Anaemia occurs when your blood is unable to carry enough oxygen around the body to function properly. This is a common condition and is often a result of your body not having enough red blood cells, or when the red blood cells you do have lack a protein called haemoglobin.
Common symptoms of anaemia can include:
- shortness of breath
- the feeling of the heart racing (palpitations).
Young women, women during pregnancy, children and people with chronic diseases are at an increased risk of developing the condition. Poor diet and certain medical conditions can also increase risk later in life. The different forms of anaemia each vary in treatment, causes and symptoms. This fact-sheet will explain each of the forms; we will look at the various symptoms of anaemia, the treatment and dietary changes that affect the condition and how a nutritionist can help you.
What is anaemia?
There are different forms of this condition - the main types are caused by a lack of iron, vitamin B12 and folic acid. These are needed to help the body produce red blood cells. If the body is deficient in these vitamins, the risk of developing the condition is increased. The different types include:
- iron-deficiency anaemia
- megaloblastic anaemia
- pernicious anaemia.
This form is a serious hereditary blood disorder, so dietary changes are unlikely to be an effective treatment. However, the condition can be managed with lifestyle advice, including drinking plenty of fluids to help reduce the occurrence of a ‘sickle-cell crisis.’
One of the most common causes is a lack of iron in the diet. If you follow a balanced diet containing a variety of foods, you should be consuming enough iron to help prevent developing the condition. If you follow a more restrictive diet - for example fad diets, quick weight-loss diets or even a vegan diet - you are more likely to experience a deficiency due to a lack of nutrients. Many foods contain iron, but the iron from animal sources such as red meat and fish is more easily absorbed than the iron found in vegetables (green, leafy vegetables and beans).
Other causes can include:
- Women of reproductive age with heavy periods.
- Pregnancy, women need extra iron to support the baby.
- As a result of taking painkillers (ibuprofen and aspirin).
- Chronic kidney disease - patients with this condition are often given iron supplement injections.
Blood loss can often be a cause of the condition. When bleeding, red blood cells can be lost and slowly worsen if not detected. Women who experience excessive menstrual bleeding and childbirth are at an increased risk of the condition, as are people who have experienced gastrointestinal conditions including ulcers, haemorrhoids and inflammation of the stomach.
Symptoms of anaemia
The most common symptoms of anaemia develop because there is a lack of oxygen in the blood, these include:
- lack of energy
- feeling faint
- a sensation of heart racing
- loss of breath.
As there are different forms of the condition, the symptoms may vary depending on the underlying causes and the health of the person experiencing them.
If you are concerned about your health and think you may be suffering the condition, your GP will ask you questions about the symptoms you have experienced. They will also ask about your medical history and overall health - if you are suspected of having the condition, you will require a blood test to measure the levels of haemoglobin, vitamin B12, folate and iron.
Dietary management of anaemia
A balanced diet can help reduce the risk of developing this condition; it can also be a way to help treat the symptoms of anaemia. Other treatments can include iron supplements, medicines and surgical procedures.
Iron deficiency anaemia
A lack of iron in your body is one of the most common causes of anaemia. Without a sufficient amount of iron, your body will be unable to produce enough haemoglobin for red blood cells.
In order for your body to produce haemoglobin, it needs a good source of iron. Your doctor or qualified nutrition professional may suggest introducing more meat into your diet, such as beef, chicken, liver, turkey and fish.
Other dietary sources of iron include dried fruit; try snacking on prunes, raisins and apricots. Green, leafy vegetables, lentils and pulses, bread and fortified breakfast cereals are also rich in iron.
Your body needs vitamin B12 and folate as well as iron in the production of red blood cells. If your diet is lacking these essential vitamins, it can cause your body to decrease its red blood cell production.
Some people can develop megaloblastic anaemia despite consuming the required vitamin B12. In these cases, the problem is that the body cannot process the vitamin - this is called pernicious anaemia. This deficiency could be a result of ulcers, stomach cancer or the effects of previous surgery.
Whilst pernicious anaemia is the most common cause of vitamin B12 deficiency, lacking this vitamin can also lead to nerve inflammation or increase the risk of developing dementia.
Folic acid or folate helps the body produce and maintain new cells. It is especially important for women who are pregnant, as it is known to prevent birth defects in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
Rich sources of folate include Brussels sprouts, kale, spinach, brown rice and chickpeas. Other foods such as eggs, potatoes, cheese, milk and salmon also contain folate in smaller amounts.
How can a nutritionist help with iron deficiency anaemia?
Feeling extreme tiredness or fatigue every day can become draining. The most effective way to prevent and help treat symptoms of anaemia caused through lack of iron is to eat a balanced diet containing iron-rich foods. A nutrition professional will be able to give you advice and support, discussing your dietary habits and creating a meal plan tailored to your body. This meal plan will consist of iron-rich foods such as eggs, brown rice, meat and green leafy vegetables. Contacting a nutrition professional can help reduce the pressure of eating iron-rich meals while providing additional support throughout the treatment process.
How can a nutritionist help with megaloblastic anaemia?
Similarly, megaloblastic anaemia can leave you feeling tired and lethargic. To prevent and treat a folate or vitamin B12 deficiency, a nutrition professional will advise a balanced diet that contains folic acid or vitamin B12 rich foods. Through discussion of your eating habits and medical history, a nutrition professional will be able to provide you with support and a personalised meal plan.
Content reviewed by dietitian, Leo Pemberton. All content displayed on Nutritionist Resource is provided for general information purposes only, and should not be treated as a substitute for advice given by your GP or any other healthcare professional.