Fatigue or tiredness, pale skin, headache, irregular heartbeats or palpitation, dizziness or lightheadedness, cold hands and feet, cold intolerance, chest pain, night sweats, shortness of breath, slower development than peers (in children), poor concentration and cognitive ability, pica (craving and eating non-food items like ice, dirt, paper and grass) etc are some symptoms  that a person with anemia may have. Sometimes, symptoms of anemia are mild enough to go unnoticed but at other times, anemia hampers our productivity and wellbeing. Anemia affects people all over the world and it has different causes.  A hospital visit may be required in the diagnosis and treatment of anemia but in this article, I am hoping to help us understand more about anemia and how adequate and deliberate planning of nutrition can prevent and greatly reduce its effects on us.

What is anemia?

Anemia occurs when red blood cells or hemoglobin decrease to lower than normal levels in the blood. Hemoglobin is a protein present in red blood cells, and its major job is to help our bodies to carry oxygen from our lungs to different tissues and cells in the body. Since oxygen is needed by cells to produce energy, anything that hinders this process will also hinder the effective functioning of different cells and tissues in the human body.

Why should I be concerned about Anemia

As already mentioned above, children with anemia may have poorer concentration and mental development than their peers. They also have an increased risk of death before they are five years old. In pregnant women, there is an increased risk of birthing low birth weight babies, an increased risk of bleeding after giving birth and even an increased risk of maternal mortality. Anemia may reduce productivity at work because the sufferer is often tired.

Causes of Anemia

Blood loss, decrease in red blood cell production and increase in red blood cell destruction are three broad causes of anemia. Certain deficiencies, conditions or illnesses put people at risk of anemia. Malaria for instance can induce anemia because there is an increase in red blood cell destruction and a decrease in red blood cell production. Women who have fibroids or other gynecological conditions may have anemia because of blood loss from heavy periods.  In sickle cell anemia, there is increased destruction of red blood cells. Due to the demand for iron for the growing baby, a pregnant woman is at risk of being anemic. Vitamin E and Vitamins B2, B3 and B12 and iron are some nutrients required to build and maintain healthy red blood cells. A deficiency in any of these nutrients will likely cause anemia.

Iron Deficiency Anemia

Iron deficiency anemia is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies in the world. This is the type of anemia that results because of depletion of iron in the body. Iron is an essential micronutrient. This means that we need iron (though in trace amounts) for our bodies to be healthy. When we lack Iron, our bodies are unable to produce sufficient red blood cells and even when they are produced, these red blood cells are often smaller and paler in colour.

Everybody needs iron but in particular, young children and women who are still menstruating are the most at risk of iron deficiency anemia.  Babies are born with rich stores of iron but these deplete over the first few months of life. By the time breastfed babies are around 7 months old, they may begin to need additional dietary sources of iron. Formula fed babies may need iron earlier than breastfed babies as babies absorb iron more easily from breast milk than from iron-fortified formula.  However, once weaning starts, the meals of all very young children should be well planned to include rich food sources of iron. In certain cases like in premature or low birth weight babies, iron supplements may be necessary. Menstruating women should eat iron rich foods to encourage replenishment of lost blood and in the extreme cases of heavy bleeding, help should be sought to address existing gynecological disorders.

Iron Rich foods

There are two dietary types of iron: the heme iron which is derived from animal sources and is more easily absorbed by the body and the nonheme iron which is derived from plant sources but is less easily absorbed by our bodies. Vitamin C improves our absorption of nonheme iron. It is recommended that plant based iron-rich foods should be eaten alongside vitamin C rich foods (examples are oranges, lemon, grapefruit, red and green peppers, baobab, broccoli, green leafy vegetables, pawpaw etc).

It’s been said that since calcium reduces absorption of iron, it is a good idea not to take calcium-rich foods, like milk, alongside iron. However, recent research suggests that this may be truer with single meals than with long term use of both minerals where there is no significant effect on iron absorption.

Examples of animal sources of iron are red meat, liver, eggs, oyster, turkey and sardines. Non heme iron can be found in sources like green leafy vegetables (examples are spinach and ugwu), soya beans, beans, lentils, sesame seeds, olives, chickpeas, pumpkin seeds, dried apricots and broccoli.

Vitamins useful in anemia prevention and treatment

Vitamin E is useful in maintaining the health of red blood cells. This is particularly relevant in hemolytic anemia. Examples of foods rich in Vitamin E are dark green vegetables, nuts (almonds, groundnuts etc), seeds (sunflower seeds etc), avocados, and mango.

The B vitamins can be found in foods like whole grains (oats, wheat, rice etc), eggs and bananas.

Anemia is a prevalent disease all over the world but it is more burdensome in poorer countries. It is important to mention that sometimes, treatment may involve interventions that can only be carried out in a hospital. In most cases though, simply incorporatingases though, simply incorporating one’s diet with foods rich in iron and vitamins (especially vitamins B2, B3 and B12 and vitamin E) will prevent or alleviate its effects. Armed with proper information we can ensure that adequate lifestyle changes are made and more people are saved from suffering the symptoms of anemia