Anemia: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatments. Anemia is a health condition which occurs when there isn’t enough healthy red blood cells in your system to efficiently carry oxygen throughout your body. Even though it’s a manageable condition that can be eased with simply adding iron into your diet, it does come with some potential complications, especially if you’re suffering from a rare type of anemia.
Different Types of Anemia
The most common type of anemia is iron-deficiency anemia, but there are other, more serious types that require different treatment techniques and lifestyle changes.
- Iron-deficiency anemia – caused by insufficient iron in your blood
- Aplastic anemia – occurs when your body stops producing new red blood cells
- Sickle cell anemia – caused by sickle cell disease which changes the shape of red blood cells. They start to resemble sickles or crescent moons which can become rigid and sticky, slowing down or blocking blood flow.
- Thalassemia – blood disorder that causes your body to have and produce less hemoglobin than normal levels. It’s usually hereditary.
- Vitamin-deficiency anemia (pernicious anemia) – caused by low levels of B12 and folate
- Anemia of inflammation – caused by certain chronic diseases such as HIV/AIDS, kidney disease, rheumatoid arthritis, or Chron’s disease
- Hemolytic anemia – anemia that occurs when your red blood cells are destroyed faster than bone marrow can replace them.
- Anemias associated with bone marrow disease – certain diseases such as leukemia and myelofibrosis can affect the production of the red blood cells in your bone marrow
Symptoms of Anemia
There may be different types of anemia, but they all have one thing in common: not enough red blood cells (or functioning red blood cells) in your system, causing not enough oxygen to be transmitted throughout your body and reaching your tissue and organs.
In many cases, you might not even experience any symptoms or they might be really mild, making it hard for you to notice them as something out of the ordinary. When they do appear, the usual symptoms include:
- Fatigue and tiredness
- Irregular heartbeats
- Shortness of breath
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Chest pain
- Cold hands and feet
- Pale or yellowish skin
If left untreated, the symptoms of anemia can worsen over time, so even if you haven’t experienced them in the beginning, it’s pretty likely they will show up later. Usually, the symptoms can be felt with your menstruation as that’s when you experience a significant blood loss.
Anemia and Your Period
Heavy periods, also called menorrgahia affect one out of five women in the US each year and it’s a condition which can make you reduce the amount of iron in your blood, causing anemia. Luckily, this can be managed by getting enough iron and other nutrients from your diet and supplements so you actually prevent the development of iron-deficiency anemia and all it involves.
Anemia is the most common blood disorder in the world, with women and children being the most affected. It’s usually diagnosed through a series of tests that determine your complete blood count as well as the shape and size of your blood cells (to check for sickle cell type of anemia). Your doctor will also perform a full physical exam as well as ask you questions about your family history. Sometimes, a test to study a sample of your bone marrow may be requested as well.
Normal hematocrit (the volume of red blood cells compared to total blood cells) and hemoglobin (a protein in your red blood cells that carries oxygen to your body’s organs and tissues as well as transports carbon dioxide from your organs and tissues back to your lungs) values depend on a variety of different factors such as age, race, gender, and other. Still, there are some common values considered to be the healthy range:
- For hematocrit – 40 to 54% for men and 36 to 48% for women
- For hemoglobin – 14 to 18 grams/decilter for men and 12 to 16 g/dl for women
If your values are lower than the normal range, chances are you have anemia. However, people who engage in intense physical activity, are pregnant or of older age can have lower numbers while still completely healthy. On the other hand, smoking and being at high altitude might increase hematocrit and hemoglobin numbers.
Depending on which type of anemia you’re diagnosed with, the treatment options change accordingly. They usually include dietary and lifestyle changes, medications, specific procedures, and in the most severe case, surgery. However, the goal of these therapeutic tools is always the same: to increase the level of red blood cells as well as oxygen in your blood so that it can be efficiently distributed throughout your body and reach every organ, optimizing its function.
- Iron supplementation – when there is an iron deficiency present, which happens in most cases, iron supplementation is key to increase hemoglobin levels. It is usually paired with supplementation of vitamin B12 and folate, as well as vitamin C which increases iron absorption. In addition to supplements, you can increase your intake of iron through iron-rich foods. Foods containing most iron are meats, especially red meats. But, if you’re trying to lower the inflammation in your body, it’s usually best to stick to plant-based iron-rich foods such as spinach and other dark leafy greens, peas, chickpeas, lentils, prunes, raisins, and tofu.
- B12 supplementation – low levels of B12 can lead to pernicious anemia, so adding a vitamin B12 supplement as well as increasing B12 rich foods is key. Unfortunately, foods containing B12 are predominantly animal-based and that’s why vegans often need to supplement with an oral pill or B12 shots.
- Folate supplementation – folate deficiency usually follows B12 deficiency and it’s treated with supplements or injections. It’s especially important for pregnant women as it helps promote healthy fetus growth.
- Medications – some of the medicine used to increase your red blood cell count includes antibiotics that treat infections, hormones, synhtetic erythropoietin (a hormone produced by the kidneys that stimulates your bone marrow to produce more red blood cells), drugs that prevent your immune system from attacking its own, healthy red blood cells, and chelation therapy to treat lead poisoning
- Blood transfusions (usually in the case of aplastic anemia)
- Blood and bone marrow stem cell transplants (usually in the case of aplastic anemia)
- Surgery to control potential internal bleeding or a splenectomy, a removal of the spleen whose impaired function may be destroying and removing red blood cells at a much faster rate than normal
Sickle cell anemia is a special type of anemia and usually requires additional or slightly different treatment. The therapy might include oxygen boosts, pain relievers, and oral and intravenous fluids to reduce pain and prevent complications. Additionally, you might need blood transfusions, as well as folic acid supplements and antibiotics. The usual drug to treat sickle cell anemia is hydroxyurea (Droxia, Hydrea, Siklos) which is usually used to treat leukemia, or cancer of the white blood cells.
If left untreated, anemia can cause a plethora of complications, from a severely weakened immune system that leaves you prone to infection and irregular heartbeat to heart failure and issues during pregnancy. It’s important to manage your anemia with dietary and lifestyle changes so that medications and other more invasive procedures aren’t even necessary.
Anemia is a condition where your red blood cell count is too low and it’s not able to transfer oxygen to every organ in your body. This poses a serious problem for the overall function of your body systems. Eating a diet rich in iron, vitamin B12, and folate is a great way to stimulate the production of hemoglobin, but sometimes, depending on the type and level of your anemia, you might need additional treatments. Get checked up and start treatment today.