Reviewed by Physician Lim Sock Ling
Iron Deficiency Anemia: Discover Its Symptoms & Supplements To Take
Published | 7 min read
Iron deficiency anemia is most common in women and people with bleeding disorders. Learn more about common symptoms and ways to improve blood health using TCM.
Iron deficiency anemia occurs when your body lacks iron and cannot make enough hemoglobin to deliver enough oxygen to organs.
The condition is more common in women, and most of them mistake anemia with daily fatigue.
This article explores the causes and symptoms of iron deficiency anemia, foods rich in iron, and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) remedies to help treat blood deficiency.
What Is Iron Deficiency Anemia?
Iron deficiency anemia is a type of anemia that is caused by not having enough iron in the body. Iron is important because it’s needed to make hemoglobin.
Hemoglobin is a protein found in your red blood cells that carries oxygen all over the body. Without proper amounts of iron in the body, oxygen flow becomes limited and you may develop anemia.
Women are most at risk of developing iron deficiency anemia due to loss of blood during menstruation. You may also be at an increased risk if you are pregnant or suffer from a bleeding disorder.
In addition to causing blood loss, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis may prevent the proper absorption of iron from the digestive tract. Therefore, if you have one of these conditions, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on your iron levels.
Here are some other possible causes of iron deficiency anemia:
- Diet low in iron, such as in vegetarian diets (adult men should be getting 8 mg per day; adult women need 18 mg)
- Blood loss due to colon cancer, urinary tract infections, or another medical condition
- Certain medications, including overuse of aspirin or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), such as ibuprofen and naproxen
- Heavy periods
- Injuries or surgery
- Conditions that cause absorption problems, such as autoimmune and gastrointestinal disorders
Fatigue is usually a primary symptom or anemia. If you wake up tired, even after a full night’s rest, then you may want to have your iron levels checked.
Here are some other common symptoms:
- General weakness
- Constant chills or being cold all the time, especially in hands and feet
- Poor circulation
- Bruising easily
- Pale skin
- Dry skin and cracks on the side of the mouth
- Slow healing time for skin wounds and lacerations
- Stomach bloating
- Brittle hair and nails
- Pica (cravings for non-food items, such as clay or dirt)
Your symptoms may vary depending on your iron levels. Severe cases may lead to chest pain, irregular heartbeat, and shortness of breath. If this happens, seek immediate medical treatment.
Iron Deficiency Anemia, According To TCM
According to physician Lim Sock Ling, “In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), iron deficiency is a subset of blood deficiency as TCM does not differentiate blood deficiency according to the cause, such as iron deficiency. Instead, TCM differentiates blood deficiency according to its syndromes such as heart or liver blood deficiency. Additionally, TCM sees blood more broadly as the red fluid in the vessels that provides nutrition for the body, rather than emphasizing the makeup of blood on a cellular level.”
A TCM practitioner will check for low levels of iron by observing the bottom of the inner eyelids and complexion and tongue. If they appear pale, he or she is likely to suggest anemia. He or she may also check iron levels by palpating the pulse. Weak pulse suggests blood deficiency. The pulse is usually thin as blood and qi deficiency often go hand in hand.
Iron Deficiency Anemia Treatment Options
In TCM, treatment targets the syndrome or root cause according to yin, yang, qi and blood, regardless of the type of anemia. The primary goal of treatment is to invigorate qi and nourish blood to improve body function.
This can be done by strengthening the spleen function as the spleen is the source of qi and blood. The following formula and herbal soups are commonly used by a physician in prescriptions to help with blood deficiency:
- Dang Gui Bu Xue soup – Dang Gui and Huang Qi are used in the ratio of 1:5. Studies show that this formula improves hematopoiesis, and was the most effective in promoting immune responses.
- Gui Pi Tang – commonly used for heart and spleen deficiency.
- Bu Zhong Yi Qi soup – primarily used to invigorate qi. Since qi and blood originates from the same source, this formula attempts to nourish blood through invigorating qi.
- Si Wu Tang – commonly used to nourish blood.
- Ba Zhen soup, Ren Shen Yang Rong Tang – commonly used to invigorate qi and nourish blood.
- Wu Ji Bai Feng Wan – commonly used to invigorate qi and blood, regulate menstruation, improve general well-being, and aid in post-partum recovery.
- Sheng Yu Tang – for liver and heart deficiency as well as qi and blood deficiency.
Below are the common herbs found in the above-mentioned formula:
- Dang Gui
- Lu Jiao Jiao
- Huang Qi
- Dan Shen
- Ji xue teng
- E Jiao
- Du Zhong
- He shou wu
- Xu Duan
- Han Lian Cao
Consider drinking a convenient brew of red dates and longan tea to nourish blood. You can simply steep the herbs in hot water for 15 minutes before drinking.
Acupuncture can help to improve iron deficiency anemia. In a study comparing the effects of acupuncture in the treatment of iron deficiency or iron deficiency anemia and obesity, it shows that although the actual hemoglobin concentrations of the two groups after oral iron therapy were not significantly different, the absolute change in hemoglobin in the acupuncture group was much bigger than in the control group.
This may signify the patients in the acupuncture group having a better response to iron supplementation. Taken in whole, these results suggested that acupuncture may synergistically reinforce oral iron replacement therapy for obese patients with iron deficiency. Hence, acupuncture may play dual role in reducing weight and improving iron absorption.
A Word Of Caution About Cupping If You Are Anemic
Regarding blood-related effects, cupping helps to improve blood circulation, which could alleviate the symptoms of anemia and blood deficiency, but it does not help to treat blood deficiency.
In fact, there are reports of iron deficiency anemia as a result of bloodletting cupping therapy or wet cupping, which causes blood loss. However, cupping has many other benefits that you can read about if you are not anemic here.
Iron Deficiency Anemia Diet
The following is a list of foods high in iron to add to your diet:
- Shellfish: The iron in shellfish is heme iron, which your body absorbs more easily than the non-heme iron found in plants. It has also been shown to increase the level of HDL in your blood. However, there are legitimate concerns about mercury and toxins in certain types of shellfish.
- Spinach: Although this is non-heme iron, which isn’t absorbed very well, spinach is also rich in vitamin C. This is important since vitamin C significantly boosts iron absorption. It is rich in antioxidants and is very low in calories.
- Liver and other organ meats: Organ meats are high in protein and rich in B vitamins, copper, choline, and selenium.
- Legumes (e.g. beans, chickpeas, peas, lentils and soybeans): Legumes are a great source of iron, especially for vegetarians. Consider eating legumes with foods high in vitamin C, such as tomatoes, greens or citrus fruits, to maximize iron absorption.
- Red meat: Red meat is likely the single most easily accessible source of heme iron, potentially making it an important food for people who are prone to anemia.
- Pumpkin seeds: Pumpkin seeds provide 14% of the daily recommended intake for iron per one-ounce serving.
- Broccoli: Broccoli contains both iron and vitamin C to help your body absorb the iron better.
Other foods that are high in iron include quinoa, turkey, tofu, dark chocolate, and fish. Be sure to check with your doctor or a registered TCM practitioner if you suspect your iron levels are low. He or she will also be able to rule out more serious health complications and suggest other ways to get your levels back up.
- NIH. Iron Deficiency Anemia.
- NCBI. 2017. Chinese Medicine Journal. Acupuncture Improves Intestinal Absorption of Iron in Iron-Deficient Obese Patients: A Randomized Controlled Preliminary Trial
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