Going Beyond an Iron Boost: How (& Why) to Treat Anemia with Supplements
While those who struggle with it often feel alone, the fact is that anemia is the most common blood disorder and affects more than 3 million Americans. Anemia can affect your life in significant ways; but the good news is that there are ways to manage the condition. However, treatment goes beyond adding iron to your diet. Here, we’ll discuss how to treat anemia with supplements without focusing solely on iron intake.
What is Anemia?
A simple online search can tell you that anemia is a deficiency in red blood cells. It can make people look pale and cause weakness.
As Mayo Clinic explains, having anemia means having a lack of healthy red blood cells. This results in your body not getting enough oxygen. More specifically, your body’s tissues don’t receive the oxygen they need to perform their respective functions properly.
The internal struggle of not having enough oxygen soon translates into symptoms that are visible beyond the cellular level. Symptoms of anemia can include:
- Pale skin (sometimes yellowish)
- Breathing difficulties
- Cold extremities
The catch is that there’s not just one form of anemia, yet the symptoms are all similar. And while some people have it their entire lives, others see it fade after a short time. You might have mild symptoms, or they could be severe.
Anemia can also indicate an underlying health condition. Either way, ignoring the symptoms could prove serious. Addressing whatever type or severity of anemia you have is crucial for your health.
Understanding the Five Types of Anemic Conditions
Knowing what kind of anemia you have will determine how you need to treat it. Per Mayo Clinic, there are five types of anemia:
- Aplastic anemia
- Iron deficiency anemia
- Sickle cell anemia
- Vitamin deficiency anemia
With each of those five types, your shortage of red blood cells results from three specific scenarios.
First, your body may not make enough red blood cells on its own. Second, you may bleed too quickly for your body to keep up with red blood cell production. And third, your body might be attacking its own red blood cells.
Each type of anemia has unique factors that can affect your red blood cell regeneration. Next, we’ll look at each type and how it affects your body.
Non-Nutritional Forms of Anemia
Of all the types of anemia, only two are manageable with supplementation. The other types (aplastic anemia, sickle cell anemia, and thalassemia) require clinical intervention as they are chronic and potentially dangerous conditions.
Aplastic anemia is quite rare, but people can get it from exposure to certain toxins. Aplastic anemia also inhibits the production of white blood cells and platelets.
Your stem cells—via your bone marrow—are what creates blood cells. With aplastic anemia, damaged bone marrow can’t keep up with your body’s blood needs. Clearly, iron supplements won’t “fix” this condition.
Instead, serious treatment such as antibiotics, blood transfusions, growth hormones, and immunosuppressive therapy are often necessary. People undergoing such treatments can have an overload of iron, which then requires iron chelation therapy to remove the excess.
Sickle Cell Anemia
Sickle cell anemia occurs in between 70,000 to 100,000 Americans per year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the symptoms and severity of each kind can vary widely.
The only way to get sickle cell anemia is to inherit from your parents. Therefore, supplements won’t help with sickle cell. In fact, iron can cause even more harm as it builds up in a person’s system.
While treatment can ease the pain of sickle cell, there’s no lifelong cure. Bone marrow or stem cell transplants can help, but they involve many health risks and side effects.
Thalassemia is another inherited condition that people get from their parents. There are three variations, but all involve the same symptoms.
Like other forms of inherited anemia, thalassemia will not improve with dietary supplements, says Healthline. In fact, for someone who is receiving blood transfusions or a bone marrow transplant, iron supplements can potentially be fatal.
Often, people with thalassemia require iron chelation to get rid of excess iron—so you wouldn’t want to take supplements for this kind of anemia.
Nutrient-Deficiency Anemic Conditions
Only two types of anemia benefit from supplementation: iron deficiency and vitamin deficiency anemia.
Iron Deficiency Anemia
Iron deficiency anemia is the most common anaemic condition, which explains why so many people are quick to try iron as a treatment. Fortunately, you can often resolve the condition with supplementation—though it can get progressively worse if you ignore the symptoms.
Who Gets Iron Deficiency Anemia
Nearly anyone can become deficient in iron for a variety of reasons. But the most susceptible groups include:
- Women who experience heavy periods
- Women who are breastfeeding, pregnant, or just gave birth
- Folks who have just had major surgery or undergone physical trauma
- People with specific diseases like gastrointestinal disorders or ulcers
- People who have had gastric bypass and similar procedures
- Vegans, vegetarians, and other people who don’t eat food rich in iron
- Kids who drink too much dairy milk
Causes of Iron Deficiency Anemia
While most scenarios involving iron deficiency arise from conditions that affect the body’s ability to use iron or replenish red blood cells, some underlying health issues can result in anemia.
For example, a person with the condition intravascular hemolysis, which causes iron to excrete through the urine, may eat plenty of iron but still be deficient. Experts recommend undergoing blood testing to confirm anemia and determine the cause.
Treatments for Iron Deficiency Anemia
Thankfully, most people with iron deficiency can safely supplement their diet to maintain healthy levels. Experts often recommend consuming more organ meats, beef, pork, poultry, and fish to reap the benefits of bioavailable iron.
Depending on your dietary needs, you may opt for iron-rich foods like leafy greens, legumes, and enriched foods, too. Plus, supplementation can also be helpful for anyone who isn’t getting enough iron via their diet.
Especially for vegans and vegetarians, supplementation is an easy way to ensure you’re consuming enough iron to stay healthy.
Vitamin Deficiency Anemia
Vitamin deficiency can affect nearly anyone, and anemia is a common side effect of certain vitamin deficiencies.
Causes of Vitamin Deficiency Anemia
Often, vitamin deficiency anemia stems from more than just an iron deficiency. In fact, people with autoimmune conditions may develop anemia because of a weakened stomach lining.
But did you notice that it’s called “vitamin deficiency” anemia—meaning more than just iron?
The truth is that our bodies require a balance of nutrients to stay healthy. And when it comes to iron, there are other factors at play.
Treatment for Vitamin Deficiency Anemia
The good news about vitamin deficiency anemia is that you can often relieve symptoms with dietary changes. Which brings us to our recommendations on treating anemia and the related vitamin deficiencies with supplements.
Getting Tested for Vitamin Deficiency (and Starting Supplementation)
Ideally, you should confirm a vitamin deficiency before starting any supplement. After all, only a doctor can perform a blood test to confirm how much iron (and other nutrients) are in your blood.
Doctors look at your red blood cells, including the total count and the condition of them (a complete blood count or CBC), to diagnose anemia. They also check levels of folate, B-12, and vitamin C.
Other tests to survey for anemia include a hemoglobin or hematocrit level check or mean corpuscular volume (MCV) result. At-home kits can also provide a bit of insight into nutritional deficiencies.
Treating Anemia with Supplements (Not Just Iron)
If you are confident that you have iron deficiency anemia or vitamin deficiency anemia—and not a more serious type of anemia—supplements may be the perfect fix. But there’s a lot to know about solving your dietary challenges with supplements.
Here, we’ll go over how to determine what supplements to take and what levels of nutrients you need for optimal health.
Nutrients That Impact Iron Absorption
Per Mayo Clinic, you can’t avoid all types of anemia—but one method of prevention is eating a balanced diet. The four key nutrients involved in anemia are:
- Iron – which is present in many meats (including organ meats), beans, lentils, green vegetables, dried fruit, and fortified products
- Folate – which occurs naturally in fruit, leafy green vegetables, kidney beans, peanuts, and enriched grains
- Vitamin B-12 – which is found in meat, dairy, and fortified products
- Vitamin C – which is in citrus fruits, broccoli, tomatoes, melons, kiwi, strawberries, and peppers
Of course, unless you’re eating three freshly prepared dishes of fruit, vegetables, and organ meats each day, you likely can’t make up for a vitamin deficiency through food alone.
Supplements for Vitamin Deficiencies and Anemia
Supplementing your diet is a smart way to prevent—or treat—anemia and stay healthy. But it takes the right balance of nutrients for your body to absorb the iron and other vitamins it needs. Here’s what you should consider taking—and at what concentrations.
Taking Iron for Anemia
According to the American Society of Hematology, the average amount of iron in a daily multivitamin isn’t suitable for people with anemia. After all, the “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” suggests 8 mg of iron per day for men and 18 mg per day for women—which isn’t nearly enough to make up for a deficiency.
Instead, people with iron deficiencies should consume between 150 to 200 mg of iron per day. Another calculation would be 2 to 5 mg per kilogram of body weight.
Taking Folate for Anemia
Did you know that folate-deficiency anemia is another common condition that results from vitamin deficiency? Folate—or folic acid—is a B vitamin that helps with making red blood cells. It’s an influential nutrient that works with iron to keep your body oxygenated.
One important distinction when looking for folate supplements is seeking true folate. Experts say that the manmade version—folic acid—performs the same function as the naturally-occurring vitamin.
However, choosing a nature-made vitamin may be the better option—especially as some people have conditions (such as MTHFR gene variants) that can make processing folic acid difficult.
When it comes to folate, the recommended daily intake is 400 micrograms or mcg. Women who are planning a pregnancy or who could become pregnant should bump their does up to 800 mcg, says the Office on Women’s Health.
Taking Vitamin B-12 for Anemia
Vitamin B-12, AKA cyanocobalamin, is another vitamin essential to blood cell formation.
Studies suggest that regular supplementation of B-12 at levels of 1,000 micrograms or mcg per day produced “clinically meaningful outcomes” in deficient populations.
In short, taking 1,000 mcg per day of B-12 is ideal for anyone deficient in B-12—and excess won’t hurt you. Because B-12 is water-soluble, high concentrations aren’t harmful, says Healthline.
Taking Vitamin C for Anemia
Vitamin C is beneficial for enhancing iron absorption, which is one reason why it’s an excellent supplement to take for anemia. In fact, one study noted that pairing 100 mg of vitamin C with food helped boost iron absorption by 67 percent.
Overall, vitamin C is an excellent supplement for health and wellness. It’s also hard to overdose—as excess C will cause stomach upset long before it becomes toxic.
Vitamin C helps your body stay healthy by maintaining your bones, skin, and blood vessels. The recommended daily value, however, is only 90 mg, while common supplements include 500 mg or more per serving.
Also, multiple studies have administered up to eight grams of vitamin C per day in order to study the effects of a mega-dose on pre-existing conditions and cold prevention. Therefore, one can conclude that it’s safe to up the dosage of vitamin C with little risk.
Final Thoughts on Supplementation for Anemia
While popping an iron supplement might help with symptoms of anemia, getting other nutrients like folate, B-12, and vitamin C can make an even bigger difference for your health. The key is finding the right balance that gets your cells the oxygen they need. With supplementation, you can cover all your bases for addressing anemia.