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Could you be anaemic?

If you’re tired and lacking in energy, you might be anaemic.

It’s a common condition – an estimated 2 billion people (more than 30% of the world’s population) has anaemia. Despite this, the cause of anaemia should always be investigated and addressed.

What is anaemia?

Our red blood cells carry oxygen around the body using haemoglobin. When you’re anaemic you either have fewer red blood cells than normal or a lower than usual amount of haemoglobin in each blood cell. This means that the body has to work harder to deliver oxygen around the body, leading to a faster pulse or lack of breath.

What causes anaemia?

Iron-deficiency anaemia is the most common type of anaemia and accounts for around 50% of all cases. Causes include:

  • Heavy periods and pregnancy. In the UK almost a quarter of women become anaemic in pregnancy

  • Iron deficient anaemia in pregnancy, primarily in second and third trimester, is primarily due to an increase in the circulating volume of blood. An increase in iron rich foods can only aid this. Pregnancy also increases the bodies folate (vitamin B9) need – therefore a healthy diet is essential and a supplement may be required.

  • Bleeding in the stomach and intestines caused by ulcers, cancer or taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

  • Lack of iron in the diet – or too much intake of substances that interfere with the absorption of iron, such as tea, coffee, milk and dairy, or foods with high levels of phytic acid (found in wholegrain cereals).

What are the symptoms of iron-deficiency anaemia?

Usual signs can include tiredness and low energy, pale skin, shortness of breath and heart palpitations. Less common symptoms include headaches, tinnitus, a sore tongue or mouth ulcers, hair loss, itchiness, restless legs syndrome or food tasting strange.

How is it treated?

Maintaining a healthy balanced diet is vital for a health. If diet is the issue, should eat more dark green leafy vegetables such as kale and broccoli, cereals and bread fortified with iron, or meat and pulses such as beans, peas or lentils. You should also drink less tea, coffee, milk and dairy, and avoid foods with high levels of phytic acid. Your GP may prescribe iron tablets.

What other types of anaemia are there?

Vitamin B12 and B9 (commonly called folate) are both needed for a healthy nervous system and to produce healthy red blood cells. A deficiency in these vitamins is another cause of anaemia, making the body produce abnormally large red blood cells that don’t function adequately.

What are the symptoms of vitamin B12 or folate deficiency?

Again, extreme tiredness is a sign, as can be pins and needles, muscle weakness, a sore tongue or mouth ulcers. Other symptoms include disturbed vision, memory problems, confusion or even depression. A deficiency can occur without anaemia and older people are more susceptible. Vitamin B12 or folate deficiency affects 1 in 20 people aged 65-74 and more than 1 in 10 people aged 75+.

What causes this deficiency?

  • Lack of B12 or folate in the diet can be a problem – particularly among vegans or vegetarians. Vitamin B12 is found in meat, fish, eggs and dairy as well as in seaweed. Some foods, such as certain cereals, soya drinks and Marmite, are fortified with vitamin B12. Green vegetables are folate-rich.

  • Pernicious anaemia is an auto-immune condition that affects the stomach. It leads to the immune system attacking cells in the stomach, hindering the absorption of vitamin B12.

  • Certain medications, including anticonvulsant medicine or proton pump inhibitors, can affect the body’s absorption of vitamin B12.

How is this deficiency treated?

Vitamin B12 injections and tablets and folic acid tablets can restore vitamin B12 levels. Sometimes changes to diet can also help treat the condition. Follow your GP’s advice.

If you suspect you could be anaemic, make an appointment with your GP. Benenden Health members can also make an appointment via the 24/7 GP service

For more:

NHS: Iron Deficiency

NHS: Vitamin B12 or Folate Deficiency Anaemia

Pernicious Anaemia Society


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