Anemia occurs when your body doesn’t have enough red blood cells to supply your tissues with enough oxygen. Red blood cells—unlike white blood cells that fight infection or platelets that help your blood clot—contain hemoglobin, the iron-rich protein that makes your blood look red. Hemoglobin carries the oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body and retrieves the carbon dioxide that is ultimately exhaled. Bone marrow, the spongy material in the cavities of your bones, needs iron, protein, vitamins, and minerals to produce hemoglobin.
There are many types of anemia:
- Iron deficiency anemia: This is the most common type of anemia and affects 1-2% of U.S. adults. The body simply does not have enough iron to produce an adequate supply of hemoglobin.
- Vitamin deficiency anemia: This is a folate or vitamin B-12 deficiency, sometimes occurring in older adults or people who don’t eat enough meat, dairy, or vitamin B-12-fortified foods.
- Chronic disease anemia: Some diseases, including cancer, HIV, arthritis, and Crohn’s, can inhibit red-blood cell production.
- Aplastic anemia: A very rare type of anemia that occurs when the bone marrow is unable to produce white and red blood cells and plasma.
- Bone marrow disease-caused anemia: Cancers such as leukemia can affect the bone marrow’s ability to produce hemoglobin.
- Hemolytic anemia: This type of anemia occurs when red blood cells are destroyed faster than they are replaced, often due to an autoimmune disorder.
- Sickle cell anemia: A genetically inherited type of anemia, most common in African Americans, this disorder causes red blood cells to take on a crescent shape and die prematurely.
Symptoms of anemia can include: fatigue, pale skin, quick or irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, pain in the chest area, vertigo, difficulty concentrating, cold hands and/or feet, and headaches. Very severe forms of anemia include fatigue severe enough to inhibit everyday work, heart failure, nerve damage, impaired mental ability, and death due to loss of blood.
Anemia can be caused by a combination of genetic conditions and lifestyle choices. Some factors that may increase the risk of developing anemia include:
- Lack of iron, vitamin B-12, and folate in your diet
- Intestinal disorders such as celiac (gluten intolerance) or Crohn’s disease
- Loss of blood due to heavy menstruation
- Chronic conditions such as cancer or kidney or liver problems
- Family history
Simple blood tests to determine red blood cell count and hemoglobin levels can diagnose anemia. Many people discover they are anemic when they are about to give blood, as red blood cell count is one requirement for donating. Talk to your doctor if you think you may be anemic.
Even if you don’t have anemia, it’s important to keep in mind the importance of overall good health to avoid a variety of disorders that can result from poor diet. Eating right, exercising to promote bone and muscle strength, and taking a multivitamin to avoid being deficient in any vitamins or minerals is important to anyone’s health and wellbeing.