Anemia is the most common blood disorder in the country. According to the Mayo Clinic, more than 3.4 million Americans suffer with some form of anemia, the symptoms of which often include fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, pale skin, and cold or numb hands and feet. Headaches are another symptom, as are nails that break easily.
So what is this condition, anyway? How do we get it and how do we treat it? Let's start with the basics. Your blood consists of a liquid (called plasma) and three different types of cells; white blood cells fight infection; platelets help your blood to clot; and red blood cells (also called erythrocytes) transport oxygen. Anemia is a condition in which there are fewer than normal healthy red blood cells.
This is serious stuff, because those red blood cells have important work to do. Their job is to take oxygen away from the lungs via the bloodstream and into all tissues of your body, such as your brain and other organs. "Oxygenated" blood is what gives you energy. It also makes your skin glow.
The most well-known kind of anemia is the type caused by too little iron, or "iron-deficiency" anemia. This is because hemoglobin, the actual protein in red blood cells that does the heavy lifting in the oxygen department, is utterly dependent on iron. Iron deficiency is the main reason your blood test shows a low level of hemoglobin.
Approximately one-fifth of women, half of pregnant women, and 3 percent of men are iron deficient. Pregnant women are at especially high risk for anemia precisely because the growing fetus demands so much iron that there's often not enough left for the mother. Menstruating women are also at risk, due to the monthly loss of iron in the blood.
If you are indeed iron deficient, your doctor will probably prescribe iron supplements. Most people with mild or moderate iron deficiency anemia can correct the problem over a period of about three months, but if iron stores remain low, a few more months of supplementation may be recommended.
Iron: A Double-Edged Sword
As a nutritionist, I'm always cautious about prescribing iron to either men or to postmenopausal women. Although iron deficiency can certainly present problems, too much iron presents a whole different set of potentially serious dangers. As iron builds up in the system, it can easily reach toxic levels and increase risk of both cancer and heart disease. As Andrew Weil, MD, wisely counsels, "Unless you're a menstruating woman or have had a significant blood loss, you should never take an iron supplement except when advised by a physician after blood tests show you have iron-deficiency anemia." Don't forget that there's plenty of iron in red meat-especially liver-as well as egg yolks, molasses, dried apricots, clams, beans, and lentils.
Your doctor can determine if you're anemic with a basic blood test called a complete blood count (CBC), which will give you a reading of both your hemoglobin levels and your hematocrit (the actual percentage of red blood cells found in a blood sample). Normal ranges vary with age and gender.
Other Forms of Anemia
Another common form of anemia is known as megaloblastic anemia. The most common causes of megaloblastic anemia are deficiencies of either vitamin B12 or folic acid, both of which play essential roles in the production of red blood cells. You can get folic acid from green leafy vegetables and liver, and most cereals are fortified with it. But it's a very important nutrient-especially for women of child-bearing age-and most nutritionists don't think the recommended daily allowance is enough. Try to get at least 800 mcg a day in your multivitamin, or take a folic acid supplement. Folic acid is a member of the B-vitamin family, and is always found in B complex as well as in multivitamins. It's also one of the few vitamins that is better absorbed from supplements than from foods.
Vitamin B12 is another matter. First of all, it's not always well absorbed. Second, the main sources of vitamin B12 in the diet are meat, eggs, and dairy products-all animal products. Vegetarians almost certainly don't get enough of this vitamin, which is not only important for red blood cells but also for the entire nervous system. If you're a vegetarian you should definitely be taking vitamin B12 supplements, even if you don't have the symptoms of anemia.
There are an awful lot of causes for feeling run-down and fatigued; in fact, I recently wrote a book about it, The 150 Most Effective Ways to Boost Energy Naturally. But you shouldn't always rule out anemia as a cause, and if in fact it's the culprit in your fatigue, be sure to treat it right away. Anemia can really compromise the quality of your life. The good news is that the most common types are pretty easy to fix with the right nutrients.
One-Two-Three Punch for Anemia
Try three of our top picks for reversing anemia with supplements (from left to right):
Solaray Vitamin B-12 Sublingual Lozenges contain a hefty 2,000 mcg of vitamin B12, and they come in cherry-flavored tablets (sugar-free) that dissolve under your tongue. Most important, this formula features methylcobalamin-the best-absorbed form of vitamin B12.
Floradix FloraVital Iron + Herbs is now available in a yeast- and gluten-free formula. The iron is naturally derived from herbs and foods, which means you won't experience side effects common with iron supplements, such as constipation. This tasty liquid is also rich in B vitamins and vitamin C-all your bases are covered.
Maximum Living Folic Acid ODT (orally disintegrating tablets) boasts an advanced delivery system that promises enhanced absorption and utilization by the body. Each tablet contains 800 mcg of folic acid and 120 mcg of vitamin B12.