The fifth time in a row I was told my hemoglobin level was too low to donate blood, it occurred to me that something might be wrong. But, being both young and broke, I shrugged my shoulders and figured a trip to the doctor wasn’t really necessary. However, after a low-key water aerobics class gave me a wicked Charley horse and left me so weak I was unable to move, I finally acquiesced and went in for a blood test.
The results? I was anemic.
What is anemia?
Anemia is when blood lacks enough healthy red blood cells or hemoglobin. Iron deficiency anemia is the most common type of anemia, and it occurs when the body doesn’t have enough iron. Iron is used by the body to make hemoglobin, which is the part of red blood cells that binds oxygen. Without sufficient hemoglobin, the cells in the body don’t get enough oxygen.
Iron deficiency anemia can be caused by inadequate iron intake, the inability to absorb iron, pregnancy, blood loss due to menstruation or internal bleeding.
Typical symptoms of iron deficiency anemia include:
- Pale skin
- Brittle nails
- Cold hands and feet
- Leg cramps
- Cravings to eat items that aren’t food, such as dirt, ice, or clay
- Unusually rapid heart beat, particularly with exercise
- Shortness of breath, particularly with exercise
Luckily, iron deficiency anemia can be treated fairly easily.
Living With Anemia
Life with iron deficiency anemia isn’t difficult, it just requires a few simple lifestyle changes. The first is knowing how much iron you need on a daily basis. This will vary based on age, gender and whether you are pregnant, breastfeeding or menstruating.
1. Take an Iron Supplement
Iron supplements are an easy way to help increase iron levels in your body. It’s important to know that iron supplements may need to be taken for several months before you see an improvement in your symptoms. If the tablets cause an upset stomach, you can take them with meals. However, if at all possible, take them on an empty stomach, as that helps the body absorb them better.
Do not take your iron pills:
- Within two hours of taking antacids, PPIs, or tetracycline antibiotics
- With certain foods, chemicals, and nutrients, such as:
- Food or beverages high in caffeine
- Calcium-rich foods or supplements
- High-fiber foods
Do not take iron supplements unless advised by your doctor! Too much iron can be deadly.
2. Eat Foods High in Iron
The two forms of dietary iron are heme and non-heme. Heme iron is derived from hemoglobin and can be found in animal foods, such as red meats, fish and poultry. This iron is easily absorbed into the body. Non-heme iron is found in plant foods, such as vegetables, fruits, grains, lentils and beans. Non-heme iron is not as easily absorbed as heme iron.
Many vitamins and nutrients play a role in the bio-availability of iron, as well as the body’s ability to absorb it. The following foods and nutrients can help increase the absorption of non-heme iron and should be included with your iron-rich meals:
- Lean red meat
- Leafy greens
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin B12
3. Be Wary of Certain Foods and Beverages
There are a number of foods and drinks out there that, while perfectly nutritious, can inhibit the absorption of iron into the bloodstream. They include:
- Eggs contain a protein called phosvitin that impairs absorption of iron.
- Foods high in calcium: Calcium is the only substance that inhibits absorption of both non-heme and heme iron. It’s found in foods such as milk, yogurt, cheese, sardines, canned salmon, tofu, broccoli, almonds, figs, turnip greens and rhubarb. If you need to take calcium supplements, do so at bedtime so as not to interfere with iron absorption from meals.
- Foods containing oxalates: Oxalates are derived from oxalic acid and impair the absorption of non-heme iron. They can be found in foods such as spinach, kale, beets, nuts, chocolate, tea, wheat bran, rhubarb, strawberries; and herbs such as oregano, basil and parsley.
- Foods containing polyphenols: Polyphenols (or phenolic compounds) are found in tea, coffee, wine, cocoa, spices, walnuts and fruits such as apples, grapes and berries.
- Foods containing phytate: Phytate is a compound contained in soy protein and fiber, and can be found in walnuts, almonds, sesame, dried beans, lentils and peas, and cereals and whole grains.
Foods and beverages in this category do not have to be cut out of your diet completely. However, you should not consume them within two hours prior to and following your main iron-rich meal or iron supplement.
4. Change the Amount of Oxygen You’re Getting
If your anemia is serious enough, you may want to consider an alternative way to get oxygen to your organs. One such way is through hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT), which treats anemia by pushing oxygen deep into the blood plasma. In a hyperbaric oxygen therapy chamber, the air pressure is increased to three times higher than normal, allowing the lungs to gather more oxygen than would be possible breathing pure oxygen at normal air pressure.
Since anemia affects more than three million Americans and an estimated 1.62 billion people globally, you can take heart in the fact that you’re not alone. Watch your diet, take your supplements and get out there. Your anemia can’t stop you!