Anemia is a blood disorder. Although it is not very harmful in the earlier stages, it has the potential to escalate and cause major complications if it is not managed in time. Let’s take a look at some of the causes of anemia, the symptoms you should not ignore, and what you and your doctor can do to treat the disease or, better still, prevent it altogether. But first, let’s understand what exactly anemia is in the first place. To understand the condition better, we’ll first brush up some basic school science.
There are three types of blood cells. There are white and red blood corpuscles which most of us know about, and then there are platelets which are responsible for clotting blood – a very important function. The white blood corpuscles are the soldiers, fighting viruses and bacteria so you do not fall ill. The red blood corpuscles are the basic foundation of the blood because of the haemoglobin they contain which is what imparts the red color to blood. Hemoglobin is also the fuel the red blood cells need to carry ever-vital oxygen to every single organ in your body and to carry carbon dioxide to the lungs so that it can be exhaled.
All three types of blood cells are important and a deficiency or problem with any of them will lead to potential illness. When you are anemic, it is the red blood cells that are affected. Let’s see the different ways in which this can happen.
Causes of Anemia in Women
- To produce haemoglobin, your body needs iron, folate and vitamin B12. A deficiency in these essential nutrients means that your body will not be able to produce a sufficient amount of haemoglobin. This is the most common cause of anemia.
- Vitamin B12 is not always processed easily by the body. Some women’s bodies are just not able to extract the vitamin from food so it simply passes out of the body instead of being used by the blood and other organs. So although you may be eating enough vitamin B12, you may get anemia because your body is unable to process it.
- Heavy bleeding can cause anemia. Your body has the ability to replace red blood cells as they are lost. But when there is very heavy bleeding either because of an injury or an internal hemorrhage or heavy period flow, the body cannot keep up and temporary anemia may occur.
- Many women get anemia in pregnancy too. Anemia in pregnancy is caused by lower nutritional levels. Many pregnant women do not realize the stress that pregnancy places on their whole body and thus do not rest enough, exercise enough or take in enough of the vitamins and minerals needed by the body for it to work. Anemia is a pregnancy complication that is best avoided for the health of both mother and child.
- There are immune system disorders that attack red blood cells and destroy them, thinking that they are the enemy, thus resulting in anemia.
- Kidney disease and liver disease in their advanced stages can also destroy red blood cells.
- Hemoglobin is produced by the bone marrow. If the bone marrow does not produce enough haemoglobin, you can develop anemia. There is a rare but fatal form of anemia called aplastic anemia which is caused by diseases of the immune system, bacteria, or certain medications. This will prevent the bone marrow from doing its job which leads to anemia.
- Other diseases like blood disorders and cancer can lead to anemia too – leukemia and lymphoma, for example.
- Then there are certain forms of anemia which are caused because of a problem with the haemoglobin itself. Thalassemia is one such disorder which affects mostly children. Sickle cell anemia falls into this category too and is passed on from generation to generation.
- Oddly in some cases, all tests will turn out negative and doctors cannot determine why the anemia has occurred.
Symptoms of Anemia in Women
The symptoms of anemia are rather generic. Honestly, this is a condition that is normally left undiagnosed because the symptoms are so vague even doctors do not always connect the dots. But what’s more worrying is that women have a higher tolerance for discomfort so they do not take these symptoms seriously and will just brush them off or wait for them to go away. This is an unfortunate response to anemia symptoms as they will just get worse over time.
- Fatigue is an often-overlooked symptom of anemia. Most women are over-worked and stressed and they know it. So they attribute their fatigue to nothing more than their hectic lives when in fact it can and usually is a sign of anemia. If you find that you are always tired, tell your doctor.
- Heavy bleeding during period is another symptom of anemia that is not given much attention. Heavy bleeding can be caused by stress too and women will think it is just that.
- Pain in the chest or recurrent heart palpitations may occur if you are anemic, even if you have not exerted yourself.
- Anemic women will have very frequent headaches. Again a symptom that is so ‘normal’, no? After all, who doesn’t get headaches nowadays? Most of us will just pop an aspirin and forget about it.
- Dizziness may occur. Some women will even faint.
- The skin looks paler than usual in anemic women.
- The extremities can get colder than the rest of the body.
- Some anemic women will start to have cravings for ice.
- Because there is less oxygen being sent to your organs, you will feel an overall sense of brain fog, unable to focus on work or even mundane tasks.
- Sometimes, sexual dysfunction too can be a symptom of anemia.
Treatment for Anemia in Women
The treatment for your anemia will depend greatly on what is causing it. For example, if your anemia is caused by your body’s inability to process vitamin B12, then you may have to get shots of that supplement on a regular basis.
If your anemia is because your diet is not nutritious enough, you’re lucky. All you have to do then is eat right. Talk to your doctor and preferably a nutritionist about devising a meal plan that is high in the minerals and vitamins required to treat your anemia and which is customised to your eating preferences and your lifestyle.
In the more severe cases of anemia where an underlying disorder is the cause of the anemia, more extreme treatment options like chemotherapy or surgery may have to be considered.
Prevention of Anemia
Whoever said ‘prevention is better than cure’ really knew what they were talking about. Would you rather be sick and then figure out how to get better, or would you prefer to play it smart and prevent the problem in the first place? You have to lower your risk more than considerably if you want to keep anemia at bay and the best way to do that is to give your body what it needs to do its job by eating right. Include a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, pulses, grains, nuts and seeds in your diet on a regular basis, not just when the mood strikes you. Eat green, leafy vegetables as these contain the greatest reserves of minerals and nutrients that are beneficial for the blood.
If you are unable to meet your nutritional needs through food, then speak to your doctor about taking vitamin and iron supplements.
If you are at high risk for anemia because you are pregnant or have an underlying medical condition which will cause anemia, speak to your doctor about everything you can do to maintain stable haemoglobin levels.