Dr Zuze Matters of Health
At some point, you, or someone you know, might have been told you don’t have enough blood. This usually doesn’t mean you don’t have enough blood in terms of volume, but that you have anaemia. This is a condition that develops when your blood lacks enough healthy red blood cells or haemoglobin.
Haemoglobin is a main part of red blood cells and binds oxygen. If you have too few or abnormal red blood cells, or your haemoglobin is abnormal or low, the cells in your body will not get enough oxygen.
The commonest form of anaemia is iron deficiency anaemia which is a condition where a lack of iron in the body leads to a reduction in the number of red blood cells. Iron is used to produce red blood cells, which help store and carry oxygen in the blood.
If you have fewer red blood cells than is normal, your organs and tissues will not get as much oxygen as they usually would. Other forms of anaemia can be caused by a lack of vitamin B12 or folate in the body. But let’s talk about iron deficiency anaemia.
Common symptoms of anaemia are due to the reduced amount of oxygen in the body and include tiredness, having little energy (lethargy), feeling faint, and becoming easily breathless.
Less common symptoms include headaches, a thumping heart (palpitations), altered taste, and ringing in the ears (tinnitus).
You may look pale and various other symptoms may develop depending on the cause of the anaemia.
There are many things that can lead to a lack of iron in the body.
In men and post-menopausal women, the most common cause is bleeding in the stomach and intestines.
This can be caused by taking some types of medication, stomach ulcers and sometimes cancer. In women of reproductive age, the most common causes of iron deficiency anaemia are heavy periods and pregnancy (as your body needs extra iron for your baby).
Unless you’re pregnant, it’s rare for iron deficiency anaemia to be caused just by a lack of iron in your diet.
However, if you do lack dietary iron, it may mean you’re more likely to develop anaemia than if you have one of the problems mentioned above.
Treatment for iron deficiency anaemia involves taking iron supplements to boost the low levels of iron in your body.
This is usually effective and the condition rarely causes long-term problems. If the anaemia is very bad, a blood transfusion may be necessary.
You will need to be monitored every few months to check the treatment is working and that your iron levels have returned to normal.
The underlying cause will also need to be found and treated so that you don’t get anaemia again.
You may also be advised to increase the amount of iron in your diet.
Good dietary sources of iron include:
- Dark-green leafy vegetables, such as spinach
- Iron-fortified cereals or bread
- Brown rice
- Pulses and beans
- Nuts and seeds
- Meat, fish and tofu
- Dried fruit, such as dried apricots, prunes and raisins
If iron deficiency anaemia is left untreated, it can make you more susceptible to illness and infection, as a lack of iron in the body affects your immune system (the body’s natural defence system).
Severe iron deficiency anaemia may increase your risk of developing complications that affect the heart or lungs, such as tachycardia (an abnormally fast heartbeat) or heart failure (when your heart is not pumping blood around your body very well).
Pregnant women with severe or untreated anaemia also have a higher risk of complications before and after birth.
If you think you have anaemia, please visit your doctor.