How to Prevent and Heal Anemia Through Diet and Supplements 

Anemia is defined as hemoglobin or red blood cell concentration below two standard deviations of the average physiological needs depending on a person’s age and gender. [1]

Anemia affects about ? of the world’s population [2] and contributes to increased morbidity and mortality, [3-4] decreased work productivity, [5] poorer birth outcomes, [6-7], and impaired behavioral and neurological development in children. [8]

Iron is an integral part of the hemoglobin molecule. Hemoglobin is responsible for transporting oxygen around the body. 

The causes of an iron deficiency vary depending on age, gender, and socioeconomic status. Menstruating women, especially those with heavy or lengthy menstruation, and growing children are most susceptible to iron deficiency. 

Globally, the most common cause of anemia is a deficiency of iron, which can result from insufficient consumption of iron-rich foods, and lack of absorption of iron from the digestive system due to chronic inflammation or disease. Although anemia can also be the cause of:

  • Lack of sufficient red blood cell production — called aplastic anemia, resulting from failed bone marrow development.
  • High rates of red blood cell destruction — often due to viral or bacterial infections, antibiotic or antimalarial medications, or frequent use of paracetamol.
  • Blood loss — often caused by internal bleeding for different reasons.
  • Other vitamin deficiencies that lead to anemia include deficiencies in vitamins C, B12, and folate.

Anemia leads to fatigue, depression, and difficulty breathing upon physical effort.

Treatment involves reversing the cause of the deficiency whenever possible and treating the deficiency by iron supplementation or increasing dietary consumption. 

Iron supplementation is most often given orally, but in some instances, such as when oral iron isn’t well tolerated due to side effects, or during pregnancy with much vomiting, or for people with gastric bypass, or malabsorption, or chronic inflammatory conditions; in such cases, iron may be given intravenously. [9-12]

Iron and other nutrient deficiency anemias can be managed naturally with diet and supplements. 

Here are natural ways to prevent and heal anemia:

Iron supplementation

Oral iron supplementation is one of the most common treatments for iron deficiency anemia. 

Given the global prevalence of iron deficiency, even non-anemic people with iron deficiency should supplement or increase the consumption of iron-rich foods to improve symptoms of iron deficiency.

To increase absorption, you should take iron supplements without food because low gastric pH accelerates iron absorption, [13] and two hours before taking other medications. Vitamin C also supports absorption (I will go deeper into this in a moment).

The intestinal mucosa absorbs iron from heme and non-heme iron food sources. Heme iron, which comes from animal products, is obtained from hemoglobin and myoglobin.

Many people susceptible to iron deficiency may hesitate to shift to a vegan or vegetarian diet, thinking that they will not achieve their iron requirements. However, this is not necessarily true. Many people consuming a meat-rich diet cannot absorb iron very well due to high levels of inflammation in their bodies that block iron absorption. On the one hand, heme iron from animal products is more readily absorbed and not affected by other foods eaten in the same meal. However, high levels of heme iron cause inflammation, and inflammation in the body blocks the absorption of iron.

Regular consumption of foods rich in non-heme iron from plant-based foods will help increase iron levels and prevent inflammation that stops the absorption of iron. Foods that are rich in non-heme iron include green leafy vegetables, iron-fortified whole-grain breakfast cereals, quinoa, beans, lentils, chickpeas, tofu, cashews, and chia, hemp, flax, pumpkin seeds, kale, dried apricots, figs, raisins.

Research shows no differences in results between supplementation with iron and dietary iron consumption in treating adults with anemia; in children, this was different. Iron supplementation had a better effect on hemoglobin recovery in children. [14-15]

I recommend a gentle iron (bisglycinate) supplement that does not cause constipation.

Vitamin C

Absorption of non-heme iron from the diet is often affected by other foods eaten in the same meal. This is where vitamin C comes in. Vitamin C enhances non-heme iron absorption and can reverse the inhibiting effect of substances in foods that disrupt iron absorption, such as tannins in tea and calcium/phosphate from dairy products, antacids, high fiber foods, and caffeine. 

The enhancement of iron absorption from non-heme food sources is directly proportional to the quantity of vitamin C present in the meal. [16-18]

Therefore, I recommend adding vitamin C-rich foods when consuming iron supplements or non-heme iron-rich foods. Vitamin C-rich fruits include citrus fruits and berries. Vitamin C-rich vegetables include bell peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower. If you consume an iron supplement, you can eat fruit about half an hour after the supplement to support its absorption. If you are consuming iron-rich foods, add vitamin C-rich vegetables to the meal to enhance absorption.

Protein 

Anemia is also closely associated with protein intake. You can sometimes correct the anemia just by increasing protein intake without any iron supplementation. [19]

This is because protein is needed to produce hemoglobin, which, as mentioned, is the protein that carries oxygen through the bloodstream. Without sufficient hemoglobin, we suffer from inadequate red blood cell production. Researchers found that anemia was highest in people with low protein diets in a sports anemia study. [20] High-protein foods to include regularly in your diet if you suffer from anemia include soy products such as tofu, tempeh, edamame, beans, lentils, peas, seeds, nutritional yeast, and teff. 

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is essential to making red blood cells, which circulate oxygen throughout the body. A deficiency in B12 can cause anemia and nervous system damage. Research shows a significant relationship between vitamin B12 and hemoglobin concentrations. [21]

Since vitamin B12 comes from micro-organisms and is not found in plant-based foods unless they are contaminated, you may take it via subliminal supplementation of 1000-2000 mcg of methylcobalamin, the active form of vitamin B12, once a week. Vitamin B12 fortified foods, some yeast spreads, and certain mushrooms like shiitake have some vitamin B12. [22-23]

It is crucial to maintain healthy levels of vitamin B12 to avoid anemia and nervous system damage and minimize the potential risk of heart disease or pregnancy complications.

Folate (vitamin B9) 

People with too little folate (vitamin B9) in the blood can suffer from folic acid deficiency, presenting symptoms such as persistent fatigue, weakness, pale skin, lethargy, irritability, and shortness of breath. When left untreated, the condition can lead to megaloblastic anemia, which can escalate to nerve damage, digestive tract problems, and neurological issues. Treatment involves taking folate or folic acid supplements and increasing dietary intake of folate-rich foods. Foods high in folate include spinach, broccoli, peas, Brussel sprouts, asparagus, and mushrooms. Fruits that are high in folate include bananas and melons. Typically, oral folic acid supplementation of 1 to 5 mg daily is enough to treat folate deficiency. However, I encourage taking all of the B vitamins together in a B-complex supplement and eating a diet rich in folate-rich foods such as dark green leafy vegetables (including turnip greens, romaine lettuce, asparagus, Brussel sprouts, broccoli), whole grains, legumes, peanuts, peanut butter sunflower, and sesame seeds. [24] 

To conclude

Although anemia is widespread and can severely reduce one’s quality of life, today, there are easy, natural, and cheap ways to prevent this condition and live a life full of energy and vitality with a few small lifestyle changes. 

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References:

  • World Health Organization. 2011. Haemoglobin concentrations for the diagnosis of anaemia and assessment of severity Accessed August 4, 2017 http://www.who.int/vmnis/indicators/haemoglobin.pdf.
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