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January 21, 2018  |  Login
 
Anemia
 
by James F. Balch, M.D. and Mark Stengler, N.D.

Given the frenetic pace of modern Western life, it can seem almost normal to feel fatigued, weak, or short of breath. But these symptoms are never normal; they always point to a disorder of some kind. For millions of Americans, that disorder is anemia.

Every cell in the human body gets a large portion of its energy from oxygen. In a healthy person, cells receive an adequate supply of oxygen, thanks to a substance called hemoglobin, which transports oxygen through the blood. Without sufficient hemoglobin, the cells don't get enough oxygen; without enough oxygen, the brain, the muscles, and all the other tissues begin to slow down. The anemic person feels weak and tired at first and then may experience several other symptoms, including headaches, difficulty concentrating, and a series of illnesses that are the result of a suppressed immune system.

The body needs iron to produce the necessary amount of hemoglobin, and the vast majority of anemia cases are caused by a deficiency of this mineral. Iron deficiency most often results from a poor diet, especially one that's high in junk food, or from long-term or repeated dieting. There are many other ways a person can end up with a deficiency of iron, however. Blood loss for any reason, including surgery, trauma, gum disease, hemorrhoids, polyps, cancer of the colon, bleeding ulcers, and heavy menstrual periods, can produce an anemic state. So can an increase in the body's need for iron, which usually happens during pregnancy. Iron deficiency can also be caused by an inability to absorb certain nutrients, as can happen with folic acid and vitamin B12. In rarer cases, deficiencies of vitamins A, B2, B6, and C, as well as of copper, may lead to anemia. The elderly often lose their ability to absorb these nutrients, as do people with certain digestive disorders like Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis. Usually, iron deficiency is caused by a combination of these factors.

In rare cases, anemia is the result of a hereditary blood disorder, in which red blood cells are destroyed prematurely. Thalassemia, sickle-cell disease, and spherocytosis are all very serious and sometimes fatal forms of anemia; people with these diseases must be under lifelong medical care. Anemia can also be caused by an inability to absorb any vitamin B12 at all. This condition can easily be treated with sublingual B12, with regular injections of vitamin B12, or by improving stomach acid levels.

If you suspect that you have anemia, it's likely that you can be cured with simple home treatments and supplementation. It's important, however, that you see a doctor for an official diagnosis. The symptoms of anemia can mimic those of other disorders, so you'll need to get a thorough physical examination. If you are diagnosed with anemia, don't let your doctor stop there. Make sure he or she explains the specific cause of your problem so that you'll know how to address any underlying disorders and prevent a recurrence.

 
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