©2007 Publications International, Ltd. Anemia results when your red blood cell count drops to the point that your body does not get the oxygen it needs.

While anemia is not a disease in itself, it results mainly from a nutritional deficiency. It can however, be a symptom of other serious illnesses, so recognizing symptoms typically common to anemia can be a real benefit. In this article, you will learn about anemia and some invaluable home remedies to deal with the condition. Let's get started with a closer look at what anemia really is.

Building Your Blood

Anemia is a condition in which your red blood cell count is so low that not enough oxygen is carried to all parts of your body. Imagine that your blood is a river. Traveling on this river are special barges (red blood cells) that carry parcels (oxygen), but each barge carries only a specific amount of oxygen. If you don't have enough of these barges, it's impossible to deliver enough oxygen, and as a result, you'll start to feel weak and tired. A short climb up the stairs may leave you breathless, and even a couple days of rest won't help perk you up. If that describes how you feel, check with your doctor -- it's important to take action as soon as possible to alleviate anemia (as well as to ensure there isn't a more serious condition).

Anatomy of Anemia

Remember, your red blood cells are the barges that carry oxygen throughout your bloodstream to feed tissues. Hemoglobin, the primary component of red blood cells, is a complex molecule and is the oxygen carrier of the red blood cell. The body works very hard to ensure that it produces just enough red blood cells to successfully carry oxygen -- too many red blood cells can cause the blood to get too thick. Red blood cells live only 90 to 120 days. The liver and spleen get rid of the old cells, although the iron in the cells is recycled and sent back to the marrow to produce new cells.

If you're diagnosed with anemia, it usually means that your red blood cell count is abnormally low, so it can't carry enough oxygen to all parts of your body. It also may mean that there is a reduction in the hemoglobin content of your red blood cells. Anemia is a condition -- not a disease -- but it can be a symptom of a more serious illness. That's why it's always important to check with your doctor if you think you may be anemic.

Types of Anemia

"Anemia" is not an all-encompassing term; there are different types of this condition. Some rare types are the result of a malfunction in the body, such as early destruction of red blood cells (hemolytic anemia), a hereditary structural defect of red blood cells (sickle cell anemia), or an inability to make or use hemoglobin (sideroblastic anemia). The most common forms of anemia, however, are the result of a nutritional deficiency and can often be treated with some help from the kitchen. These common types are:

Iron deficiency anemia. Iron deficiency anemia happens when the body doesn't have enough iron to produce hemoglobin, causing the red blood cells to shrink. And if there's not enough hemoglobin produced, the body's tissues don't get the nourishing oxygen they need. Highest risk for developing iron deficiency anemia are children younger than three years of age and premenopausal women.

Most young children simply don't get enough iron in their diets, while in women who are premenopausal, heavy menstrual periods are the most common cause of iron deficiency anemia. Pregnant women also may become anemic -- during pregnancy a woman's blood volume increases three times, boosting iron needs. Contrary to popular belief, men and older women aren't at greater risk for iron deficiency anemia. If they do develop the condition, it's most often the result of an ulcer.

Vitamin B12 deficiency anemia. While iron deficiency anemia produces smaller-than-usual red blood cells, a vitamin B12 deficiency anemia produces oversized red blood cells. This makes it harder for the body to squeeze the red blood cells through vessels and veins -- it's like trying to squeeze a marble through a straw. Vitamin B12-deficient red blood cells also tend to die off more quickly than normal cells. Most people get at least the minimum amount of B12 that they need by eating a varied diet. If you are a vegetarian or have greatly limited your intake of meat, milk, and eggs for other health reasons, you may not get enough of the vitamin in your diet.

Older people are at increased risk for vitamin B12 deficiency because they are more likely to have conditions that affect the body's ability to absorb vitamin B12. Surgical removal of portions of the stomach or small intestine; atrophic gastritis (a condition that causes the stomach lining to thin); and disorders such as Crohn's disease can interfere with the body's ability to absorb vitamin B12.

But the most common cause of vitamin B12 deficiency anemia is a lack of a protein called intrinsic factor. Intrinsic factor is normally secreted by the stomach; its job is to help vitamin B12. Without intrinsic factor, the vitamin B12 that you consume in your diet just floats out as waste. In some people, a genetic defect causes the body to stop producing intrinsic factor. In other people, an autoimmune reaction, in which the body mistakenly attacks stomach cells that produce the protein, results in a lack of intrinsic factor.

A vitamin B12 deficiency that is caused by a lack of intrinsic factor is called pernicious anemia. Older people are especially at risk; in fact, 1 out of 100 people older than 60 years of age are diagnosed with pernicious anemia. Pernicious anemia can be particularly dangerous because it causes neurological problems, such as difficulty walking, poor concentration, depression, memory loss, and irritability. These can usually be reversed if the condition is treated in time.

Unfortunately, in the case of pernicious anemia, the stomach cannot absorb the vitamin no matter how much B12-rich food you eat. Treatment requires injections of B12, usually once a month, that bypass the stomach and shoot the vitamin directly into the bloodstream.

Folic acid deficiency anemia. A deficiency of folic acid produces the same oversized red blood cells as a vitamin B12 deficiency. One of the most common causes of folic acid deficiency anemia is simply not getting enough in the diet. The body doesn't store up folic acid for long periods like it does many other nutrients, so if you aren't getting enough in your diet, you will quickly become deficient. Pregnant women are most at risk for folic acid anemia because the need for folic acid increases by two-thirds during pregnancy. Adequate folic acid intake is essential from the start of pregnancy because it protects against spinal defects in the fetus.

Symptoms of Anemia

Symptoms of more severe anemia include rapid heartbeat, dizziness, headache, ringing in the ears, irritability, pale skin, restless leg syndrome, and confusion. A vitamin B12 or folic acid deficiency may even cause your mouth and tongue to swell. These symptoms may sound scary, but the most common forms of anemia are easily treated, especially if caught early.

Symptoms of mild to moderate anemia:

  • weakness
  • fatigue
  • shortness of breath

Symptoms of moderate to severe anemia:

  • rapid heartbeat
  • dizziness
  • headache
  • ringing in the ears
  • pale skin (especially the palms of your hands), pale or bluish fingernails
  • hair loss
  • restless leg syndrome
  • confusion

Symptom specific to severe vitamin B12 or folic acid deficiency anemia:

  • swelling of the mouth or tongue

Symptoms specific to pernicious anemia:

  • numbness, tingling
  • depression and/or irritability
  • memory loss
  • To see all of our home remedies and the conditions they treat, go to our main Home Remedies page.
  • To learn more about how Vitamin B12 can help you avoid anemia, read How Vitamin B12 Works.
  • Folate found in spinach and other vegetables can help protect you against anemia.  Read about these food sources here in How Folate Works.
  • For more tips on the different types of vitamins that can help you lead a healthy lifestyle, visit our main Vitamins page.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.