Some time ago, Vanita Samaj, an all-women social welfare group in New Delhi, organised a blood donation camp. But their enthusiasm turned to dismay when all 13 members were found to be suffering from some ailment or the other, with anaemia leading the list. What at one time was exclusively a complaint reported during pregnancy has now become one of the biggest health issues for women in India.
The bloody truth: According to a recent National Family Health Survey report, more than 75 per cent of women in India suffer from an iron deficiency. Over 56 per cent of married women and 58 per cent of pregnant women are anaemic, while 56 per cent of adolescent girls are anaemic. The haemoglobin count in most adolescent girls in India is less than 12 g/decilitre, which is the standard accepted worldwide.
"Iron is a key micronutrient," explains Dr Virender Anand, honorary consultant, internal medicine, Moolchand Medicity Hospital in New Delhi. "It helps carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body, boosts the immune system and improves physical performance. Anaemia is a condition in which the number of red blood cells is lower than normal. The red blood cells contain haemoglobin, which comprises iron and globin, a protein."
Weak end: Women tend to be more anaemic than men for a variety of reasons. "Women regularly lose blood during menstruation and almost all women tend to get anaemic during pregnancy as the foetus too requires blood," explains Dr Geeta Chadha, senior consultant, obstetrics and gynaecology, Indraprastha Apollo Hospital. "Moreover, women lead hectic lives, and do not pay attention to their diet. That's why they tend to suffer the most."
People with anaemia don't see symptoms for months. "When symptoms do appear, they usually include lethargy, weakness and dizzy spells. As the condition becomes more severe, shortness of breath, palpitations, headaches, a sore mouth and gums, and brittle nails may become apparent," says Dr Ashutosh Shukla, head, internal medicine, Artemis Hospital.
Power up: However, there is some good news. This deficiency can be tackled by modifying your diet - lots of green leafy vegetables, some amount of meat and fish, and a healthy proportion of fruits and nuts. Besides iron, vitamin B12 and folic acid are also needed for the normal functioning of the red blood cells. Wheatgerm, broccoli, green cabbage, pulses, nuts and yeast extract are good sources of folic acid.
Refined foods and sugar should be avoided and women suffering from heavy cycles or even miscarriages should get themselves checked for iron deficiency.
Young girls should be careful about worms in the intestine, as that can lead to iron deficiency. Sometimes it's advisable to take iron supplements to speed up the process, but only on medical advice. Never give children adult iron tablets unless your doctor says so.