Ultrarunner Camille Herron Deals With This Rare Condition By “Reverse Doping”

While most runners fear low iron levels, too much iron could be just as troubling

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Ultrarunner Camille Herron Deals With This Rare Condition By "Reverse Doping" 1

In the realm of endurance sports, one major concern is doping. 

However, for runners like Camille Herron, she’s, in a way, “reverse doping.” Herron deals with hemochromatosis, a rare condition characterized by excessive iron absorption in the body. 

While lesser-known, its implications for athletes, particularly runners, are profound.

What is Hemochromatosis?

Hemochromatosis is primarily a genetic disorder, most commonly caused by mutations in the HFE gene. This gene helps regulate the absorption of iron from the diet by controlling the production of a protein called hepcidin.

Hepcidin regulates the entry of iron into the bloodstream from the intestines and its release from cells that store iron.

Mutations in the HFE gene disrupt this regulation, leading to excessive iron absorption and accumulation in the body.

There are two main types of hemochromatosis:

  1. Hereditary Hemochromatosis (HH): This is the most common form and is typically caused by mutations in the HFE gene. It is often inherited, but other factors, such as diet and environmental influences, can also play a role.
  2. Secondary Hemochromatosis: This form of the disorder can result from other conditions that lead to increased iron absorption, such as chronic liver disease, excessive iron intake (e.g., through iron supplements or multiple blood transfusions), or certain blood disorders like thalassemia.

The symptoms of hemochromatosis can vary widely and may not appear until later stages of the disease when iron levels in the body have become significantly elevated.

Common symptoms include fatigue, weakness, joint pain, abdominal pain, and changes in skin color (bronze or grayish).

Because these symptoms can be nonspecific and resemble those of other conditions, hemochromatosis can be challenging to diagnose, often leading to delays in treatment.

Ultrarunner Camille Herron Deals With This Rare Condition By "Reverse Doping" 2
Photo Credits: OSMOSIS Clinicá

If left untreated, hemochromatosis can lead to severe complications, including:

  • Liver damage and cirrhosis: Excess iron accumulation in the liver can cause inflammation, fibrosis, and eventually cirrhosis, which increases the risk of liver failure and liver cancer.
  • Diabetes: Iron overload can damage the pancreas, leading to insulin resistance and diabetes.
  • Heart problems: Iron deposition in the heart muscle can impair its function, leading to cardiomyopathy (heart muscle disease) and arrhythmias.
  • Joint damage: Excess iron can accumulate in the joints, leading to pain, stiffness, and arthritis-like symptoms.

Treatment for hemochromatosis focuses on reducing iron levels in the body to prevent or slow down the progression of complications.

This typically involves regular removal of blood (phlebotomy or therapeutic phlebotomy), similar to blood donation, to lower iron levels.

The frequency of phlebotomy sessions depends on the individual’s iron levels and response to treatment.

Dietary changes may also be recommended, such as limiting iron-rich foods (e.g., red meat, iron-fortified foods) and avoiding vitamin C supplements or foods high in vitamin C, as vitamin C enhances iron absorption.

Ultrarunner Camille Herron Deals With This Rare Condition By "Reverse Doping" 3
Photo Credits: Charles Smith

How Does Hemochromatosis Impact Runners?

For runners, optimal iron levels are essential for sustaining energy levels and maximizing endurance.

However, in hemochromatosis, this delicate balance is disrupted, leading to iron overload and a myriad of symptoms, including fatigue, joint pain, and weakness.

Unlike its more recognized counterpart, anemia, which results from iron deficiency, hemochromatosis presents a paradox. Affected individuals often experience symptoms akin to anemia, adding to the diagnosis’s difficulty. 

For runners like Camille Herron, hemochromatosis adds an extra layer of complexity to an already demanding sport. Herron’s career, highlighted by world records and countless race wins, is intertwined with her battle against this silent adversary. 

With rigorous training regimens and grueling competitions, managing iron levels becomes a delicate balancing act, requiring meticulous attention to diet, supplementation, and medical monitoring.

One thing Herron does to keep her iron levels in check is blood draws.

While getting rid of oxygen-rich blood is typically the opposite of what endurance athletes would want, this “reverse doping” is essential to reduce and eliminate Herron’s symptoms.

Herron is now gearing up for her latest endeavor, a 6-day ultra race organized by Lululemon.

Photo of author
Jessy has been active her whole life, competing in cross-country, track running, and soccer throughout her undergrad. She pivoted to road cycling after completing her Bachelor of Kinesiology with Nutrition from Acadia University. Jessy is currently a professional road cyclist living and training in Spain.

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