything from a health perspective I would say should be looked at. Then over and above that, there are other tests that one could perform, from an athlete’s point of view.
When I go for blood tests I also always look at Haematocrit levels, generally they’re usually quite normal. There was once this big thing about cyclists, the cut-off as far as the UCI goes, was you weren’t allowed to go over 50 as far as those levels went. Interestingly enough, it’s not really as critical as they thought. It needs to be within a certain level but remember that is impacted by greater blood plasma.
So, what actually happens is that if those levels drop, and they can drop when you’re doing exercises, they do drop. But you’re obviously increasing your blood volume as well, so that level of percentage is not always so clear cut. So that can actually make somebody think that they need to get their levels up where actually they don’t need to get them up at all.
Which vitamin inadequacies to look out for
As far as I’d say vitamin and mineral levels go, there’s a lot of things that need to be looked at, from an athlete’s perspective. I think one of the very critical things are the B vitamins, specifically if you’re looking at the Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin Vitamin B6 and Pantothenic Acid etc. Biotin, all those kinds of vitamins.
A lot of people go for shots but the thing is, is that those complex vitamins, we call them ‘complex vitamins’. They really have two major functions and they are directly related to exercise because they actually really, really do assist in energy production.
If you look at things like Folate and Vitamin B12, they obviously assist in production of red blood cells. So for protein synthesis and tissue repair maintenance, I think they’re very critical to have a look at and make sure that those levels are right. Usually you’ll find that probably folate and Vitamin B12 are actually lower in female athletes’ diets, especially those that are also maybe vegetarian. Also people that have possible eating disorders because that will cause a drop in it.
It just again shows how critical it is to incorporate proper nutrition when it comes to doing endurance sport. Because what you eat will determine also the kind of healthy blood levels that you’ve got when you are an athlete. On another level, if we look at things like Vitamin D, I would say that’s an important and very critical vitamin for athletes. Because not only is it used for helping with immunity, one of the things that it is used for as well is for regulation of Serum Calcium and Phosphorous levels.
So promoting healthy bones etc and let’s be honest, a lot of people are training indoors these days, nobody is really outdoors for very long in the hot sun. Specifically also pretty covered up with sunblock etc, you’re definitely not getting enough Vitamin D naturally. From that point of view I would say it’s very important to have a look at those levels as well.
The main nutritional deficiencies in athletes
DK: Now Mark you mentioned a few things but in endurance athletes specifically would be the more common things that you know of that people would have an insufficient supply. Then how would you add things to your diet to get that right?
MW: I think if you go for a thorough blood test, covering all angles, I would say that you can actually have a look and see are there areas that you’re deficient in. We mentioned Folate, for example, as one element, which actually helps with production of red blood cells.
To be quite honest, I’ll just give you an example, so without mentioning names. There’s one particular athlete that I worked with and in actual fact she went for blood tests and immediately I noticed the Folate levels were very low. What this told me was that she doesn’t eat sufficient foods which contain enough Folic Acid in it.
You’re talking like green, leafy vegetables etc. The thing is that when I asked the question it was: I don’t eat those kind of things. Immediately we know that that’s going to obviously impact the ability to probably perform at the level that she was performing at. In that case maybe you could supplement with Folic Acid and really try and get those Folate levels back up again.
As far as the Iron levels go, definitely every single athlete should have a look and make sure that they’re not anaemic. Those levels really need to be brought up if they are very low. Sometimes athletes think they’re taking Iron even if they aren’t anaemic and they’re just low, is going to be of benefit.
But it’s very dangerous to take Iron as a supplement if you don’t have deficient Iron. That shouldn’t be done at all. A doctor needs to administer and agree to the fact that you should supplement with Iron. You can’t just go and do it yourself, if there’s no actual reason to go and do that. That is definitely something that needs to be tested.
One of the things that I like to ask, especially the elite athletes to do, is to test their Magnesium levels. When I say Magnesium levels, I’m talking about red cell Magnesium, intra-cellular Magnesium levels, not Magnesium serum levels. Because those ultimately, if those are out, it’s a great cause for a doctor to be concerned as far as heart function goes. That could possibly lead to heart issues.
The importance of Magnesium and Zinc
But red cell Magnesium, remember Magnesium is one of those critical minerals that helps with ATP production in the cells, in the mitochondria. If your Magnesium levels are on the very low end, I would say definitely supplement with Magnesium and rather get them high up to the upper end because it will definitely help from a point of view of fatigue. There are other benefits to it, but Magnesium is one of those supplements that I would say that every single athlete should take.
As far as looking at other levels, I would say that things like Zinc plays a very critical role, it also helps with repair of muscle tissue, it also helps with energy production. But one of the things that Zinc is very powerful with is immunity. One of the things that we know is that if somebody does come down with a throat infection, for example, or the onset of a throat infection, Zinc is a very powerful element to take in order to try and combat that as much as possible.
These are things that an athlete should look at. I would say that also when you are testing athletes, and I’ve had people who are, for example Hyperkalemia, which is basically Potassium deficiency. Which can also lead to fatigue and lead to cramping etc and there are insufficiencies there. It’s usually probably more lack of proper nutrition that causes these issues.
But if you’re an athlete and you want to perform at a certain level, you shouldn’t have these deficiencies at all, especially when you’re putting your body under severe stress and there’s so many amazing foods out there to eat, to be able to make sure that you really get a well-balanced diet.
As far as supplements go, I often get asked about Vitamin C and I look at Vitamin C in two ways. Some recent reports have shown that it actually hampers performance and obviously the research reports shows that it increases immunity.
A lot of people ask me about Vitamin C and I say maybe cycle onto the Vitamin C when you’re not in peak season and you’re not pushing yourself so heavily. Maybe tone off the Vitamin C when you are, in order to make sure that it doesn’t impact the energy system that much.
Other things that I think are very beneficial for an athlete from a supplement point of view, not necessarily related to doing blood work is things like Omega’s. It definitely helps for proper cellular function, it helps with the heart and we all know that fats are brilliant brain fuel as well. But your Omega 3’s are very important and there’s obviously, as far as the 6’s go, there’s very important 6’s that you can take and then obviously the 9’s. I would say that’s also something that’s very beneficial.
DK: If you are interested in having some blood tests done and you want some more information before you go and do that, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also if you go and have tests and you want to find out more about the results and how you can adjust your nutrition to get things back to normal levels, do email us. That address again, email@example.com. From Mark Wolff and myself, Mr Active, David Katz, we’ll catch up again with you soon.