Anemia occurs when your blood has a lower than normal number of red blood cells or if your red blood cells don’t have enough hemoglobin. Because a side effect of anemia is low circulation of oxygen, anemia symptoms usually include muscle weakness, ongoing fatigue or lethargy, brain fog and sometimes mood changes. Severe or unabated anemia can also sometimes cause complications, including damage to your heart, brain and other organs. (01) Although it’s rare, anemia that remains untreated can even become deadly.
Considering the seriousness of anemia and how common it is among certain age groups— especially women during reproductive years, or adults with existing health conditions who are over 65—it’s imperative that you learn how to recognize the symptoms in yourself or your loved ones. Below you’ll learn about the most common signs of anemia, as well as the best ways to treat these symptoms and reduce anemia risk factors, such as iron deficiency or eating a highly-processed diet.
What Is Anemia?
The definition of anemia is “the condition marked by a deficiency of red blood cells or of hemoglobin in the blood.” Hemoglobin is an iron-rich protein that gives your blood its red color and helps cells bring oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body. If you have anemia, your body simply doesn’t receive enough oxygen-rich blood, leaving you tired and weak. (02) Red blood cells contain hemoglobin and are also important for immunity, including fighting infections, as well as clotting blood and preventing too much bleeding.
Anemia is closely related to iron deficiency, which according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), is the most common nutritional deficiency in the U.S. Iron helps produce hemoglobin, and therefore The CDC estimates that almost 10 percent of women are iron deficient, which is alarming considering the essential roles that iron, including facilitating with oxygen distribution. (03) Iron is needed to perform many functions throughout your body every single day, but it’s common for many people to live with low iron levels due to factors like blood loss (such as from menstruation), a poor diet, or an inability to absorb enough iron from food sources.
Common Symptoms of Anemia
Without enough oxygen-carrying red blood cells in your body, it’s impossible to transport adequate amounts of oxygen to your brain, tissues, muscles and cells. Feeling a little “out of it” and tired is pretty common for many adults, due to compounding reasons which can include: stress, lack of sleep, battling a virus, a busy work schedule, etc. Therefore, when it comes to knowing whether or not you should be checked for anemia, it’s important to understand how anemia symptoms usually manifest, and what makes them different than simply feeling exhausted due to other life circumstances.
Here are some of the most common anemia symptoms adults tend to experience: (04)
- Pale skin
- A fast or irregular heartbeat
- Shortness of breath, trouble breathing, low stamina and reduced endurance
- Chest pains
- Dizziness or loss of stability
- Cognitive problems including brain fog, difficulty concentrating and trouble getting work done
- Cold hands and feet or other signs of body temperature changes
You should also be aware that, initially, anemia can be so mild that it often goes unnoticed for a period of time, sometimes even for years. But symptoms will typically worsen as the condition progresses, especially if more than one risk factor is contributing to the problem.
Anemia Risk Factors & Causes
There are three primary reasons why you might develop anemia from not having enough red blood cells:
- Either you’re not producing enough red blood cells
- You’ve been losing too much blood due to injury, menstruation or other circumstances that cause bleeding
- Your body is destroying the red blood cells you have due to changes in your immune system
Risk factors and related conditions to anemia include:
- Deficiency in iron or vitamin B12. This can happen if you don’t eat enough in general, you eat a restrictive diet, or sometimes if you’re a vegetarian/vegan who avoid animal products (since these are good sources of iron and B vitamins). Your body needs adequate iron, vitamin B12, folate and other nutrients from the foods you eat in order to produce healthy amounts of hemoglobin and red blood cells.
- Being a woman, since women develop anemia more often than men do.
- In people who have pernicious anemia, they are getting enough vitamin B12 but aren’t able to properly metabolize or use it, therefore enough hemoglobin still can’t be made.
- Older age. Research shows people over 65 are more likely to develop anemia.
- Pregnancy can also increase risk for anemia.
- Candida, which can alter how you absorb nutrients including B vitamins.
- Other conditions including an autoimmune disease (like lupus for example), HIV/AIDS, rheumatoid arthritis, kidney disease, or cancer can cause anemia.
- Having a digestive issue that disrupts nutrient absorption, such as inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease, or an ulcer.
- Frequently taking over-the-counter pain relievers, especially aspirin, which block certain nutrients from being used.
- Sometimes anemia is genetically inherited, and therefore less likely to be due to lifestyle factors or your diet. These include aplastic anemia (your body doesn’t produce enough red blood cells), bone marrow diseases like leukemia and myelofibrosis, hemolytic anemia (red blood cells are destroyed faster than bone marrow can replace them), or sickle cell anemia (having a defective form of hemoglobin that produced red blood cells which can’t be used, and causes blood cells to die prematurely). (05)
How Your Diet Affects Anemia
Aside from getting enough iron and B vitamins (more on this below), what’s one of the most important things you can do to overcome anemia? Remove processed and junk foods from your diet as much as possible. Consuming lots of empty calories—like processed and junk foods such refined grains, fast food, synthetic ingredients or excess sugar for example— can contribute to deficiencies in essential nutrients, fatigue, weight gain, weakness and also inflammatory bowel disease or candida.
Candida is a condition that results in high levels of yeast proliferating and disturbing the normal pH balance and mucus lining of the GI tract, which changes how you absorb nutrients. Oftentimes, digestive issues like IBD or candida and anemia are linked, especially in women. If you ever notice a white color on your tongue or in the back of your throat, or if you ever tend to get any sort of yeast issues, these are signs of candida symptoms. Along with digestive issues, chronic fatigue, brain fog is often overlooked as a sign of candida and IBD. IBD or candida overgrowth can cause a lack of focus, poor physical coordination, difficulty in concentrating on tasks and poor memory, just like anemia can. (06)
In order to overcome candida and related digestive issues, it’s usually very helpful to try eliminating almost all processed sugars and grains at least for a period of time. In other words, trying an “elimination diet” might greatly help control symptoms. If you are eating a lot of sugary foods, pastas, breads, cereals, or really any type of refined grain product or sweetener, that’s going to feed yeast in your GI tract. This can block iron absorption and worsen anemia, so addressing the quality of your diet is key for recovery. I recommend replacing these problematic, low-nutrient foods with things like fresh veggies, lean protein and healthy fats. This will help restore digestive/gut health and also provide you essential nutrients, including iron.
Here Are the Worst Foods for Anemia To Avoid:
- Added sugar/sweeteners
- Processed grains
- Chocolate – Chocolate contains a substance that removes iron from your body, so it is best to avoid when you are trying to increase your iron levels.
- Bran – Bran is high in insoluble fiber that traps and removes iron during digestion.
- Conventional dairy – Calcium binds with iron in foods and can lead to poor absorption.
- Soda – Soda is high in sugar and poor in nutrients and it blocks iron absorption.
- Coffee and black tea – Excessive coffee intake may block iron absorption, so reduce it to no more than one cup per day.
5 Natural Treatments for Anemia Symptoms
Below is my five-step process to treat anemia symptoms naturally, along with advice for avoiding anemia risk factors/triggers that can worsen the condition and sometimes lead to complications:
1. Nourish Your Spleen
The first natural treatment for anemia is really nourishing your spleen. Your spleen is an organ that is responsible for red blood cell production, as well as keeping fluids together in your system. If your spleen isn’t healthy, that’s one of the first factors that’s going to cause anemia.
There are specific foods that will actually help nourish your spleen, helping you overcome anemia symptoms naturally. That first food group is squash, specifically pumpkin, acorn squash, butternut squash, spaghetti squash and those bright orange-colored foods. Think fall harvest! Those sorts of foods are fantastic for nourishing the spleen. Aim for getting one to two servings of squash in your daily diet. If you want some ideas, try my Butternut Squash Soup as a starter.
The other food group that’s very important for nourishing your spleen and red blood cell production is going to be green leafy vegetables like nutrition-rich spinach, kale and chard. Having one serving of those per day, something like a Kale Caesar Salad or sautéed spinach, is also very nourishing to your spleen.
Last, but not least, bitter foods are great for the spleen, specifically vegetables like romaine lettuce and arugula salad. You can even consume bitter herbs before a meal as a supplement. But anything that’s sort of a bitter food is very nourishing for the spleen.
2. Use Probiotics for a Healthy Gut
Step number two to help you naturally overcome anemia symptoms is to boost gut health with probiotics. Gut health is crucial for absorption of nutrients. The principle is not: “You are what you eat.” Rather, it is: “You are what you digest.” If you’re not digesting properly and absorbing and assimilating nutrients properly, you’re not absorbing iron!
For a lot of people taking iron supplements, unfortunately they might not be working all that well. The reason is that their digestive system isn’t healthy, and therefore they probably have a condition called leaky gut syndrome. Leaky gut doesn’t allow you to properly absorb iron as well as certain other vitamins and minerals, like vitamin B12, magnesium and zinc.
A medical study out of Stanford found that when somebody supplements with probiotics, all of their B vitamin levels tend to go up along with iron levels. (2) So rather than simply popping an iron tablet without fixing the underlying problem, try to make changes that tackle the root problem of poor gut health. I recommend you add in probiotic-rich foods to your diet like real homemade yogurt, goat milk kefir and sauerkraut. Then taking a probiotic supplement, typically 50 billion to 100 billion IUs daily, can definitely help support your iron absorption.
3. Consume Iron-Rich Foods
The next step in helping you overcome anemia symptoms is consuming iron-rich foods. The richest sources of heme iron (the more absorbable form) in the diet include lean meat and seafood. Dietary sources of non-heme iron include nuts, beans, vegetables and fortified grain products. In the United States, about half of dietary iron comes from bread, cereal and other grain products, but I recommend focusing on healthier options that are easier to digest instead.
Some of the best iron foods include beef liver and chicken liver. Liver? It might sound gross to you, but if you buy organic chicken liver at your local farmers’ market or at your health food store, you can put it in a crockpot with chicken in equal ratios, or about a third liver, two-thirds chicken, and do a big crock pot with vegetables like carrots, celery, onions and sea salt. This is the perfect meal to help replenish your liver, as it’s very high in iron. For other iron-rich foods, look toward organic, grass-fed meats like beef, bison and lamb. Also, eat spinach, kale and chard. Have a bison burger with a side of spinach, which is fantastic for helping you reverse anemia.
4. Reduce Stress
If you’re emotionally stressed out and you struggle with forgiveness, anger, or have chronic worry and anxiety, those things really deplete your spleen and your liver and will exhaust those organs. So really make sure that you are scheduling in times of relaxation and fun during your week, plus getting plenty of sleep at night. Those things will really help recharge your system and body and help you bust stress. If you do those things, you’re going to see fantastic results in overcoming anemia.
5. Consider Taking Supplements
In addition to making the holistic changes described above, you can likely benefit from taking a B vitamin complex supplement that includes folate (not folic acid!), as well as an iron supplement. Another bonus tip related to stress and spleen health: In Chinese medicine, anemia is very closely related to the spleen, and certain herbs actually help support the spleen, especially ginseng. Ginseng is known as an adaptogenic herb that lowers cortisol and can help your body better deal with stress. Lastly, benefit-rich beets also help with a healthy circulatory system and healthy iron levels.
A Diet to Help Reduce Anemia
Even though anemia is so common, it’s possible for most healthy people without serious illnesses to prevent anemia by eating a healthy, unprocessed diet. Above you read about foods to avoid in order to manage anemia symptoms and also candida. Now here are some of the best foods to include in your diet in order to overcome anemia:
- Liver – Beef liver is very high in iron and vitamin B12 and a variety of other important minerals. If unable to consume cow liver, make sure you include grass-fed, organic beef as an alternative.
- Brewer’s yeast – High in folic acid, B12, and iron. Add to cereal, salad or juice.
- Foods high in vitamin C – Vitamin C helps with iron absorption. If you are eating a high iron food (beef) try to include a source of vitamin C at that same meal such as tomatoes, peppers, or strawberries.
- Green leafy vegetables – These provide a significant amount of iron and folic acid. Raw spinach is high in oxalic acid which can reduce iron absorption, however steaming spinach will this reduce this acid. Other green leafy vegetables to include are steamed kale and broccoli.
- Natural sweeteners (in small amounts): If you’re wondering what to do when you need to use some sort of sweetener but are avoiding added sugar, try blackstrap molasses or raw local honey in small amounts (about one tablespoon at most at a time). Blackstrap molasses can be taken in servings of about one spoonful daily, as it is very high in iron. Local honey or stevia are two other good options in terms of keeping too much sugar out of your diet but lightly sweetening foods.
Precautions Regarding Anemia Symptoms & Treatments
Although you might be able to treat anemia on your own by making changes to your diet, lifestyle and the supplements you take, it’s also a good idea to talk with your doctor if you suspect you have anemia, considering it can be a side effect of other serious illnesses. You might be exhausted and finding it hard to concentrate for other reasons that have nothing to do with anemia, so don’t necessarily assume you’ve diagnosed yourself accurately. If symptoms persist after you’ve made the changes above, be sure to get tested for nutrient deficiencies and get a doctor’s opinion.
Final Thoughts on Anemia
- Anemia is a common condition that occurs when your blood has a lower than normal number of red blood cells, or if your red blood cells don’t produce enough hemoglobin.
- Anemia symptoms include brain fog, fatigue, weakness, trouble breathing normally, headaches and body temperature changes.
- Natural ways to help treat anemia include consuming enough foods with iron and B vitamins, resolving related conditions like candida or leaky gut syndrome, reducing stress and treating underlying health problems like autoimmune disorders, ulcers or kidney disease.