Anemia occurs when there is a deficiency in either healthy red blood cells (RBCs), or hemoglobin, an oxygen-binding protein in those red blood cells. Hemoglobin is responsible for delivering oxygen from your lungs to all of the tissues throughout your body. With Anemia, this process isn’t functioning correctly. The cells in your body won’t receive enough oxygen for vital processes, such as ATP production. This can lead to the breakdown of cellular function and can cause a variety of symptoms. However, it’s possible to have other forms of anemia, so read on to learn more.
Causes and Types of Anemia
The most common symptom of anemia is fatigue. Given that fatigue is a vague symptom, as well as a common symptom for many other health issues, it’s not uncommon for anemia to go unnoticed or undiagnosed. Key signs to look for include:
- Difficulty taking deep breaths
- Pale or yellowish skin
- Shortness of breath
- Irregular heartbeat (caused by stress on the heart to pump more blood in compensation for the lack of oxygen your tissues are receiving)
- Tired. Need extra sleep. Trouble sleeping
- Weight gain or trouble losing weight
Anemia can result from a number of things – a deficiency in essential vitamins and minerals, hereditary or genetic conditions, or a lack of red blood cells or hemoglobin. In fact, there are multiple forms of anemia with differing causes. The two most common forms of anemia, Iron Deficiency Anemia and Pernicious Anemia, are the result of a lack of critical vitamins and minerals. The key components to monitor in blood work all play a role in red blood cell production and function. They include:
It’s crucial to view these values in conjunction with each other for a proper anemia diagnosis. Iron levels are often the primary biomarker in monitoring for anemia. However, Red Blood Cell disfunction can occur through many other factors aside from Iron deficiency, such as chronic disease. Deficiency in vitamins and minerals that play an integral role in the forming and developing of red blood cells should also be monitored, as low levels could be the underlying cause of similar symptoms, especially in the case of Pernicious Anemia.
In general, women and children are more susceptible to anemia due to bleeding during menses and growth spurts, respectively. This highlights the importance of blood testing in monitoring symptoms of anemia.
Symptoms of Iron Deficiency Anemia
The most common form of anemia is due to an iron deficiency, most commonly caused by heavy blood loss, such as heavy menstruation or conditions that cause internal bleeding (i.e., peptic ulcers). This type of Anemia can also be developed through the insufficient intake of iron, which can typically be normalized through iron supplements. Athletes can also be needing extra iron, especially those training at higher elevations. Ferritin is an excellent biomarker to keep tabs on as ferritin is a protein that carries and stores iron in your liver.
Symptoms of Pernicious Anemia
Pernicious anemia occurs when there is a lack of vitamin B12, which is an essential component in the maturation of Red Blood Cells. Insufficient B12 can be due to the lack of Intrinsic Factor, a glycoprotein produced by stomach cells which is required for B12 absorption. Or, simply not eating enough B12 rich food or supplementing with a B12 vitamin. It’s best to take B12 with Folate as they work synergistically to mature RBC’s. Make sure your b12/folate supplement is also in the proper active form as a large population is unable to absorb the inactive forms of b12(cyanocobalamin and folic acid). This inability to absorb can be related to low intrinsic factor or the MTHFR genetic mutation found in nearly 40% of the population. This supplement from Jarrow is amazing for pernicious anemia.
The lifespan of a Red Blood Cell is approximately 120 days and our bodies are constantly producing new cells throughout our lifetime. A lack of vitamin B12 results in immature (not fully formed) Red Blood Cells that do not function properly, thus reducing the number of cells in the body that are able to carry oxygen to the rest of the body.
Anemia and Athletes:
Iron deficiency anemia is common among endurance athletes, so much that it has earned the nickname “sports anemia.” Although it may not be its own category of anemia, studies have shown a positive correlation between iron values, and Red Blood Cell and Hemoglobin concentrations in athletes. What this means is that when iron levels are low, the number of Red Blood Cells available to carry oxygen to your tissues will also be low. This will not only make athletes feel tired, but it will also hinder recovery. Lower iron values in athletes can be explained by a few different reasons:
- High-intensity workouts require more iron uptake for building muscle mass
- Constant pounding (especially in sports like Running) can cause Red Blood Cells to rupture
- Iron (along with many other minerals) can be lost through prolonged periods of sweating.
There are various options for iron deficiency treatment ranging from taking supplements to intravenous iron therapy. Replenishing your iron stores is vital to performing at your best and recovering fast!
Other Forms of Anemia:
These less common forms of anemia may be inherited or developed from other diseases and conditions. These include:
- Aplastic Anemia:
A rare disease in which the bone marrow (where red blood cells originate) stops producing new red blood cells.
- Hemolytic Anemia
A condition where red blood cells are destroyed and removed from the bloodstream before their normal lifespan (120 days). This can be due to disease or an inherited or genetic condition.
- Sickle Cell Anemia:
A genetic condition in which Hemoglobin are abnormally shaped, decreasing the red blood cells’ ability to transport Oxygen.
- Anemia of Chronic Diseases:
Low Levels of red blood cells or Hemoglobin due to chronic illnesses such as cancer, autoimmune diseases, such as Crohn’s disease, and inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus.
If you have a history of anemia in your family, or have a pre-existing medical condition, check out this site for more information on less common forms of anemia.
Things you can do
- Get a blood test
- Eat enough calories
- Make sure your diet is versatile
- Supplement with B12, Folate and Vitamin C
- If low in iron, supplement with iron
Don’t believe us? Check out these awesome studies!
- Iron Status in Female Endurance Athletes and in Non-Athletes
- Iron Status in Athletes Involved in Endurance and in Prevalently Anaerobic Sports
- B-Vitamins and Exercise: Does Exercise Alter Requirements?
- Management of Elevated Serum Ferritin Levels
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“Anemia Symptoms, Signs, and Causes.” WebMD. N.d. Web.
Kies, Constance, and Judy A. Driskell. Sports Nutrition: Minerals and Electrolytes. Boca Raton: CRC Press, 1995. Print.
Malczewska, Jadwiga, Grzegorz Racqynski, Romuald Stupnicki. “Iron Status in Female Endurance Athletes and in Non-Athletes.” International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 2000.
Mayo Clinic Staff. “Anemia.” Symptoms and Causes. N.p., 2016. Web.
“Preventing Athletic Anemia.” The Women’s Sports Medicine Center, 1999.
“The Seven Types of Anemia.” Health24. N.p., 2013. Web.
Woolf, Kathleen, Melinda M. Manore. “B-Vitamins and Exercise: Does Exercise Alter requirements?” International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 2000.