Do you wake up still feeling really tired and weak even after a good night’s sleep? Do you often get infections? Do your feet and hands always feel cold? Does your skin look pale? Are your nails becoming brittle? Do you suffer from restless legs syndrome? If so, you may have anemia, a condition affecting your red blood cells.
Anemia occurs when your blood isn’t able to carry enough oxygen to properly feed your tissues and organs. Your red blood cells contain hemoglobin, the component that binds the oxygen you inhale to transport it throughout your body via your circulatory system. If you have too little or ineffective hemoglobin, your cell tissue becomes oxygen-starved, which reduces its ability to function and repair itself.
Although there are many types of anemia, two common types are iron- deficiency anemia and vitamin-deficiency anemia.
Iron-deficiency anemia is caused by a lack of the mineral iron, which your bone marrow needs to make hemoglobin. This lack of iron prevents your marrow from producing the quantity of quality hemoglobin required by your red blood cells to carry an adequate supply of oxygen.
Although iron-deficiency anemia can be the result of a variety of factors, one common cause is excessive and/or chronic blood loss from gastrointestinal conditions like ulcers and gastritis (inflammation of the stomach), which can be triggered by frequently using nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin or ibuprofen. Other possible causes are hemorrhoids, cancer in the digestive system, frequent blood donation, heavy menstruation and/or surgery.
Iron-deficiency anemia can also develop due to a low-iron diet. Build and maintain your iron reserves to avoid this condition by regularly eating a variety of iron-rich foods, such as: red meat, poultry, pork, seafood, beans, peas, iron-fortified breads, cereals and pastas, and dried fruit, like raisins and apricots, and dark green leafy vegetables, like spinach. Vegans or vegetarians should increase their consumption of the non-meat, iron-rich options, such as leafy green vegetables and iron-fortified foods.
Since Vitamin C also helps your body absorb iron, be sure to regularly include oranges, grapefruit, tangerines, strawberries, kiwi, melons, tomatoes, broccoli, leafy greens and peppers in your meals. Even when including enough iron in your diet, other factors may impact your body’s ability to retain and utilize this iron. Endurance training, certain drugs, caffeinated drinks, foods, and digestive conditions such as surgical removal of the stomach, small intestine, inflammatory bowel disease or Crohn’s disease may all impede iron absorption.
If your diet lacks appropriate amounts of Vitamin B12 and folate, you may develop another common type of anemia, vitamin-deficiency anemia, since these two nutrients are necessary for red blood cell production. Vitamin-deficiency anemia may be caused by an inadequate intake of Vitamin B12 due to little or no meat in your diet; inadequate intake of folate due to overcooking or eating too few vegetables; pernicious anemia due to poor Vitamin B12 absorption because of an intestinal parasite infection, Crohn’s disease, and or surgical removal of your stomach or intestine; intestinal disease, such as celiac disease and tropical sprue; megaloblastic anemia due to a lack of Vitamin B12 and/or folate; alcohol abuse; and/or certain medications.
Fortunately, mild anemia rarely leads to complications. However, if anemia progresses to become severe, serious health conditions may develop, such as an irregular or rapid heart beat (to compensate for the low oxygen ratio in your blood), leading to an enlarged heart or heart failure, and/or increased susceptibility to severe infections.
So, if you experience the following symptoms of advanced anemia: chest pain, shortness of breath, headache, dizziness, inflamed or sore tongue, and cravings for unusual, non-nutritive substances like dirt, ice or starch, schedule an appointment to have blood work done for anemia. Iron-deficiency anemia is best diagnosed and treated by a doctor.
If your doctor recommends an iron supplement once the underlying cause of your anemia is determined, be sure to follow the recommended dosage. Ingesting too much iron may lead to liver damage and other serious complications. When taking iron supplements, it is best to take tablets on an empty stomach for best absorption. If necessary to avoid nausea, iron tablets may be taken with meals. Taking them with orange juice or a Vitamin C supplement will also improve absorption. However, avoid taking iron at the same time as antacids. Because antacids interfere with your body’s ability to absorb iron, take iron two hours before or four hours after an antacid. On the down side, iron supplements may cause constipation, so a stool softener may be necessary to maintain regular bowel movements.
Iron-deficiency anemia and vitamin-deficiency anemia usually respond well to treatment. Remember though, advanced anemia happens over time, so it will take time to build up your body’s iron reserves again. A year of supplementation may even be necessary.
It’s just another way that pumping iron can help build your body.
Karen Bowen is a professional health and nutrition consultant, and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.