Anemia is a global health problem that affects both rich and poor, young and old.
Did you know that 42.6% of preschool aged children suffer from anemia?
And 29% of women worldwide (aged 15-49) are anemic? The problem is even greater in pregnant women, of whom 38% are anemic. (source)
It’s therefore very important for you to learn and be able to recognize the symptoms of anemia in yourself or your family members.
What is anemia?
If you are anemic, it means that your body is deficient in healthy red blood cells. Anemia also can occur if your red blood cells don’t contain enough hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the protein molecule in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body.
If your body is deficient in red blood cells (or hemoglobin), the cells in your body will therefore not be getting enough oxygen.
Your body needs iron to produce hemoglobin, so a deficiency in iron will lead to anemia. In fact, iron-deficiency anemia is the most common type of anemia worldwide. It accounts for about half of all cases of anemia.
What are the symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia?
If you have iron-deficiency anemia, you may suffer from any of the following symptoms:
- Fatigue (feeling tired all the time)
- Pale skin
- Leg cramps
- Insomnia (difficult sleeping)
- A fast heartbeat
- Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
- Chest pains
- Brain fog or difficulty concentrating
- Cold hands and feet
- Mood changes
Anemia can initially go unnoticed for many years before it becomes severe enough to manifest with these symptoms.
What contributes to iron-deficiency anemia?
- Blood loss (due to things like injury, heavy menstruation, surgery or cancer)
- A poor diet (low in iron, folate, or vitamin B12)
- A vegetarian or vegan diet, which is often low in iron
- Pregnancy and breastfeeding
- Digestive disorders which impair the absorption of iron (such as leaky gut, Crohn’s Disease, inflammatory bowel disease, or ulcers)
- An overgrowth of Candida: Candida is a yeast which, when overgrown in the body, can affect the lining of your digestive system and impair iron absorption. You may have an overgrowth of Candida if you suffer from digestive problems, fatigue, brain fog, depression, mood swings, oral thrush, frequent vaginal and urinary tract infections, athlete’s foot, sinus infections, skin & nail fungal infections, or cravings for sweets. Read more here about how to fight Candida overgrowth.
Natural Treatments for Anemia
1) Increase your intake of iron-rich foods
Obtaining our nutrients from natural food sources is always preferable (and safer) than using supplements. Foods which are high in iron include:
- Chicken, beef, lamb, or camel liver: are high in iron and vitamin B12. I personally love the taste of liver and onions sautéed in ghee. But for those who aren’t big fans of liver, I’ve included some tips below for how to painlessly get more in your diet.
- Grass-fed meat (beef or lamb)
- Green leafy vegetables: high in iron and folic acid. Steaming will improve absorption, so try steamed spinach, kale, or broccoli.
- Blackstrap molasses: drink a tablespoon in a cup of warm water, mix in with your Overnight Oats, or try these delicious Molasses Cookies for a treat.
- Lentils, black beans, and chickpeas
- Oats and quinoa
- Beets and beat greens
- Bananas contain iron, folic acid and B12
- Nuts & seeds: especially pistaccios, pumpkin seeds, tahini, sunflower seeds, fenugreek seeds and cashews.
- Sardines and oily fish
- Spirulina: a blue-green algae sold in powder form which can be added to smoothies.
Cooking with cast iron pans can also help increase your iron levels.
Note: Vitamin C helps your body to absorb iron. Eat that liver or grass-fed beef with tomatoes, bell peppers, or dark leafy greens to increase the absorption of iron. Or have a bowl of strawberries for dessert!
How to get your kids to eat more iron-rich foods
- My favorite method is to blend up some raw liver and freeze it in ice cube trays. Once frozen, I store the cubes in a plastic bag in the freezer. I throw a couple of cubes in when I’m cooking tomato sauces, pizza sauce, soups, and curries. No one seems to notice my little secret!
- You can also add 4-5 of these frozen liver cubes to ground beef towards the end of the cooking time.
- Blackstrap molasses: my kids love these Molasses Cookies
- My kids love grass-fed burgers and this Spiced Keema, which contains iron-rich beef. They also like steamed broccoli and grass-fed steak.
- This Lentil Stew is also a good source of iron.
- These Black Bean Brownies are kid-friendly.
- This delicious Hummus contains both chickpeas and tahini, both good sources of iron.
- Oats are a good source of iron, and these Overnight Oats are a favorite in our house.
- Don’t forget to serve iron-rich foods with Vitamin C to increase absorption of the iron.
2) Foods which inhibit iron absorption and therefore should be eaten separately from iron-rich foods
- Nuts, chocolate, coffee and tea all contain substances which impair the absorption of iron. Therefore, these foods should be consumed between meals.
- Dairy, since the calcium can bind to iron and inhibit its absorption.
- Black tea contains oxalates, which impair the absorption of iron.
- Cocoa, coffee and some herbs contain polyphenols, which are inhibitors of iron absorption.
- Antacids and over use of calcium supplements also decrease iron absorption.
Other foods to avoid while trying to treat your anemia:
- Added sugar
- Processed grains such as white flour, white pasta, or white rice.
3) A Healthy Gut
Making sure your gut is in optimal health will ensure that your body is able to absorb the iron from all that yummy liver you just ate! This will address the underlying problem of why many of us are anemic in the first place. Poor digestion and a damaged gut lining will inhibit the absorption of not only iron, but many other nutrients which your body needs.
Read more here about the importance of probiotics and taking care of your gut.
4) Reducing stress
This study showed that psychological stress can cause decreased levels of serum iron, hemoglobin and red blood cell counts.
If you need to take an iron supplement, I recommend a liquid formula called Floradix.
It contains a liquid plant base which makes it more absorbent than other iron supplements. It also contains vitamin C to improve iron absorption. Because it is plant-based, it is not constipating like other iron supplements.
Note: high doses of supplemental iron (45 milligrams/day or more) can be dangerous and cause many side effects. This will not occur if iron is consumed through dietary sources.
Also, calcium can interfere with the absorption of iron, so it’s advised to take calcium and iron supplements at different times of the day.
Other types of nutritional anemias
Anemia can also occur if you’re not getting enough B vitamins in your diet (folate and vitamin B12). These types of anemia will have symptoms similar to iron-deficiency anemia (see above). But you may also see addition symptoms.
Vitamin B12 deficiency
Can cause the symptoms of anemia already described above, plus nervous system problems like:
- numbness or tingling in the hands and feet
- muscle weakness
- problems walking
- visual loss
- mental problems such as depression, memory loss, or behavioral changes
Sources of vitamin B12 include liver, grass-fed beef and lamb, sardines, Atlantic mackerel, wild-caught salmon, feta cheese, and eggs. Just 1 oz of beef liver contains over 300% of your daily requirement of vitamin B12!
You may have the symptoms of anemia already described above, plus:
- tongue swelling
- frequent infections
- premature graying of the hair
- poor digestion.
Dietary sources of folate include liver, leafy green vegetables, Brussel sprouts, liver, peas, broccoli, and citrus fruits.