Understanding Anemia: It's in the Blood

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Understanding Anemia: It's in the Blood

Anemia is the most common form of malnutrition found in women of all ages. It is crucial to understand that anemia is not a disease, but rather a set of signs and symptoms that indicate a blood disorder.

Anemia occurs when the number of red blood cells or the concentration of hemoglobin in red blood cells falls below normal. This compromises the delivery of oxygen to cells and the ability of cells to use this oxygen for energy-producing reactions. It may stem from an intestinal problem which prevents proper iron absorption, excessive blood loss or inadequate iron in your diet.

Anemias can be genetically linked or caused by chronic infections. Anemias may also be a sign of arthritis or cancer; they often accompany thyroid and chronic kidney disease. Whatever the cause, deficits of oxygen in the blood increase fatigue, impair brain function, decrease work capacity and lessen the ability to maintain body temperature.

Aplastic anemia is a rare condition characterized by low levels of red and white blood cells and platelets. Treatment for this type of anemia depends on its cause and severity. Hemolytic anemia occurs because red blood cells are destroyed in the liver and spleen faster than they are produced. Pernicious anemia relates to a decreased body store of vitamin B(12). Vegetarians are more prone to develop B(12) deficiency because this nutrient is found primarily in animal protein.

Sickle cell anemia is a hereditary disorder affecting hemoglobin (the oxygen-carrying substance in red blood cells) and is most frequently seen in Africans and African Americans. Studies have shown that some persons with sickle cell anemia may be deficient in zinc.

Iron deficiency anemia is the most common form of malnutrition found in women. An anemia stemming from nutritional deficiencies may be corrected by what you eat. Although it is extremely rare, too much iron can interfere with the normal functions of the some organs such as the heart and liver. Before you consider a diet and supplement plan to correct your anemia, be sure you pinpoint with which type of anemia you are dealing.

The Hows and Whys

Blood's most crucial job is to transport oxygen (mainly by red blood cells) from the lungs to all the body cells. Red blood cells contain a red pigment known as hemoglobin. When red blood cells, which are soft and flexible, pass through the capillaries in the lungs they pick up oxygen and release the carbon monoxide gathered along the way. Then, the cells pass through the circulatory system carrying oxygen to all of the body's vital organs.

A lack of oxygen causes the affected person to feel extremely fatigued and weak. Because muscular activity is inhibited, an anemic individual will lack endurance and stamina. When the brain cells lack oxygen, dizziness may result.

Anemic individuals may have poor skin color and tone, appear listless and may suffer from hair loss and brittle fingernails. Some digestive symptoms include loss of appetite, sore tongue, abdominal pain, heartburn and diarrhea. In some cases, individuals experience headaches, tingling in the fingers and feet, heart palpitations and loss of coordination.

The most common cause of anemia is an iron deficiency. Some women diet excessively, preventing an adequate iron reserve. Consuming high amounts of junk food like chocolate bars, french fries and other high-fat, high-sugar foods also reduces available iron.

During reproductive years, women need twice as much iron as men due to the loss of iron during the monthly menstrual cycle. Menorrhagia (heavy or prolonged menstrual bleeding) is commonly seen in women with hormonal imbalances, fibroid tumors and uterine cancer making them particularly vulnerable to the possibility of developing an iron deficiency anemia.

Pregnancy and the postpartum period following delivery can also predispose women to developing anemia. During pregnancy, the mother's blood volume increases, but the growing fetus demands a lot of folic acid for the production of red blood cells, thereby reducing the mother's store. Iron is also lost through breast milk.

Elderly women are also at risk of developing anemia as they tend to eat less and may have a nutrition-poor diet -- especially if they live on a limited income or are alone.

Iron Out the Deficiencies

While it is necessary to consume an adequate amount of iron in your diet, it is also essential to be able to absorb the iron properly. Iron supplements from organic sources are easier to absorb than those from inorganic sources. A liquid supplement is best absorbed.

Even if you eat an iron-rich diet, the lack of certain vitamins such as vitamin A, B-complex (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and pantothenic acid) or vitamin C can result in under-absorption of iron. Folic acid, another member of the vitamin B complex, is required for the production of healthy red blood cells. It is an essential factor in the production of "heme," the iron-containing pigment found in hemoglobin. A deficiency in folic acid hinders the production of normal red blood cells and is also essential for healthy brain and nervous system function. Folic acid is found primarily in leafy green vegetables and liver. Women who use birth control pills for contraception or to regulate menstrual cycles are at a greater risk of developing folic acid deficiency.

Pyridoxine (vitamin B(6)) is also necessary for normal red cell production. Anemia that fails to respond to iron may be corrected with daily supplements of vitamin B(6). Vitamin E is essential for red blood cell survival as it helps to extend the life of red blood cells. Copper aids in the formation of red blood cells and iron absorption. Calcium supplements, antacids and zinc can inhibit iron absorption and should not be taken at the same time as iron supplements.

Your body absorbs iron in different quantities from different foods. Good sources of iron are chicken, seafood, beans and peas (black beans, pinto beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils) dried fruits, dark leafy vegetables, molasses, wheat bran and wheat germ, oatmeal, whole grains (millet, barley, rye, oats) and soybean flour. Vegetables containing high amounts of iron include beet greens, swiss chard, spinach, brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, broccoli and kale. Sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, pecans and almonds are good sources of vegetarian iron and are high in other essential nutrients.

Foods that reduce your ability to absorb iron include large quantities of bran, tea, coffee and a compound found in unleavened bread or unrefined cereals known as phytate. Drinking excessive alcohol is not only toxic to the liver but tends to deplete the body's store of the vitamin B-complex. Caffeine and sugar also deplete B-complex stores, increasing anxiety and nervous tension.

It's important to combine a gentle exercise regime with effective diet and supplement management. Deep breathing exercises, walking and progressive muscle relaxation help promote good oxygenation and circulation.

Herbs For Strong Blood

Helpful herbs include yellow dock, pau d'arco (used to promote liver health), and shepherd's purse (to promote blood clotting and reduce menstrual bleeding).

Stinging nettle and chives (rich in both vitamin C and iron) are a perfect combination to help prevent iron deficiency anemia. Chives can be eaten fresh, but stinging nettle it is best taken dried, as an extract or in capsules. Turmeric, a delicious herb often used for flavoring Indian dishes, also promotes liver health.

With a little homework, self-knowledge, and reliable health resources, every woman can, and should, play a major role in creating her own state of good health and well-being.

References:
(1.) Lark, Susan MD, Anemia & Heavy Menstrual Flow. Los Altos, 1993.

(2.) Ody, Penelope. The Complete Medicinal Herbal. New York, 1993.

(3.) Silverstein, Alvin & Virginia & Laura Silverstein Nunn. Sickle Cell Anemia. Springfield, NJ, 1997.

Canadian Health Reform Products Ltd.

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By Jennifer Farnell