Anaemia is the most common blood related health problem in the world. In Kenya, about 30 percent of women of reproductive age (15-49 years) and 40 percent of children under the age of five years are anaemic. For this reason, it is routine to screen pregnant women for anaemia.
What is anaemia?
People with anaemia have a low haemoglobin level. Haemoglobin is an oxygen carrying protein in your blood cells. There are several types of anaemia and dietary deficits can contribute to this health problem.
Causes of anaemia Iron deficiency: Iron is needed for the formation of healthy blood cells. If you are not getting sufficient iron from your diet, you could get anaemia. Vitamin B and folate deficiency: Vitamin B12 and folate are crucial for blood formation. These micronutrients are obtained from the diet. Bone marrow failure: Blood cells are made in the bone marrow (the inner part of bone). Certain infections, some cancers, radiation and some drugs like chemotherapy can prevent the bone marrow from making healthy blood cells leading to anaemia. Abnormal bleeding: Very heavy menses, abnormal uterine bleeding from conditions like fibroids, blood loss due to an accident etc can all lead to anaemia. Infections: Certain infections can cause the blood cells to be prematurely destroyed by the body (a process known as haemolysis). This can occur in infections such as severe malaria. Long term illnesses: Long standing health conditions like kidney failure can lead to anaemia. Sickle cell anaemia: This is a relatively common condition in the western part of Kenya. In sickle cell disease/anaemia, the body has abnormally shaped blood cells. This condition tends to run in families. Digestive problems: Some intestinal conditions prevent nutrients from being absorbed. Others lead to bleeding in the intestines. All of these conditions may lead to anaemia.
Symptoms of anaemia —Constant fatigue —Pale hands, gums and insides of the eyelids —Palpitations (abnormal heart beat) —Dizzy spells —Headaches —Shortness of breath —Brittle nails —Hair loss —Strange food cravings (known as pica) — for example the desire to eat soil —Mild anaemia may not cause any symptoms
How is anaemia diagnosed?
Usually the combination of clinical symptoms and a blood test can diagnose anaemia. Treatment depends on the underlying cause of the anaemia. For example, if you have abnormal menses, you need to find out the cause of this and treat it in order to stop the abnormal blood loss.
Dietary changes to prevent anaemia
Avoid fad diets: Most fad diets are nutrient poor and can compromise your blood cell formation. They are often extreme and focus only on helping you attain rapid weight loss. For example, the cabbage soup diet does not contain any blood building nutrients. A diet rich in iron, vitamin B12 and folate are essential in preventing anaemia. Iron rich foods include: organ meats like liver, kidney or gizzards, red meat, sea food/fish, nuts, pumpkin/sunflower seeds, whole grains, beans (all kinds), peas, dark leafy vegetables like spinach, kale (sukuma wiki) and broccoli. Most flours and cereals are also fortified with iron. Foods rich in vitamin C can help your body absorb iron. These include fruits and juices, tomatoes, red and yellow bell peppers. Foods like dairy which are rich in calcium should not be taken at the same time with iron rich foods. They hinder absorption of iron. Caffeine laden products like coffee and tea can also reduce the absorption of iron. Foods high in vitamin B12 include red meat, poultry, fish, organ meats, eggs, dairy products and fortified cereals and flour. Foods high in folic acid (folate) include dark green leafy vegetables, lentils, beans and peas.
Anaemia in babies To avoid anaemia in formula fed infants, ensure that the milk formula contains iron and other nutrients. If you are pregnant or planning to get pregnant, increase your intake of blood forming foods. Liver intake should, however, be limited in pregnancy to small quantities. Liver is rich in vitamin A and too much of it can be harmful to an unborn baby.
Do not take iron supplements without consulting your doctor. Too much iron in the body can be harmful. Folate supplements are useful in preventing birth defects and are recommended for women trying to conceive or those in the first three months of their pregnancy.
Are vegans at risk of getting anaemia?
Vegans following a rich balanced diet are not at greater risk of getting anaemia than the rest of the population. However, it the food quantities being ingested are low, then they can develop anaemia.