Anemia or anĉmia/anaemia, from the Greek (an-haîma) meaning "without blood," is defined as a qualitative or quantitative deficiency of hemoglobin, a molecule inside red blood cells (RBCs). As hemoglobin carries oxygen from the lungs to the tissues, anemia leads to hypoxia (lack of oxygen) in organs. Since all human cells depend on oxygen for survival, varying degrees of anemia can have a wide range of clinical consequences.

The three main classes of anemia include excessive blood loss (acutely such as a hemorrhage or chronically through low-volume loss), excessive blood cell destruction (hemolysis) or deficient red blood cell production (ineffective hematopoiesis).

Anemia is the most common disorder of the blood. There are several kinds of anemia, produced by a variety of underlying causes. Anemia can be classified in a variety of ways, based on the morphology of RBCs, underlying etiologic mechanisms, and discernible clinical spectra, to mention a few. The most common cause of anemia is not having enough iron. Your body needs iron to make hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is an iron-rich protein that gives the red color to blood. It carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body.

Your iron might be too low because of heavy periods, pregnancy, ulcers, colon polyps, colon cancer, inherited disorders or a diet that does not have enough iron. You can also get anemia from not getting enough folic acid or vitamin B 12. Blood disorders such as sickle cell anemia and thalassemia, or cancer may also lead to anemia.

Anemia goes undetected in many people, and symptoms can be small and vague. Most commonly, people with anemia report a feeling of weakness or fatigue in general or during exercise, general malaise and sometimes poor concentration you may feel weak, cold, dizzy and irritable. Very severe anemia prompts the body to compensate by increasing cardiac output, leading to palpitations and sweatiness, and to heart failure.

It is confirmed with a blood test. Generally, clinicians request complete blood counts in the first batch of blood tests in the diagnosis of an anemia. Apart from reporting the number of red blood cells and the hemoglobin level, the automatic counters also measure the size of the red blood cells by flow cytometry, which is an important tool in distinguishing between the causes of anemia. Examination of a stained blood smear using a microscope can also be helpful, and is sometimes a necessity in regions of the world where automated analysis is less accessible. Treatment depends on the kind of anemia you have.

Nutritional therapy offers several ways to satisfy the body's need for these nutrients. (Of course, any underlying causes of the anemia need to be treated before these guidelines can be helpful.) Increasing your intake of iron, folate, and vitamin B12 can be accomplished with supplements, but including more whole foods rich in these nutrients in your diet is generally a more healthful idea for mild cases.

Iron-rich foods include:

  • liver
  • dried beans (especially kidney, garbanzo, and pinto)
  • prunes
  • raisins
  • dried apricots

Vitamin C, although not a direct factor in the development of anemia, helps the body absorb iron, so foods high in this vitamin (including citrus fruits and juices, broccoli, cauliflower, and sweet peppers) should accompany meals with iron-rich foods. On the other hand, certain foods limit the absorption of iron. Foods on this list include black tea, coffee, dairy products consumed in large amounts, and wheat bran.

Hydrochloric acid, normally produced by the stomach, is needed for the body to use iron and may be low in some people. Supplementation with hydrochloric acid at mealtimes may be helpful for people with this problem. Another helpful supplement can be vitamin E.

Some whole foods that are good dietary sources of folate, or folic acid, include:

  • dried beans
  • dark-green leafy vegetables (such as spinach and kale)
  • asparagus
  • oranges

Common food sources of vitamin B12 include:

  • tuna
  • nutritional yeast
  • dairy products
  • beef
  • eggs
  • liver

Fortified cereals and less-known items such as some seaweed varieties, spirulina, chlorella, and wild blue-green algae are other vegetarian sources. People who cannot adequately absorb vitamin B12 require muscle injections.

Herbs can help the body maximize the use of the nutrients in food and provide some useful nutrients on their own as well.

The group of herbs known as bitters signal the stomach to produce more digestive juices to help in the breakdown process. The herbs' bitter taste on the tongue is probably responsible for sending these messages to the brain and stomach. Gentian root and wormwood are two examples of bitters.

Several herbs are rich in iron and other minerals and vitamins. For example, the leaves and stalks of stinging nettle pack both iron and vitamin C. The following herbs are very helpful for thid condition:

  • Dong quai - This herb is rich in vitamins and minerals.
  • Chive - This vegetable is rich in vitamin C and iron - eat fresh chives.
  • Quinoa - This is a grain rich in all eight essential amino acids that form a complete protein.
  • Gentian - The bitter herb gentian is popular in England for the treatment of anemia. Gentian can be brewed into a tea or you can take a commercially available extract.
  • Dandelion is also believed to help people with anemia. It is very rich in vitamins and minerals.
  • Other herbs that are of interest to those suffering from anemia include alfalfa, bilberry, burdock root, cherry, goldenseal, grape skins, hawthorn berry, horsetail, mullein, plantain, parsley, nettle, Oregon grape root, pau d'arco, red raspberry, shepherd's purse, watercress, wormwood, and yellow dock root.

Caution: Do not take goldenseal or Oregon grape root if you are pregnant. If you have a history of cardiovascular disease, diabetes or glaucoma, see your physician before taking any herbs.

Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) is useful as a general tonic to counteract anemia induced fatigue. Dong quai may be prescribed for women with heavy menstrual flow. For anemic patients with yellow complexion, a Chinese herbalist might recommend a combination of dong quai and Chinese foxglove root. For those with white complexion, they may recommend a combination of ginseng and astragalus.

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