Anemia is a very common medical condition with a wide variety of causes. Literally, anemia means lack of “heme,” or blood. Hemoglobin is the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Without adequate hemoglobin, the body doesn’t get enough oxygen to carry out normal cell functions.
The most common type of anemia is iron deficiency anemia. Iron is needed for the body to manufacture hemoglobin. Individuals can become iron deficient due to inadequate dietary intake of iron, during times of rapid growth (such as those under 3 years of age) and during pregnancy.
Iron deficiency can also occur if too many red blood cells are lost from the body due to bleeding. This happens to some women with heavy menstruation. Other types of chronic bleeding leading to anemia include gastritis or stomach ulcers, gastrointestinal bleeding in the colon due to colitis, and with certain types of cancers. Still others can develop anemia due to rapid destruction of blood cells within the body. Such is the case with sickle cell disease and certain autoimmune conditions.
The symptoms of anemia are caused by the relative lack of hemoglobin and therefore the lack of oxygen to the body. Anemic individuals can feel tired, have pale skin or become short of breath during normal physical activities; they may feel cold all the time, have a fast heart rate and may have headaches. Some individuals with iron deficiency exhibit a strange desire to chew on ice, a condition called “pica.” Some may have no symptoms at all.
A simple blood test can determine the amount of hemoglobin present in the blood. If the hemoglobin is low, other tests may need to be performed to see what’s causing it to be low. Iron levels can also be checked in the blood. If your doctor determines that bleeding may be the cause of the anemia, a thorough search for the source of the bleeding is undertaken.
Dietary iron deficiency can be prevented. Foods that are iron-rich include most meats; seafood; dried fruits such as apricots, prunes and raisins; nuts; beans, especially lima beans; green leafy vegetables, such as spinach and broccoli; whole grains and iron fortified breads and cereals.
Iron in certain types of food is more easily absorbed by the body; this is true of the iron in meats. Additionally, vitamin C aids in the absorption of iron from the intestines. Taking vitamin C pills or eating foods that contain lots of vitamin C, such as citrus fruits or juices, at the same time as eating iron-rich foods can assist in the absorption of iron.
On the flipside, some foods can hinder iron absorption. These include coffee, tea, egg yolks, milk, fiber and soy protein. Try to avoid eating these when consuming iron-rich foods.
A balanced diet incorporating all the major food groups is an important part of staying fit and maintaining healthy blood. And don’t forget exercise. Regular exercise stimulates the body to make blood cells by demanding more oxygen. Diet and exercise always go hand-in-hand. Finally, regular preventive checkups with your doctor can help identify conditions such as anemia early.
The content in this column is for informational purposes only. Consult your physician for appropriate individual treatment. Reynolds practices Family Medicine in Chesterfield.