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Anaemia, the silent stalker of women & kids

The last time I got a gaggle of tests done to find out things discernibly wrong with me, a very sombre doctor walked in with my path reports and shook his head and said, "your FBC (full blood count) shows blood abnormalities." Sanchita Sharma writes.

columns Updated: Jan 27, 2013 00:18 IST
Sanchita Sharma

The last time I got a gaggle of tests done to find out things discernibly wrong with me, a very sombre doctor walked in with my path reports and shook his head and said, "your FBC (full blood count) shows blood abnormalities."

Just as images of a slow, painful death from an incurable blood disorder flashed through my mind, the doctor said, "you have anaemia. You need iron supplementation."

Since the report showed I had aced cholesterol and all other tests I had been put through, I decided to humour the doctor, who seemed a little disappointed to have nothing other than iron tablets to prescribe (which I ended up not taking after I found my haemoglobin count - low levels of which indicate anaemia - was 12.2 gm/dl. The normal count for women is 12.5 gm/dl).

I never went back to that doctor again. One, because he didn't bother with dietary advice, and more important, because he did not prescribe vitamin 12 and folate, which are almost always prescribed to boost haemoglobin levels.

Anaemia - a shortage of oxygen-carrying red blood cells - lowers the blood's capacity to carry oxygen to the body's cells and organs, leaving you sluggish, breathless and easily tired. Some people complain of headaches and dizziness, though visible signs of pale skin, nails and gums occur only when haemoglobin falls below 8 gm/dl.

Among the first organs to slow down is the brain, which accounts for 2% of the body's weight but gobbles up 20% of the oxygen you breathe in. Even borderline anaemia can affect memory and recall, causing learning problems in children and executive function impairment, which often occurs before memory loss, in older adults. Executive function is used to describe daily activities, such as cooking, shopping, taking medications, paying bills, etc.

Three in four children under five have anaemia, a number that becomes colossal when you favour in the 27 million babies are born in India each year. Since a child grows very rapidly in the first five years of life, anaemia makes millions of children lose out on physical and mental development milestones, a disadvantage that stays with them throughout life.

The cause for the anaemia epidemic in children is not hard to spot: more than half (57.8%) pregnant women are anaemic, with one in seven being anaemic severely enough (haemoglobin below 7 gm/dl) for it to endanger their own and their baby's life during childbirth, shows data from the National Family Health Survey 3 (2005-06). Anaemia causes one in five pregnancy-related deaths, triples the risk of premature delivery and low birth weight babies, and raises risk of a stillbirth ninefold.

Simply put, the risk begins before you are born and stays with you through life.Including foods with high iron content and high bioavailability (iron in forms easily absorbed by the body) can improve haemoglobin levels within weeks. Haem iron - found in animal foods such as red meat, chicken, liver, shrimp, oysters and eggs - is better absorbed than iron from plant sources. The body utilises 15-35% of Haem iron, compared to 2-10% from plant sources, such as lentils, leafy vegetables, beans, dried peas, almonds, dried apricots, peaches, dates, and raisins.

Getting an old-style iron pot for cooking can push up the iron content in your home-cooked food, as will having vitamin c -- fresh lemon juice or citrus juices etc -- at mealtimes to make the stomach more acidic, which improves non-Haem iron absorption. Since caffeine interferes with iron absorption, consider delaying your after-dinner coffee or tea by an hour or so.

Unless you are severely deficit - infections such as malaria and hookworm, heavy menstruation, crash diets, etc also cause anaemia - these measures should be enough to help you meet your daily recommended dose of 18 mg of iron. It worked for me. If the deficiency persists after a month, get a prescription supplementation to help your mind and body function optimally.