Understanding Anaemia: Of Chewing Ice and Constant Exhaustion
In today’s fast-paced world, it is common for us to feel tired and worn out from the demanding needs of urban living. As a result of constant physical and mental stresses, we often feel fatigue and easily exhausted, especially after a long day at work or a strenuous session at the gym.
For some, however, lethargy is a signal of something more worrying: anaemia. A health condition in which our blood has a lower than normal number of red blood cells (RBC).
Blood transports oxygen, nutrients, hormones, and other substances around the body to the organs and tissues. As the heart beats, blood is pumped through blood vessels to all parts of the body. RBC, which is the most abundant component in the blood, gives blood its colour and carries oxygen from the lungs to the body cells through a particular protein called haemoglobin1.
Anaemia means that the level of red blood cells or the level of haemoglobin is lower than normal, hence a reduced amount of oxygen is being carried around in the bloodstream. Oxygen is the essential fuel to keep cells alive and keep them working. Functions of cells, tissues and organs will be affected with reduced amount of oxygen delivered to them.
This is a major reason we can feel easily worn-out going about our daily activities.
Anaemia often affects women, as a result of heavy blood loss from monthly menstrual cycles or pregnancies, but it can also affect men due to gastrointestinal bleeding, nutrition deficiencies or other chronic diseases. The most common cause of anaemia is iron deficiency. Although in majority of cases iron deficiency anaemia is acquired, one can also inherit it from one’s parents.2
What are the causes and symptoms of anaemia?
Causes of anaemia include blood loss due to trauma, gastrointestinal tract lesions or abnormal menstrual bleeding, deficiencies of essential vitamins and minerals for production of red blood cells, chronic illness such as inflammatory gastrointestinal diseases, kidney failure and acute and chronic infections, and increased breakdown of red blood cells due to intensive physical training. The most common cause of anaemia is iron deficiency.2
Besides feeling fatigue and lethargic, other common symptoms may include headaches, dizziness, irregular heartbeat, pale skin, ringing in the ears and shortness of breath.
Other ways to identify symptoms will be to check the colour of inside of your lower eyelids (conjunctivae), nailbeds and palms. Pale conjunctivae, nailbeds and palms indicate signs of anaemia.3
It is best to seek medical advice immediately after having these symptoms. If severe anaemia goes untreated, the heart will have to work harder. This extra work can lead to a heart problems called LVH (left ventricular hypertrophy), arrhythmia (irregular heart beat), decrease in immunity and as for pregnant mothers, anaemia can potentially cause premature births4.
What is Iron Deficiency Anaemia (IDA)?
Iron deficiency anaemia is a type of anaemia caused by insufficient iron in the body to produce RBC. It is the most common type of anaemia. Causes of iron deficiency include increased demand for iron during certain stages of life (e.g. Pregnancy, growth), increased iron loss through blood loss and decreased iron intake or absorption.
Dealing with iron deficiency
Making dietary changes is often the first step to addressing the lack of iron in the bloodstream. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), an average adult needs to absorb just 18 mg of iron each day to stay healthy5, which is essential for alertness, focus and concentration, in addition to the normal functioning of the entire immune system.
While it is essential to consume foods high in iron such as green leafy vegetables, lentils, oysters, red lean meat and fish to help boost the quantity of iron in the system, one will need to consume these foods several times the regular amount, as our body only absorbs about 10% of dietary iron.5 This is why supplements can play a role in helping the body get enough iron.
Besides dietary changes, altering your lifestyle can also help improve your overall immune system. Reduce your alcohol consumption or avoid smoking to help your body recover better. It is also good to stay active, although you should consult your physician to determine the level of physical activity you can engage in, as the body will need more oxygen during intense exercise.
Living healthy without worry
There is no doubt that iron is necessary for optimum health, but more often than not, most people are unaware that they are living with anaemia, which is why it is important to get a check-up. Certain habits can be tell-tale signs, so do see a doctor if you feel the need to chew ice4 or even clay. Pica is an unusual condition where anaemics crave for ice and clay.
In today’s day and age, however, iron deficiency anaemia is nothing to be worried about. With early diagnosis, the right diet and treatment, you can stay in the pink of health.
- Explore Anaemia. (2012, May 18). Retrieved from National Heart, Lung & Blood Institute : http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/anemia
- Robbins SL,Cotran RS. Robbins and Cotran pathologic basis of disease. Kumar V , Abbas AK, Fausto N, eds. Philadelphia; Elsevier; 1999.
- Bernard MK. Anemia in the Adult Patient. Hospital Physician. http://www.turner-white.com/memberfile.php?PubCode=hp_oct04_anemia.pdf. 2004; 32-36
- Anemia . (n.d.). Retrieved September 10, 2015, from American Society of Hemotology : http://www.hematology.org/Patients/Anemia/Iron-Deficiency.aspx
- CDC. Normal Iron Absorption and Storage. http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/hemochromatosis/training/pathophysiology/iron_cycle_popup.htm