Iron deficiency impairs skeletal muscle metabolism. The underlying mechanisms are incompletely characterised, but animal and human experiments suggest the involvement of signalling pathways co-dependent upon oxygen and iron availability, including the pathway associated with hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF). We performed a prospective, case-control, clinical physiology study to explore the effects of iron deficiency on human metabolism, using exercise as a stressor. Thirteen iron-deficient (ID) individuals and thirteen iron-replete (IR) control participants each underwent 31P-magnetic resonance spectroscopy of exercising calf muscle to investigate differences in oxidative phosphorylation, followed by whole-body cardiopulmonary exercise testing. Thereafter, individuals were given an intravenous (IV) infusion, randomised to either iron or saline, and the assessments repeated ~ 1 week later. Neither baseline iron status nor IV iron significantly influenced high-energy phosphate metabolism. During submaximal cardiopulmonary exercise, the rate of decline in blood lactate concentration was diminished in the ID group (P = 0.005). Intravenous iron corrected this abnormality. Furthermore, IV iron increased lactate threshold during maximal cardiopulmonary exercise by ~ 10%, regardless of baseline iron status. These findings demonstrate abnormal whole-body energy metabolism in iron-deficient but otherwise healthy humans. Iron deficiency promotes a more glycolytic phenotype without having a detectable effect on mitochondrial bioenergetics.
Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics, University of Oxford, Sherrington Building, Parks Road, Oxford, OX1 3PT, UK.