Everything you need to know about anaemia

Anaemia is widespread and treatable – here we uncover the facts.

26 January 2007
by The Clicks Health Team

Cited as the most common nutritional disorder on the planet, it’s likely that you could experience anaemia at some point in your life.

"Anaemia occurs when the level of haemoglobin, the molecule which transports oxygen in the blood, falls, or the number of red blood cells falls below normal levels, causing a reduction in the supply of oxygen to the tissues," says integrative medicine practitioner Dr Les Emdin. "Lack of iron in the diet is the most common cause and anyone can be affected, but women are more at risk because of menstruation and pregnancy, which causes women to need two-and-a-half times as much iron as men."

Lack of iron can also be caused by stomach ulcers, ulcerative colitis, cancer, or taking aspirin or similar medicine for an extended period, all of which can cause bleeding in your stomach or intestines. Also, sometimes children under the age of three grow so fast that their bodies may have a hard time keeping up with the amount of iron they need.

Because there are a variety of reasons for low iron levels, it’s important to find out the reason for yours. It’s equally essential to discover which type of anaemia you are suffering from.

How do you know if you have anaemia?

Besides paleness, general symptoms include fatigue, irritability, unusual shortness of breath during exercise, a fast heartbeat or chest pain, cold hands and feet, brittle nails and headaches. To diagnose you, your doctor will do a simple blood test, but more tests may be needed to find out what’s causing the anaemia.

Types of anaemia 

  • Iron-deficiency anaemia: This is the most common cause and it can be treated by increasing iron in the diet and taking an iron supplement.
  • Sickle-cell anaemia: This is a hereditary cause of anaemia, most often seen in people of black descent. It is characterised by the production of rigid, sickle-shaped red blood cells. These abnormal sickle cells break down faster than normal red blood cells, resulting in a chronic shortage of red blood cells and anaemia symptoms. Treatment includes antibiotics, the anti-cancer drug hydroxyurea and blood transfusions.
  • Pernicious anaemia: This is caused when the intestines are unable to absorb sufficient amounts of vitamin B12, which is required for the production of red blood cells. Aside from the common symptoms, you may also experience vision problems, memory loss and difficulty walking. Treatment includes vitamin-B12 injections and supplements.
  • Folic acid-deficiency anaemia: As the name suggests, this is caused by a lack of folic acid, which is important for a healthy blood and nervous system. Treatment includes eating a diet high in folic acid (foods such as beans and legumes, citrus fruits and juices, dark-green leafy vegetables, pork, poultry and shellfish) and supplements.
  • Thalassemia: This hereditary condition tends to be present at birth. The genes that are responsible for proper haemoglobin production become damaged. Treatment includes blood transfusions, iron-chelation therapy and bone-marrow transplants.
  • Aplastic anaemia: This is one of the rarer types, which occurs when the body makes insufficient red and white blood cells. Causes include radiation therapy, chemotherapy, toxic chemicals, some medications and bone-marrow infections.

Eating to prevent and treat anaemia

"To increase your iron intake, you should eat foods such as liver (unless you are pregnant), red meat, chicken, fish, dried fruit, nuts, molasses and green leafy vegetables," says Dr Emdin. "Your body best absorbs the iron in meat. To further help your body absorb iron, you should take vitamin C pills or eat foods that are rich in vitamin C. Some foods block the absorption of iron, so try to avoid coffee, tea, egg yolks, milk, bran and soy protein when you’re eating foods rich in iron."

You can increase your vitamin B12 intake by eating beef, pork, eggs, cheese and milk. Vegetarians should eat plenty of yeast extract or B12-fortified foods including ready-to-eat cereals. You should also up your folate intake with green leafy vegetables, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, wholegrains, avocados and melon.

How anaemia affects women

Anaemia affects 20 percent of all women of childbearing age. Because of the subtlety of the symptoms, women are often unaware that they have this disorder, because they attribute the symptoms to the stress of their daily lives. Possible problems for pregnant women with anaemia include increased risk of growth retardation of the foetus, premature birth, intrauterine death, rupture of the amnion and infection. 

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