Blood Doping for Idiots – The Truth About Exercise & Hemochromatosis
Bloodletting for beginners
Over the last two years, I have had about 9.0 liters of blood drained from my body. That‘s a lot of blood!
The average adult only has about 5.5 liters of blood coursing through their body. So, how in the world did I manage to lose so much blood, and still survive long enough to write this post?
Well, the simple answer is that all of the 9.0 liters weren’t drained all in one go.
Except for losing a little over 1.0 liter during my double hip resurfacing operation – I have had several phlebotomies that drained me of 500 ml at a time.
Phlebotomy is also known as bloodletting, is an ancient, simple, but effective method in the treatment of genetic hemochromatosis (GH).
GH is a common, genetic disorder in which excess iron from the diet progressively accumulates in the joints, liver, heart, and other organs leading to an increased risk for diseases and conditions like:
- Chronic Fatigue
- Diabetes mellitus
- Heart attack
- Liver cancer
- Early death
We need iron in our body, but excess iron in the body is toxic to cells.
Iron is an essential mineral. The main reason we need iron is that it transports oxygen.
About 70 percent of the iron in your body is found in hemoglobin – the main component of your red blood cells, and in the myoglobin in your muscle cells.
Hemoglobin is responsible for transferring oxygen from your lungs to your body‘s organs, tissues, and muscles. And, the myoglobin in your muscle cells absorbs stores and releases oxygen to power muscle contractions.
The goal of phlebotomy in the treatment of GH is to reduce excess stores of iron in the body systematically.
A 500 ml phlebotomy removes about 250 mg of iron which is bonded to the oxygen-transport protein hemoglobin.
Draining the body of blood forces the body to make new red blood cells (RBC’s) to replace what was lost:
- Phlebotomy removes RBC’s from the body
- Bone marrow is stimulated to produce more RBC’s
- The excess iron in the body is used to make new hemoglobin.
When a patient is initially treated for GH, phlebotomy treatment is repeated very frequently. Once or twice a week in severe advanced cases. Or, in my case, bi-weekly until iron levels fall back to normal.
Then in the maintenance phase, phlebotomy treatments are repeated a few times a year to maintain healthy levels of iron in the body.
According to the American Journal of Epidemiology, reducing the amount of excess iron in the blood and body is not the only benefit of bloodletting – People who receive regular phlebotomy treatments are 88% less likely to suffer a heart attack due to the fact that fresh new blood flows better, is less damaging to the lining of blood vessels, and could result in fewer arterial blockages.
Not for the weak hearted
Bloodletting is very effective in preventing, stabilizing, or reversing iron overload diseases. But, it can also be very taxing on the body!
Trust me – After being drained of a half liter of blood every two weeks for six months – Makes a big difference to how you feel, think and perform.
A good friend of mine refers to my phlebotomy treatments as blood doping for idiots because this is the exact opposite of the blood doping practiced by unethical athletes.
Common side effects of phlebotomy include fatigue, tiredness, dizziness, exhaustion, generalized weakness, and lack of energy – Not what you would call performance-enhancing benefits.
Even though it is not always easy to keep motivated to work out when I am experiencing these symptoms – I have never used GH or my treatments as an excuse to skip a workout.
I have been able to maintain my weekly program of cycling, swimming, strength training, and doing Bikram Yoga.
But, I estimate that I lost about 30% of my strength during my initial intensive treatment phase, which I have finally regained after about a year of regular, progressive, and smart training.
And, except for a few Bikram Yoga near-death experiences during my initial treatment phase, I almost had a blackout once when I tried to catch a cyclist who passed me on my Sunday bike ride.
So, if you are beginning, or are still in your initial treatment phase – It’s probably best to dial back on the intensity level of your strength and endurance training.
Research published in the European Journal of Cardiovascular Prevention and Rehabilitation has suggested that, even when treated with regular phlebotomy, GH is associated with lower exercise capacity.
Fortunately, I am not afraid of needles, and I don’t faint at the sight of blood.
But, I must admit that I hate going for my maintenance treatments. Because I don’t like sacrificing some of my hard earned fitness each time I am drained of another 500 ml of blood.
Sometimes I feel like an old man when I am training. I have the feeling it takes me about two to four weeks before I fully bounce back from treatment. Even walking briskly for the first few days after treatment makes me feel somewhat winded.
So, I have learned to take things a little bit easier by not lifting so heavy, not doing any sprints, and by focusing on low-intensity aerobic workouts, until I have fully recovered from my last phlebotomy.
Make progress not excuses
Despite the limited evidence that even correctly treated GH may cause a reduced exercise capacity in sufferers – I also do not let GH distract me from my sporting goals.
I strongly believe that a smart, reasonable, and challenging exercise program is an excellent strategy in helping people to live a healthier life with GH.
My belief that exercise is beneficial in the treatment of GH is somewhat backed up by some research that estimates that intense workouts can increase the body‘s need for iron by as much as 30%. And, the fact that trace amounts of iron are lost in sweat during exercise.
Plus, exercise has many other benefits that will help offset or maybe possibly reverse the adverse side effects of GH:
Improved cardiovascular health & efficiency
Regular moderate aerobic and strength training lowers blood pressure, increases levels of good HDL cholesterol, decrease bad LDL cholesterol, and improves maximum consumption of oxygen by the lungs and muscles.
Improved body composition and metabolism
In addition to building muscle, reducing weight and decreasing body fat, exercise improves glucose metabolism and reduces insulin resistance, which lowers the risk of developing diabetes and some cancers.
Improved muscular & skeletal systems
Strength training can help to reverse the natural trend of losing muscle mass with aging, increase flexibility, improve balance, and builds stronger bones – And, low-impact activities like swimming, aqua jogging and cycling help to improve the efficiency of movement – All of which can reduce the symptoms of osteoarthritis.
Improved mental outlook
Probably the most important benefit of exercise is on the mind. Moving your body can improve your mood. Exercise releases endorphins, the natural painkillers of the body, which help to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.
Considering all of these benefits – In my opinion, it makes sense to start, maintain, or even increase the demands of your fitness program.
It’s true that exercise can and probably will make you feel tired, but in the long-run, the hard effort and short-term fatigue are all worth it – Exercise will help you manage chronic fatigue and pain, and feel stronger, better, and more optimistic.
Without any doubt any movement is better than no movement. Even short workouts are enough to reap the benefits of exercise. You can always build up to more challenging workouts as your fitness level improves. So, what are you waiting for – Get moving!
IMPORTANT NOTE: It makes good sense to consult your doctor before you start any new workout program – Especially, if you smoke, drink a lot of alcohol, do sedentary work, are overweight, or have other health issues.