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Are you suffering from anemia? Here is what you should know about it. Also, how to prevent and cure it. A must read for every woman.
When 32-year-old Arathi* went to the doctor for a minor surgical procedure, she was disheartened to find routine blood tests reveal that she had anemia. She is highly educated, belongs to a higher middle-class family, takes reasonably good care of her health and what’s more, has never been sick. In fact, the only time she had been to a hospital was during her pregnancy.
So why was she anemic? What are the odds of you being anemic, too? Well, if you are an Indian and a woman, the chances are fifty-fifty. It is entirely possible that you may be anemic and not even aware of it.
Anemia is the most common nutritional deficiency disorder in the world. While about 24.8% of the world’s population is thought to be anemic, the statistics are even higher in India where 50% of the population suffers from anemia – more than half of all women and three-fourth of all children1.
What is anemia and why does one get it? Every part of our body requires oxygen and depends on blood flowing in our arteries to supply it, carrying it all the way from the lungs. This function is specifically performed by an iron-containing pigment called hemoglobin that gives blood its red colour.
Anemia is a condition where the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood is lowered. This can happen in any of several situations. Either there is a decrease in the production of red blood cells or an increase in their destruction, or the blood cells are abnormal. In any of these conditions, the overall capacity of the blood to ferry blood to tissues becomes less than optimum.
The most common situation is iron-deficiency. The body depends on the iron content in the diet for the manufacture of hemoglobin. Decreased iron intake leads to decreased hemoglobin production which in turn causes anemia. Deficiency of vitamin B12 and folic acid, both micronutrients belonging to the vitamin B complex, also result in anemia. This is what makes anemia such a common nutritional deficiency disorder.
The physiological changes that occur in a woman’s body throughout her lifetime make women in the reproductive age group most prone to anemia. It begins with menstrual periods where there is actual blood loss from the body every month. Then comes pregnancy, where a whole lot of changes involving the cardiovascular and hemodynamic systems directly result in anemia.
Many women are already anemic to begin with, even before these changes start to occur. Factor in miscarriages, other causes of blood loss, dietary preferences, fad diets and often simply neglect of one’s own health and you will understand why women are so much more likely to be anemic in their lifetime.
So how do you tell if you are anemic? Since anemia results in the tissues of the body not getting sufficient oxygen it results in the heart having to work extra hard to pump more blood to all parts of the body. This can manifest as tiredness, weakness, poor concentration or even dizziness. Here is a list of possible symptoms that can alert you if you should get yourself checked for anemia:
Doctors usually check the eyes, tongue, and nail beds to see if they can detect any paleness in these parts that is indicative of anemia. Severe anemia can even cause the skin in general to appear pale and the palms and soles to look blanched. Finger nails can become brittle and flat or spoon-shaped.
Anemia is confirmed by a simple blood test that estimates the percentage of hemoglobin in it. Hemoglobin levels of 12 to 15 gm per 100 ml of blood are about normal for an adult woman. Anything below 12 is considered to be anemia. Levels between 7 and 9 imply moderate anemia while anything less than 7 is severe, causing serious problems and requiring prompt treatment, sometimes even blood transfusion.
While almost all organs of the body are affected by poor oxygenation, untreated anemia has its worst effects on the heart, the organ that goes into overdrive trying to maintain oxygen supply of the rest of the body. This can lead to arrhythmia – a condition where the rhythm of the heartbeat becomes irregular, or even cardiac failure. Severe anemia during pregnancy can lead to premature labour, still births and other serious fetal and maternal complications.
Since iron deficiency is the most common common cause of anemia, making sure that your diet provides your body with adequate iron supply is often all that is required. Foods like green leafy vegetables, lean red meat, fish, dry fruits, tofu, cereals, lentils and beans are all rich in iron. Make sure to include at least a few of these in most of your meals. Foods rich in vitamin C like citrus fruits promote absorption of iron while tea and coffee tend to hinder it. Excess iron absorbed from food is stored away in the body as iron reserves and these storage depots are dipped into when the diet is lacking in iron.
As already said before, every second woman in India is thought to be anemic. And keeping anemia at bay is not really all that difficult – it largely involves making some healthy choices. Shouldn’t we all be trying to make a difference?
*Names changed to protect privacy
Anemia image via Shutterstock
Dr. Lakshmi Ananth is a doctor and a writer who wields both scalpel and pen
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