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If you’ve ever been told you have anemia, you might have been surprised if you’ve been including plenty of iron-rich foods. After all, isn’t anemia caused by low iron levels? It turns out that the cause of anemia may go far beyond low iron intake. It can be due to other nutritional deficiencies, genetic disorders, and even certain chronic illnesses. Most doctors treat anemia by prescribing iron supplements. However, it’s not always that simple. 

What is Anemia?

Anemia means “lack of blood.” It refers to a decrease in red blood cell (RBC) percentage in the blood or a decrease in the hemoglobin present in the RBCs. This can occur through blood loss, reduced red blood cell production, or increased RBC breakdown. [1] 

The main job of red blood cells is to carry oxygen from the lungs to the tissues and carbon dioxide from the tissues to the lungs for exhalation. The protein that allows RBCs to do that is hemoglobin, which binds to oxygen molecules, delivering oxygen throughout the body. Iron-rich hemoglobin is what gives blood its vibrant red color. Low hemoglobin is why anemic people are often pale and experience poor circulation. [2] 

Anemia, in general, is defined as a reduction in hemoglobin or hematocrit (red blood cells in blood by percentage). It may also refer to a low red blood cell count, but that is not used as often in clinical practice today. Low hemoglobin is defined as less than 13.5 g/dL in men and less than 12.g/dL in women. Low hematocrit is defined as less than 41.0% in men and less than 36.0% in women. [1] 

Types of Anemia

There are a few types of anemia, defined based on the cause: [3] 

  • Iron-deficiency anemia is anemia due to low iron levels. It’s the most common type of anemia worldwide and may be due to low iron intake, malnutrition, blood loss, absorption issues, and chronic inflammation. 
  • Pernicious anemia is a specific type of B12 deficiency anemia. It’s caused by autoimmunity to intrinsic factor in the stomach, which is needed for the body to absorb vitamin B12 for healthy red blood cells. 
  • Hemolytic anemia is anemia caused by the destruction of red blood cells, leading to low levels. It can be due to a genetic disease or may come from autoimmune diseases, infections, or other acquired conditions. 
  • Sickle cell anemia is an inherited condition that causes the hemoglobin to become malformed, changing red blood cells to become stiff and sickle-shaped, leading to blood flow problems. 

While there are different causes, the symptoms are similar, resulting from low iron, low oxygen, and poor blood flow. 

Symptoms of Anemia

According to the National Institutes of Health, the most common symptoms of anemia are: 

  • Weakness 
  • Paleness 
  • Tiredness 
  • Chills 
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Headache 
  • Dizziness and fainting 
  • Bleeding 
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin) 

It may also cause hair loss and even lead to weight loss. However, the severity of the anemia affects which symptoms manifest, meaning that mild anemia may not cause symptoms, and more extreme anemia may lead to more severe symptoms and other health issues. [4] 

Who is at Risk of Anemia?

Those most at risk of anemia include the following: [1] 

  • People in developing countries, due to malnutrition and lack of proper medical care 
  • Menstruating women 
  • Pregnant women 
  • African Americans due to sickle cell disease 
  • Vegetarians 
  • Those with blood disorders 
  • Older adults due to other conditions like chronic kidney disease and medications that interfere with absorption. 

Those with higher risk ought to be tested for anemia if they have a few of the symptoms listed above. 

How is Anemia Diagnosed?

Anemia is diagnosed via a blood test, such as a complete blood count (CBC), comprehensive metabolic panel, iron studies, serum B-12, folate, TSH, and even a stool test to check for blood in the stool. [1] 

In determining the severity of anemia, the National Cancer Institute grades it as mild, moderate, severe, or life-threatening based on hemoglobin levels: 

  1. Mild: Hemoglobin 10.0 g/dL to lower limit of normal 
  2. Moderate: Hemoglobin 8.0 to 10.0 g/dL 
  3. Severe: Hemoglobin 6.5 to 7.9 g/dL 
  4. Life-threatening: Hemoglobin less than 6.5 g/dL 

Once the cause is determined, medical professionals will devise a treatment plan, including iron supplements, B-12 shots, folate, or even a blood transfusion if necessary. Untreated anemia can be life-threatening. 

The Fireman vs. The Carpenter in Healthcare

At The Wellness Way, we talk about the current medical system’s perspective on healthcare versus our perspective, as the “fireman approach” versus the “carpenter approach.”

The current medical system’s “fireman” doctors have two tools (treatment options) to take care of people: an axe and a hose. The axe represents cutting things out during a surgical procedure. The hose represents using medications to extinguish the “flames”: inflammation, pain, and other symptoms.

Wellness Way doctors are more like carpenters: They assess the body’s current state with testing and then create a personalized plan to rebuild using nutrients from foods and supplements. Sunshine, rest, and positive relationships are some common natural therapies that support the body in healing.

While these things are considered “complementary medicine” or “alternative medicine,” scientific research backs up their effectiveness in supporting the healing process.

The Current Medical System’s Approach to Anemia

Our current form of medicine recognizes both genetic conditions and nutrient deficiencies as causes of anemia. However, they may be slow to consider anemia in otherwise healthy people.   

Common Medications for Anemia

When correctly diagnosed, doctors prescribe iron pills, folic acid (synthetic folate), or vitamin B-12 injections to restore nutrients and mitigate symptoms. They may help with symptoms and may help addressing the problem. However, if the anemia is severe, blood transfusions may be necessary. [5] 

Iron supplements can also have side effects, like constipation. Those side effects are often why people seek out natural remedies or home remedies for anemia. 

It’s Not Just a Matter of Taking Iron

There are several causes of anemia; however, the best known is iron deficiency anemia. Most people assume that if they are anemic, it’s simply due to low iron, so all they need to do is get an iron supplement. It’s not necessarily that simple.  

As stated, anemia can be caused by more than just an iron deficiency. It can be caused by other deficiencies (like vitamin B-12, folate, or vitamin A), autoimmunity, or absorption issues. It can also be due to more complicated imbalances in the body, such as parasitic infections, kidney disease, or leukemia. [6] 

However, a little-known (yet second most common) type of anemia is “anemia of inflammation” or “anemia of chronic disease.” This type of anemia is caused by chronic illness and/or exposure to infections and leads to a reduced number of red blood cells. In anemia of inflammation, you may have normal or increased iron in your body tissues yet a low level in your blood. Some conditions associated with anemia of inflammation include: [7][8] 

  • Autoimmune diseases 
  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) –Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis. 
  • Chronic kidney disease 
  • Chronic infections 
  • Cancer 
  • Other chronic diseases, like diabetes 
  • Chronic inflammation in general 

Inflammation is something we talk about a lot at The Wellness Way. It can cause symptoms in all systems of the body. What causes inflammation? It all goes back to stressors that fall into one of three categories: Trauma, Toxins, and Thoughts. 

Causes of Anemia: Trauma, Toxins, and Thoughts

The concept of the Three Ts originally comes from chiropractic care but also applies to other imbalances in the body. Here’s how trauma, toxins, and thoughts contribute to anemia. 

Traumas (Physical Stressors)

Anemia can certainly be caused by physical stress on the body – particularly, any trauma that leads to blood loss. When the blood supply goes down far enough, it results in anemia, sometimes even life-threatening anemia, if someone is “bleeding out.” Some physical stressors leading to anemia may include: 

  • A gunshot wound 
  • Car accident or another severe injury 
  • Surgery 
  • Internal injury/ulcers –an ulcerative colitis flare 

Any injury leading to heavy bleeding would be primarily trauma-induced anemia. 

Toxins (Biochemical Stressors)

Toxins are biochemical stressors that can negatively affect the nervous system and the general health of the body. Toxins that may cause or contribute to anemia include: 

  • Medications –Many medications reduce iron absorption, leading to anemia 
  • Cancer treatments [9] 
  • Metal toxicity–especially lead [10] 
  • Parasitic and other infections, like malaria, which produce toxins and use up vital nutrients [6][11] 
  • Any chemical or toxin creating chronic inflammation 

Thoughts (Emotional Stressors)

There probably are not a lot of thought- or emotional stressors that directly contribute to anemia. However, chronic stress leading to chronic inflammation can aggravate the kidneys and gut and contribute to anemia by reducing iron production or absorption. 

The Swiss Watch and Anemia

Your body’s systems work together like the gears of a Swiss Watch. Each of the gears affects all the others. If something is out of balance in one area of the body, it will have consequences for other areas. That’s why Wellness Way doctors and health restoration coaches don’t just tell you to eat spinach or give you an iron supplement. There are many potential causes of anemia in other systems of the body, including the gut and the immune system. 

Gut Inflammation or Dysbiosis

One of the main things to look at with chronic anemia is the gut. The gut is where we absorb nutrients, including folate, vitamin B12, and iron. If the gut is inflamed, overgrown with certain bacteria, or has compromised absorption, it’s going to be difficult to use the iron you’re consuming.  

Anemia is common with gastrointestinal conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease, and inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis. Parasites in the gut may also be to blame. [12] 

Immune Response and Anemia

As mentioned earlier, another potential contributor to anemia is an altered immune response from chronic inflammation. Both cancer and autoimmune diseases are associated with anemia. Pernicious anemia is a B12 deficiency anemia caused by autoimmune disease. The immune system attacks intrinsic factor in the stomach lining. Without intrinsic factor, the body cannot absorb vitamin B-12 in the intestines, and RBC production goes down. [13] 

Hormone Imbalances and Anemia

Hormones can also alter RBC production, leading to anemia. Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) can impair your ability to produce certain hormones needed for red blood cells, such as erythropoietin, needed for erythropoiesis (RBC production). [1] Low thyroid (hypothyroidism) can also create anemia in a few ways, including affecting the bone marrow, decreasing erythropoietin, or causing macrocytic anemia (enlarged RBCs). [14] 

The Wellness Way Approach to Anemia

At The Wellness Way, we dig deeper to solve the health challenges others can’t. The anemia can be complicated — it may simply be an iron deficiency, but you may also have a gut or immune problem. The only way to know for sure is to test! 

Important Tests for Solving Anemia

Get complete testing and learn how best to overcome anemia by addressing the real causes. This usually involves lowering inflammation and healing your gut. Here are some commonly recommended tests at The Wellness Way:  

Your Wellness Way doctor or health restoration coach will recommend tests based on your health history and other symptoms.  

Dietary Changes for Anemia

Diet affects everything — We know that what we consume directly affects our health. Even if your gut is in great shape and you have a balanced immune response, if you aren’t eating the food components needed to create hemoglobin, you could end up with anemia. Some iron-rich foods include: 

  • Organ meats (like liver) 
  • Red meat 
  • Seafood 
  • Beans and legumes 
  • Dark green leafy vegetables (like spinach and broccoli) 
  • Beets – Both beetroot and beet greens are a good source of iron as well as potassium 
  • Black sesame seeds (also a good source of calcium and magnesium) 
  • Blackstrap molasses 
  • Dried fruit like raisins and apricots 

Iron is an essential nutrient that’s widely available in food. It comes in two forms: heme and non-heme. Heme comes from animal foods and is more easily absorbed by the body. Non-heme comes from plant foods and requires a few more steps to be used by the body. However, both are import, so eat your greens! Green leafy vegetables are a key food for promoting hemoglobin production as they supply chlorophyll. Citrus fruits are high in vitamin C, which is needed for the absorption of iron. 

However, it’s also crucial to eat a non-inflammatory diet that follows your personalized nutrition program. Since everything begins with the gut, we must ensure our daily food intake doesn’t contribute to chronic inflammation or get in the way of the body’s ability to heal itself. 

Supplementation for Anemia

It can be difficult to get enough iron through diet alone; that’s where supplements come in. Common supplemental forms used at The Wellness Way for anemia include the following: 

The cause of the anemia, as found by your test results, will dictate which supplements will work best for you. Be a well-informed patient! Here are some resources for learning more about anemia.  

Educational Resources for Anemia

Articles to Support Anemia Concerns

The Wellness Way Can Help!

The Wellness Way doctors don’t just tell you to eat more spinach or red meat. We don’t guess; we test! Wellness Way clinics will look behind the causes of low iron levels to decide the right course of action for healing. After going over your health history and current symptoms, we’ll do specialized testing to learn which factors are affecting your body and how. From there, it’s a matter of living a healthy lifestyle, with a non-inflammatory, whole foods diet, supportive supplements, and a positive mindset. Connect with us! Find an event at a clinic near you! Follow us on social media. Tune in to A Different Perspective each Saturday morning LIVE to get cutting-edge training directly from Dr. Patrick Flynn. Reach out to a Wellness Way clinic today to get thorough testing and start on your health journey. 

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Disclaimer: This content is for educational purposes only. It’s not intended as a substitute for the advice provided by your Wellness Way clinic or personal physician, especially if currently taking prescription or over-the-counter medications. Pregnant women, in particular, should seek the advice of a physician before trying any herb or supplement listed on this website. Always speak with your individual clinic before adding any medication, herb, or nutritional supplement to your health protocol. Information and statements regarding dietary supplements have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

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