Anemia is caused by an inadequate number of healthy red blood cells. This results in a low level of hemoglobin, the iron-rich protein found in red blood cells that transports oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. For this reason, bodies with anemia don’t get enough oxygenated blood. Without oxygen, organs and tissues can become damaged. In an effort to counteract the effects of anemia, the heart must work harder to make up for the lack of hemoglobin in the blood. This extra effort can have a negative impact on the heart, sometimes even causing heart failure. Anemia may be mild and therefore easily treated but it can also be a chronic problem with severe, long-lasting effects.
Types and Causes
There are a variety of reasons your body may become short on red blood cells. Blood loss, as through trauma or heavy menstruation, is one possibility. The most common type of anemia, iron deficiency anemia (IDA), occurs when blood loss depletes your system of iron. Instead of simply losing blood, the body may have problems making red blood cells. A fairly common type of anemia called folate deficiency anemia occurs when your body lacks folic acid, which is necessary to make red blood cells. Some diseases can inhibit your body’s production of red blood cells. With kidney disease, for instance, the kidney fails to produce enough of the hormones responsible for telling the body to make red blood cells. In some cases of anemia, the red blood cells are breaking down so rapidly that the body can’t replace them quickly enough. This occurs with sickle cell anemia, which causes red blood cells to be hard and curved. These cells can become lodged in blood vessels, creating a blockage. While the body is able to destroy sickle red cells very quickly, it is unable to replace them fast enough, causing anemia.
Anemia in Women
Women and people with chronic diseases face the highest risk for anemia. According to Women’s Health, about 400 million women around the world are affected by anemia. This is partly because most women don’t realize that they require more iron in their diet than men. Women of childbearing age, for instance, need extra iron because of blood lost during menstruation. Another problem is that women tend to write off the symptoms of anemia, like fatigue and headaches, as trivial; the result of daily stresses instead of a health problem. Undiagnosed anemia, however, can become quite severe with potential effects including premature delivery in pregnant women or infertility in women of childbearing age.
Anemia and Pregnancy
Iron deficiency is the most common cause of anemia in pregnant women. When pregnant, women should consume double the amount of iron as non-pregnant women, about 30 mg total, in order to adequately provide for themselves and their growing fetuses. This is not only to account for the higher volume of blood (about 45 percent more than normal) but also to prepare for the loss of blood during delivery. Women’s Health reports that about half of pregnant women take in too little iron. These women face a greater risk of premature delivery. Less serious is that anemia in pregnant women can cause weakness, increased fatigue, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, pale complexion and excessive stress. Anemic women are more prone to illness, as well. Women should be tested for anemia at the first prenatal visit and take iron supplements (which may be in prenatal vitamins) while pregnant.
Other Risk Factors for Anemia in Women
One of the major reasons women become anemic is poor diet. This risk becomes more pronounced in vegetarians, as they avoid a major source of iron–red meat. Vegetarians don’t always develop anemia, however. A thoughtful diet including vegetables that contain iron, like spinach, can prevent anemia from ever appearing. Women taking menopausal hormone therapy (MHT) may require more iron if they are still getting periods during this time. Intrauterine devices (IUD) may cause excess bleeding and increase chances of anemia. Other risk factors include blood loss (caused, for example, by peptic ulcer disease or colon cancer) and chronic inflammatory conditions (such as rheumatoid arthritis), which suppress bone marrow. Some types of anemia, such as sickle cell anemia, are due to inherited defects.
The primary symptom of anemia is fatigue, although weakness is also very common. Other symptoms include dizzy spells, headaches, shortness of breath, numb or cold hands and feet, a pale complexion, brittle nails and chest pain. Anemic people tend to find it difficult to concentrate and are often irritable.
Anemia doesn’t develop overnight. As it develops, symptoms begin to present themselves. They are generally mild at first but can become severe over time. Women with mild or moderate anemia may not notice any symptoms, or will write off mild symptoms as products of a high-stress lifestyle. Plus, since the symptoms arise gradually, the body is better able to adapt, thus reducing the symptoms’ effects. Bodies can’t compensate forever, though, and symptoms will eventually be very difficult to ignore. In contrast, some anemia develops rapidly so symptoms will be noticeable from early on.