Some causes of anemia
Iron deficiency anemia is one of the most common forms of anemia, affecting mostly infants under the age of two years, teenage girls, pregnant or lactating women, and the elderly. This is because both infancy and adolescence require extra iron for growth, pregnant women for obvious reasons, and the elderly because of reduced absorption caused mainly by the diminution of hydrochloric acid secretions in the stomach.
Vitamin B12 deficiency is also linked to reduced absorption. Being a fat-soluble vitamin it also depends on acid production. While folic acid deficiency is due mainly to the small stores of water-soluble vitamins maintained by the body (folic acid being one of them), but also excessive alcohol consumption, oral contraceptives, anti-cancer and anti-epileptic drugs.
Some effects of iron deficiency predate anemia. Thus the iron dependent enzymes involved in energy production and metabolic processes, may be impaired long before the appearance of anemia. And although a lack of iron has the well known debilitating effects associated with defective oxygenation, such as lack of energy, chronic fatigue, etc, an excess of iron may be equally or even more harmful. To understand how this could come about, it is important to explain how we absorb iron from foods.
The absorption of iron
The iron in our foods comes basically in two forms: heme-iron from meat, the heme part coming from the Greek word for blood (aima), and non-heme-iron from plant sources. Non-heme-iron is not easily absorbed and subject to strict physiological controls. In other words, once we have our share of non-heme-iron, we cannot absorb any more. Heme-iron on the other hand is absorbed much better and is not subject to such controls. The more meat we eat, the more heme-iron we absorb.
Women up to menopausal age can get rid of the excess iron with their menses. But post-menopausal women cannot. Eating meat with the same frequency as before, can result in excessive stores of iron which can easily become agents of debility and disease. Let this stand as a warning to mature women, who should generally reduce meat consumption after menopause.
The calf connection
What about a therapy for anemia? Once upon a time the best nutritional regimen for a person with anemia was calf liver. It is not only rich in iron, but also in B vitamins, and so rich in vitamin A, that a meal of 100g or 4 oz of liver was considered a safe upper limit. But that was when bovines walked unto green fields, eating grass and chewing the cud. Today with cows immobilized in stalls, eating protein refuse foods, and being treated with antibiotics, growth hormones, and other goodies designed to keep the animal growing and healthy but with little concern for the consumer, calf liver may not be such a good idea. In fact, it may be distinctly unhealthy, considering that the majority of drugs and heavy metals end up in the liver from which we may get a concentrated if undesirable dosage.
Other foods rich in iron are lean meat naturally, shellfish, green leafy vegetables, dried beans, blackstrap molasses, almonds, dried apricots and other dried fruits. Since vitamin C has been shown to be the most potent enhancer of iron absorption, have some vitamin C containing food together with these. Greeks have traditionally squeezed lemons on meats, an admirable eating habit. But you can garnish your bean soup or bean salad with fresh parsley and achieve the same thing.
Inhibition and supplementation
At the same time it is worth remembering that several foods (and beverages) inhibit iron absorption, such as wheat bran, egg yolk, coffee and tea. Foods rich in calcium or calcium supplements also may inhibit iron absorption, but not if these are eaten or taken several hours after the iron-rich meal, when they cannot substantially interfere with the absorption of iron.
Aside from foods, various vitamin supplements may be also used to fight anemia. One of these in iron deficiency anemia is vitamin C as previously related, which has the capacity to increase iron absorption. Vitamin B12 deficiency causing pernicious anemia may be corrected by either injections or oral supplements of the vitamin. Both work equally well if in sufficient dosages, despite earlier medical beliefs that only injectable B12 was absorbed. For folic acid deficiency anemia, a supplement of folinic acid is very helpful. It is important to remember that a folic acid supplement may mask a vitamin B12 deficiency, and for this reason it is best to supplement folic acid with vitamin B12.