Your blood is made up of several components: red blood cells, white cells, platelets and the liquid part of blood called ‘plasma.’ When your blood doesn’t contain enough red blood cells — or if those cells lack hemoglobin to transport oxygen — we call it anemia. Let’s learn what causes anemia and how to prevent it, when possible.
WHAT IS ANEMIA?
On average, a healthy adult’s blood contains about four to six million red blood cells per liter. The number of cells varies by sex; women naturally have fewer red cells than men do.
Red blood cells play an important body function. They carry oxygen to all the tissues. A special protein called ‘hemoglobin’ gives red cells their distinctive color, and it’s this hemoglobin that bonds to oxygen molecules and transports them to cells throughout the body.
If something causes your red blood cell count to go below normal, or if your red blood cells lack enough hemoglobin to carry oxygen, it’s called ‘anemia.’ Left untreated, anemia can cause damage to vital organs. Luckily, most types of anemia can be treated successfully.
CAUSES OF ANEMIA
Anemia can be a mild, short-term condition or it can be a lifelong issue, depending on the cause. The primary causes of anemia are:
- Blood loss. Any type of significant blood loss can lower the number of red blood cells in your system. Heavy menstrual periods, trauma, surgery and other bleeding episodes may cause anemia.
- Poor production of red blood cells. If you eat a poor diet, your body may have trouble making enough red blood cells. Low levels of the hormone erythropoeitin, pregnancy, cancer and being born with an inability to make red blood cells all can contribute to anemia.
- Destruction of high numbers of red blood cells. Many conditions can cause your body to destroy red blood cells. These conditions include a diseased spleen, genetic conditions like sickle cell disease or a reaction to a blood transfusion can prompt your body to destroy blood cells.
RISK FACTORS FOR ANEMIA
You can control certain risk factors for anemia, while others may be inherited. In general, these things put you at higher risk for experiencing low red blood cell counts or impaired hemoglobin levels:
- Poor diet. You need to consume adequate amounts of iron, folate, Vitamin B12, Vitamin C, riboflavin and copper to help your body make red blood cells.
- Pregnancy. The fluid portion of blood (the plasma) increases rapidly during the first six months of pregnancy, which dilutes the blood and can lower the proportion of red cells in the blood. Low levels of folate or iron in a pregnant woman’s blood also can put expectant mothers at higher risk for anemia.
- Low levels of erythropoeitin. This hormone is essential for stimulating the blood marrow to make red blood cells. A number of conditions, such as chronic kidney disease, can reduce levels of erythropoeitin in the body and put you at higher risk for anemia.
- Kidney disease. You may not know it, but the kidneys play vital role in red blood cell production by producing erythropoeitin. Chronic kidney disease can reduce the amount of this key hormone.
- Cancer treatments. Certain types of cancer treatments can damage hemoglobin or blood marrow.
- Inherited (genetic) conditions. These include aplastic anemia, sickle cell disease and thalassemias.
- Hemolytic anemia. In this condition, your body destroys the red blood cells circulating in your system. Hemolytic anemia can be caused by an inherited immune disorder or a bad reaction to a blood transfusion.
Sluggishness and fatigue are the two hallmarks of anemia. You may also experience these signs and symptoms:
- Coldness of the hands and feet
- Pale skin, lips or conjunctiva (the membranes lining the lower eyelid)
- Shortness of breath
- Irregular heartbeat or chest pain
- General feelings of weakness
Whenever these symptoms follow an episode of blood loss, such as from heavy menstrual bleeding, it’s likely anemia is the cause. However, you should never attempt to diagnose severe chest pain accompanied by shortness of breath. If you suspect a heart attack, call for emergency responders.
TREATMENT FOR ANEMIA
Anemia will be treated according to the cause. For example, if anemia is caused by blood loss due to trauma, you likely will receive blood transfusions. Here are common treatments for other types of anemia:
- Anemia caused by poor diet will be treated with education to make sure you begin to eat enough blood-enriching foods. You may also receive supplements of iron, Vitamin C or other key nutrients that boost production of red blood cells.
- Pernicious anemia is caused by low levels of Vitamin B12 and sometimes is treated with one or more injections of B12. You also will need to increase your dietary consumption of this vital nutrient.
- In anemia caused by a chronic disease, the underlying condition will be the focus of treatment.
- When anemia is caused by chronic internal bleeding, such as due to a bleeding ulcer, the source of bleeding will be treated.
- Anemias caused by inherited conditions, like sickle cell, are managed in various ways throughout your lifetime.
It’s not possible to prevent genetic anemias, like thalassemias or sickle cell disease, but you can avoid dietary and pernicious anemia by modifying your diet. To keep your red cell factory functioning, eat like this:
- Consume red meat. It’s the best source of iron, which is vital to the production of red cells and hemoglobin. If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, you must consume higher quantities of iron-rich foods because plant-based sources of iron aren’t as readily absorbed by the body as meat sources are. Eat plenty of dried beans and dark green, leafy vegetables. Eating Vitamin C along with plant-based iron sources will enhance absorption by your body.
- Eat plenty of foods containing Vitamin B12. These include eggs and dairy products, most types of meats, and cereals and breads fortified with added B12.
- Get enough folate. Eat grains fortified with folate, spinach, dried beans, eggs, bananas, oranges and other fruits.
- Eat (or drink) your Vitamin C. Vitamin C plays an essential role in helping your body absorb the iron you eat. Fresh fruits like oranges, tangerines, strawberries, cantaloupe and kiwi fruit contain plenty of delicious C, as do juices made from these fruits. Keep in mind eating whole fruit is better than drinking juice because whole fruit contains fiber and micronutrients without added sugar.
Pregnant women should report any symptoms of anemia to their healthcare provider so the condition can be treated if necessary.
ANEMIA: MANAGEABLE FOR LIFE
Many people with inherited anemias like sickle cell condition live long, productive lives. The keys to coping with anemia are to prevent it when possible and to maintain a good relationship with your healthcare provider when the anemia is chronic. By doing these two things, you can enjoy lifelong good health.