Anemia is a medical condition characterized by a deﬁciency in the hemoglobin content of red blood cells. An insufﬁcient amount of hemoglobin diminishes the ability of the blood to carry oxygen to the tissues and to remove carbon dioxide from the lungs. Anemia is a common affliction in the United States, which may seem surprising in light of the fact that so many foods are fortiﬁed with iron. However, iron deﬁciency is only one of several possible causes of the condition.
According to New York physician Dr. Dahlia Abraham, there are actually three major causes of anemia. First, acute or chronic blood loss could be responsible. Chronic blood loss can stem from a variety of conditions, including hemorrhoids, cancer, menstruation, and peptic ulcers. Another cause of anemia is excessive red blood cell destruction, that is, the condition that exists when the destruction of old cells exceeds the production of new ones. This condition can occur as a result of defective hemoglobin synthesis or trauma within the arteries. The ﬁnal cause of anemia is a deﬁciency of vital nutrients, either iron, vitamin B12, or folic acid. This type of anemia—and speciﬁcally the iron-deﬁciency type—is the most common.
Getting enough iron is particularly important during the growth spurts of infancy and adolescence, while women may need additional supplements during pregnancy and lactation. Iron deﬁciency anemia is quite common in children under the age of two, and in teenagers. Children who eat nutritionally poor foods or do not include enough variety in their diets are the most at risk. Often, teenagers develop a habit of subsisting on junk foods, which do not satisfy their developmental needs. Sometimes supplements do not provide an adequate countermeasure because many people have difﬁculty absorbing iron due to a lack of hydrochloric acid, which allows the stomach to properly assimilate the mineral. Iron deﬁciency is especially common in elderly people, who do not produce the needed amounts of stomach acid, and in people who suffer from chronic diarrhea.
A deﬁciency in vitamin B12 is usually a result of defects in the absorption process. After food consumption, B12 is freed by hydrochloric acid and is bound to another chemical manufactured by the stomach, called intrinsic factor. The problem comes in when an individual does not secrete the necessary amounts of hydrochloric acid or intrinsic factor, because he or she may not then be able to properly absorb the B12 stored in food. Children brought up on strict vegetarian diets may experience B12 anemia if their parents do not offer supplements of the vitamin.
B12 anemia is often accompanied by folic acid anemia. One of the reasons folic acid is important is that it fosters healthy prenatal development: It aids, in the prevention of birth defects, such as those of the neural tube, and is crucial for proper cell production in the growing fetus. Folic acid is easily consumed by heat; hence, diets that consist primarily of cooked foods, with few raw foods included, often result in this type of deﬁciency. In addition, young children may develop a folic acid deﬁciency if they are given goat’s milk. (Although superior to cow’s milk in many ways, goat’s milk lacks folic acid.) Teenagers and adults who are vegetarians may also fall victim to this form of anemia if they do not carefully balance their diets. Finally, folic acid anemia can be induced by alcoholism, which completely drains the body of this nutrient, and by the consumption of certain prescription drugs, such as oral contraceptives and anticancer drugs.An insufﬁcient amount of protein in the body is yet another possible cause of anemia, as a deﬁciency in this nutrient may be responsible for a decrease in the body’s red blood cell count. Actually, most people in the United States eat an excessive amount of protein, and therefore do not suffer from this condition. However, protein deﬁciency can affect those vegetarians whose diets consist of a multitude of reﬁned foods and few or no whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and soy products. Malabsorption syndrome is another possible cause of protein deﬁciency anemia, one that commonly affects older people who do not produce the necessary amount of protease, an enzyme that aids in the breakdown of protein. Although sufﬁcient protein is being eaten, the lack of protease means that the system isn’t getting it.New York acupuncturist and educator Dr. Pat Gordon offers an Asian perspective on anemia in women. According to this philosophy, a woman’s blood rises and falls in a cyclical fashion. Women can become anemic if they ignore the needs of their monthly cycle, especially during menstruation. In today’s fast-paced world, though, many women claim that they simply cannot ignore their numerous commitments and rest while their body recuperates.In addition, Gordon explains, anemia can result from an incorrect approach to pregnancy. After the termination of pregnancy, whether it is a result of a miscarriage, induced abortion, or birth, women should let their bodies rest for at least a full month, regardless of other responsibilities. Plus after pregnancy termination, conception should be avoided for at least a year because the body needs to build up blood to sustain another pregnancy. If these guidelines are followed, women should be able to conceive healthy children and avoid anemia.
Symptoms associated with anemia include fatigue and weakness, headaches, irritability, dizziness, and sometimes-gastrointestinal distress. In teenage girls, arnenorrhea, or cessation of menstrual bleeding, is occasionally present. Children who are anemic are usually smaller in height and weight than other children. In older children and adults, B12 anemia may result in nerve damage, characterized by numbness or tingling in the hands or legs, depression, or confusion.
Children should be encouraged to eat a wide variety of whole foods, especially leafy, green vegetables, and legumes. At approximately six months of age, parents should begin feeding their infants beets, broccoli, carrots, applesauce, blackberries, blueberries, and cherries. (Not all at once! New foods should be introduced to babies one at a time.) These foods are relatively hypoallergenic and rich in photo chemicals and antioxidants.
Iron-rich vegetable juice can be made from a combination of beet juice, parsley, spinach, beet greens, and watercress. Green juices should be dispensed in small quantities, as a quarter of a cup daily can improve a child’s condition in a short period. The juice should be diluted 50 percent with water or apple juice, and sipped slowly.
A vegetarian diet rich in vitamins includes sprouts, raisins, kale, prunes, parsley, watercress, dandelion greens, beets, and blackberries. Seaweeds, such as hijiki, wakame, and dulse, are also excellent nutritional sources, and can be added to soups and salads. Vegetarian sources of B12 include fermented soy products, such as soy sauce and tempeh, yogurt, cottage cheese, and eggs.
Some sources of folic acid are legumes, orange juice, oatmeal, spinach, beets, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts. Protein should be part of everyone’s daily consumption, especially if it is derived from vegetarian sources, such as grains, legumes, and soy milk. If meat is consumed, it is important that the animals were raised healthfully.
Supplementation to counter anemia makes sense only when it’s keyed to the speciﬁc form of anemia that a person is suffering from, which is why you should be guided by a competent health professional. While iron remains a common recommendation, remember that some forms of anemia do not involve iron deﬁciency. In these cases, iron supplements are not appropriate and can become dangerous if taken in excess.
If a nursing child is iron-deﬁcient, the mother should take a chelated form of the supplement so that her milk becomes enriched with the mineral. Typically, breast-fed babies do not develop an iron deﬁciency unless the mother suffers from the deﬁciency. A product known as Floradix, which can be found in most health food stores, offers a valuable source of iron. The liquid form of the product is recommended over the dry form.
One ounce of bee pollen daily can serve as an additional combatant of iron-deﬁciency anemia.
Vegetarians need to supplement their diet with B12 daily to prevent a deﬁciency. Although the condition takes three to four years to develop, it can become serious and potentially lead to nerve damage. Supplementing is especially important for pregnant mothers who expect to raise vegetarian children. Injections of B12 are useful for patients with pernicious anemia, the form that’s more common in older people and caused by a deﬁciency of intrinsic factor needed to properly process the vitamin.
One teaspoon of spirulina provides the body with a useful amount of vitamin B12 and chlorophyll.
Since folic acid is a vital nutrient for proper fetal development, pregnant women require 800 mcg of this nutrient daily, regardless of how good their regular diet is. Because it is water-soluble, excess folic acid in the body is simply washed out. Parents feeding their children goat’s milk should add about 800 mcg of liquid folic acid to the milk.
Sometimes supplements of hydrochloric acid and intrinsic factor need to be prescribed for people who lack these chemicals to aid in the nutrient absorption process.
Dandelion root, gentian, and yellow dock are effective treatments for iron-deﬁciency anemia. Other useful herbs include alfalfa, parsley, burdock root, comfrey root, ginseng, red raspberry, and nettle leaves. Herbs can be taken separately or combined in capsules or tea. In addition, the Chinese herb dong quai contains phytoestrogens that aid women who become anemic as a result of heavy menstruation. The herb contains vitamins A, E, and B12, and can be taken most days of the month, until menstruation starts.
For people having difficulty-absorbing B12, a combination of goldenseal, gentian, and wormwood powder taken in capsule form will help increase the level of hydrochloric acid, which will aid the stomach in digestion of the vitamin. This formula should be taken only on a temporary basis, for a couple of weeks at a time.
Alternating warm and cold water in showers, 30 minutes before or two hours after meals, and brushing the skin with a loofah when dry, can be useful as adjunctive measures in overcoming anemia. In addition, deep breathing exercises assist with the intake of oxygen and the elimination of carbon dioxide.
What to Avoid
Stay away from reﬁned foods, salt, and too much meat. Also, caffeine and alcohol are detrimental to healthy blood and should be eliminated.
Before anemia is treated, its cause should be medically determined. Anemia stemming from nutritional problems can be due to a shortage of iron, vitamin B12, or folic acid. Iron-rich foods include green, leafy vegetables, legumes, and vegetable juices. Good sources of B12 (a nutrient especially important for pregnant women) are fermented foods, such as soy products, tempeh, and yogurt. Folic acid can be obtained from orange juice, oatmeal, spinach, and beets.
Good supplementary sources of iron include a product called Floradix, and bee pollen. B12 can be obtained from a B-complex vitamin, or from spirulina.
Sea vegetables, green vegetable juice, dandelion root, gentian, and yellow dock are herbs useful in countering iron deﬁciency.
Alternating hot and cold showers, skin brushing, and deep breathing exercises are useful supplementary treatments.