Anemia: Symptoms, Signs, And Natural Treatments
Anemia is an often-overlooked condition that affects about 5–6 percent of Americans. It can occur in anyone, but those at highest risk are women, young children, and anyone with a chronic disease.
The most common symptom of anemia is fatigue, but others include rapid heartbeat or shortness of breath (especially after exercise), dizziness, pale skin, difficulty concentrating, and leg cramping. If you have unexplained fatigue, with or without any of these other symptoms, talk to your doctor—a very simple blood test can determine if it’s anemia.
What Exactly Is Anemia?
Your body makes three different types of blood cells. White blood cells are responsible for fighting infections, and platelets help with blood clotting. Red blood cells carry oxygen throughout your body.
Red blood cells contain a component called hemoglobin. This iron-rich protein gives blood its red color. Hemoglobin also enables red blood cells to carry oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body, and to take carbon dioxide to your lungs so it can be exhaled.
When you don’t have enough healthy red blood cells and hemoglobin to transport oxygen, you end up with anemia.
Types and Treatment
There are several forms of anemia, and treatment depends on the cause. The same blood test that can identify its existence can also, typically, identify the specific cause.
The most common type is iron deficiency anemia. Red blood cells need iron to produce hemoglobin and without adequate iron, your body simply can’t make enough.
Iron deficiency anemia can also be caused by ulcers, aspirin overuse, blood loss, and women can experience it if they have heavy menstrual cycles. Keep in mind, during a normal period, a woman releases 6-8 teaspoons of blood, on average. This is not enough to cause iron deficiency anemia. If, however, 16 teaspoons (80 ml or 1/3 cup) or more is lost in one cycle, it’s considered heavy bleeding and increases risk for anemia.
If you have heavy cycles or some other condition that causes blood loss, work with your doctor to get it under control. Otherwise, treatment for iron deficiency anemia is pretty simple: First, you need to add more iron-rich foods to your diet. Meat—particularly red meat and organ meats like liver, kidney, and heart—is one of the best sources. Other foods include shellfish (clams, oysters, mussels), legumes, spinach, and quinoa.
Second, if your doctor recommends it, you can take a daily iron supplement. Recommended dosing varies based on age, gender, and current blood levels of iron, and supplementing with too much iron can be dangerous. So make sure you discuss supplementation with your doctor before starting it.
The second most common type of anemia is vitamin deficiency anemia (sometimes called pernicious anemia). Along with iron, your body also needs vitamins B12 and B9 (folate) to make healthy red blood cells. If you don’t get enough of either of these two nutrients in your diet, this type of anemia can result. Conversely, some people may consume plenty of B12 but their bodies aren’t able to absorb and process the nutrient, leading to anemia.
Treatment is also pretty simple: Eat more B-rich foods and supplement both nutrients. A good multivitamin will have the broad spectrum of B vitamins, but you may need to take extra, depending on how low your levels are. If you can’t absorb B12, you’ll likely need B12 shots. You doctor can determine what schedule you should receive these. Many people start by getting injections weekly for a few weeks, then monthly from there on out.
Sickle cell anemia is an inherited condition. In the US, we think of it as affecting mostly African Americans, but anyone whose ancestors lived where malaria was common is at risk. This includes people with ancestry in Central and South America, the Mediterranean, Middle East, and Asia, including the Indian subcontinent. It is caused by a mutation in the genetic coding for hemoglobin. This abnormality causes red blood cells to take on the shape of a crescent, or sickle, making them more likely to get stuck or trapped in the blood vessels and dying more quickly. Furthermore, clumps of these sickle-shaped blood cells can block blood vessels and prevent blood and oxygen flow throughout the body, causing inflammation and other serious damage.
It’s important to have a trusted doctor who carefully monitors sickle cell anemia, as complications can include stroke, pulmonary hypertension, blindness, organ damage, and gallstones, to name a few.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing that can be done to cure this condition, but symptoms can be treated with medications, supplements, and blood transfusions. In some cases, a bone marrow transplant may be warranted.
Rarer forms of anemia also exist. In some cases, a chronic condition (HIV/AIDS, Crohn’s disease, bone marrow disease, kidney problems, etc.) sets the stage for anemia. Treatments vary depending on the underlying disorder.
And in other cases, the body simply decides to stop producing adequate red blood cells. This is called aplastic anemia. There are many reasons this can happen, including exposure to toxins, pregnancy, chemotherapy/radiation, autoimmune disease, infection, and use of some medications. Knowing the cause helps doctors tailor treatment.
Anemia can be temporary or long term. It can be mild or severe. It can cause a lot of bothersome symptoms, or none at all. It all differs from person to person and depends on the cause.
But one thing is clear: Anemia should not be ignored. If you get diagnosed, work closely with your doctor to come up with a treatment plan—and stick to it. With diligent care, you can control, and in many cases eliminate, this common problem.