If you have anemia, there is something wrong with your red blood cells, and they are unable to get enough oxygen out to the tissues of your body. There are several different types of anemia, each with different factors involved.
Typically, when a person says they are anemic, they are referring to iron deficiency anemia.
Our red blood cells bind iron to oxygen and transport it to different parts of the body for a variety of functions.
When there isn’t enough iron to go around for all RBCs to have an adequate supply, when there is a structural problem with the RBC preventing it from properly incorporating iron into its structure, or there’s been a loss of RBCs that decreases the actual number of iron binding structures to grab oxygen, a person will suffer from poor oxygenation of tissue.
Signs and Symptoms of Anemia
Unexplainable fatigue: Constantly feeling drained
Unexplainable weakness: Strength is diminished, not just due to temporary exertion
Pallor or pale skin: No matter the skin type complexion looks drained.
Brittle nails: May also change in appearance. Fake fingernails may mask this, so check toenails.
Notable hair loss: Hair may also look dull and be brittle.
Fast or irregular heartbeat: Health care provider will assess this.
Shortness of breath: Constantly feeling a little winded, due to poor oxygenation. Call your doctor, as it could also mean several other serious health concerns.
Dizziness: A possible indicator of other health problems. Call your doctor on this one, as well.
Poor cognitive function: Not thinking clearly. This causes problems, from learning math to emotional regulation. If you can’t think straight, you cannot process the world around you.
Pica: Craving non-food items such as ice or clay. Seems embarrassing, but do bring this up to your doctor.
Extremely cold hands and feet: Nail beds will turn purple long before it’s cold enough to warrant this.
Headache: There are many reasons for developing headaches, but anemia is fairly common. The first step to dealing with headaches is a well-rounded diet.
Who is at Risk for Anemia?
- Women during their childbearing years due to blood loss during menstruation
- Pregnant women due to increased need as they are oxygenating for two now
- Recently postpartum and/or breastfeeding women
- Women with heavy blood loss during menstruation
- Those with digestive issues that could impair absorption or be causing occult blood loss (blood loss you don’t see because it’s internal and goes out with feces)
- Gastric bypass patients
- Someone who has recently sustained an injury involving heavy blood loss
- Vegetarians and vegans
- Individuals who consume excessive amounts of dairy, as calcium competes with iron for absorption
Treating iron deficiency anemia
First and foremost, stop calling yourself anemic. With the exception of a handful of genetic conditions, iron deficiency anemia is not a lifelong condition (unless poor intake lasts a lifetime).
Blood values are a polaroid of what was going on in your blood at that time. Things change. People change. Dietary habits change.
Know the Type and Cause of Anemia
Have your blood drawn to see:
1) If you truly are anemic
2) If there is anything else going on
3) What type of anemia you have
4) What iron factors are involved
Make sure that your multivitamin (artificial food dye free) contains vitamin A (as beta carotene), B vitamins, vitamin C, iron and zinc. All of these are necessary for the absorption and utilization of iron.
Supplement with iron according to the advice of your health care professional. Over-the-counter iron supplements are known for poor absorption and causing constipation.
Medical professionals can write a prescription for an iron supplement that has an enteric coating (easy on the stomach), is slow-release which gives time to absorb, and is in a form that's better absorbed by the body.
Iron is far better absorbed from food than it ever will be from a supplement. Yes, supplements help, but they cannot compare with delicious, nutritious food.
Iron is best absorbed from meat (heme) sources, specifically red meat. You can SEE iron in meat. A white piece of chicken breast doesn’t have much iron. Chickens don’t fly, so there is no real need to get oxygen to their breasts.
Compare this to ducks, who fly thousands of miles. They have dark breast meat, loaded with iron. Then compare that to elk who live at high elevation and are in constant movement. Elk has the highest concentration of iron of any mammal in North America.
Iron is also found readily in non-heme sources such as spices, e.g.,cinnamon, turmeric and paprika. It is found in beans, dark green vegetables and potato skins. This type of iron isn’t as concentrated or as well-absorbed as heme, but is better absorbed with the help of vitamin C rich foods, such as strawberries, bell peppers, pineapple and citrus.
As mentioned above, you need vitamin A, the B vitamin squad, vitamin C and zinc, to absorb and utilize iron. Stallone is great, if not the best, but when his star-studded crew shows up, you’ve got the almighty Expendables.
A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, spices, herbs, and, if you choose, lean meat is the best at amending and preventing anemia. Pairing a Grade A diet with supplementation will get you feeling better sooner.
Signs and symptoms of anemia. Mayo Clinic. Accessed August 24, 2015.
Iron-Deficiency Anemia. American Society of Hemotology. Accessed August 24, 2015.
Dietary Iron & Iron Supplements. WebMD. Accessed August 24, 2015.
Anemia and Your Genes. Everyday Health.com. Accessed August 24, 2015.
Reviewed August 25, 2015
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith