At least 27% of people in the world are thought to be anaemic. Most of them live in third world countries, with Indians accounting for at least a quarter of the whole. Anaemia in women is one of the most common deficiencies in India. As per a survey conducted by NFHS in 2016, 58.6% children, 50.4% pregnant women, and 53.2% non-pregnant women of India are suffering from anaemia. Despite having an anaemia control program for over 55 years, half the population of women and children still reel under the deficiency. As the numbers show, it is a major public health concern today. So we need to act now and act fast. But before jumping on to conclusions, let us take a look at the nature of this disorder!
What is Anaemia?
Anaemia is the condition wherein the haemoglobin levels decrease below the required amount. This in turn leads to a reduction in the number of oxygen carrying cells or Red Blood Cells (RBCs). The red blood cells are responsible for transporting oxygen to the organs. Low haemoglobin leads to low oxygen, thereby resulting in weakness and fatigue.
In men: As per the WHO recommendations, if the haemoglobin concentration drops below 13 g/dL, the individual is considered to be anaemic. A value lesser than 8 mg/dL, further indicates severe anaemia.
In women: A non-pregnant woman is considered to be anaemic if her haemoglobin level falls below 12 g/dL. WHO classifies pregnant women with less than 11 g/dL in the 1-3 trimesters and less than 10.5 g/dL in the 2 trimester as anaemic.
Types of Anaemia
Although iron deficiency is generally linked to anaemia, there are various other types of anaemia which may be caused by a separate underlying disease. Here are a few to illustrate:
Iron Deficiency Anaemia: This is the most common form of anaemia found in pregnant women. It is caused by a deficiency of iron. Thankfully, it can be treated with supplements and an iron-rich diet. Thus, it is important to supplement the needs of iron for pregnant women.
Thalassemia: This is a genetic disorder that leads to low haemoglobin levels. Severely ill patients of thalassemia need a frequent blood transfusion. At times, even a stem cell transplant may be needed.
Sickle Cell Anaemia: This is an incurable form of anaemia in which the red blood cells die out too soon. Hence, there is a shortage of RBCs in the body, which further reduces the amount of oxygen in the blood. It can be managed with proper medication.
Vitamin Deficiency Anaemia: For better absorption of iron in the body, the body needs certain vitamins, especially Vitamin C and Vitamin B-12. If these vitamins are deficient, it would lead to a drop in iron levels. This form of anaemia can generally be corrected by a conscious dietary intake.
Aplastic Anaemia: In this form of anaemia, the body stops producing red blood cells. This is a very severe form and may need immediate medical attention.
Symptoms of Anaemia
The most common symptom of anaemia in women is fatigue and weakness. Unfortunately, it is generally dismissed as tiredness caused by professional and household chores. The low haemoglobin levels in the body further aggravate the iron deficiency symptoms in women. So, if you’ve been feeling tired all the while, it is time to get yourself tested:
Physical ailments: Fatigue, weakness, dizziness, cold limbs and general irritability.
Poor skin health: Pale skin leaning towards yellowish skin tone and brittle nails.
Abnormal vital signs: You may experience chest pain, shortness of breath and irregular heartbeats.
Cravings: Urge to consume inedible things such as ice or chalk. This tendency is called pica.
Why Women Are More Anaemic in INDIA
In India, more than half the population of women is anaemic. What is it which makes women more prone to anaemia? Well, the answer to that is quite complicated. So, let us take a minute delve into some of the factors:
Menstruation: During their reproductive age, women lose a significant amount of blood during the monthly menstrual cycle. If the red blood cells lost during menstruation are not replaced by an equal number of cells, it can lead to iron deficiency anaemia.
Increased requirement of iron during pregnancy and breastfeeding: Pregnant women require at least 1000 mg of iron on a daily basis, for the development of the fetus. However, a large amount of iron is lost during delivery. If breastfeeding is continued after the start of menstruation, it may also lead to a deficiency of iron.
Largely Vegetarian diet: If you thought vegan is the way - this might come as a shock to you! There are two types of iron found in food- heme iron and nonheme iron. While heme iron is found in meat and poultry, non-heme iron is largely plant-based. Interestingly, the absorption rate of heme iron is far more than non-heme iron. Thus, a vegetarian diet can be insufficient to replenish your iron needs.
Genetics: Certain Indian ethnic groups are genetically more prone to iron deficiency. For instance, almost 10% Thalassemia cases in the world are found in India. The Indian community is also prone to developing sickle cell anaemia.
Nutrition: Being a developing country, most of the Indian population falls under low income and middle income groups. These groups usually have poor dietary practices. Thus, lack of essential vitamins like Vitamin B12, Vitamin B9 and Vitamin C in their diet can increase their risk of anaemia.
Tips To Increase Iron
A number of symptoms of anaemia in females can be curbed with the right dietary habits and supplements. Since anaemia is caused by low levels of iron in the body, one must consume an iron rich diet. It can be further supplemented with fortified iron foods.
- Increase consumption of iron rich foods, like green leafy vegetables, fruits etc.
Heme Iron: This is only found in animal foods like, eggs, poultry goods, meat, seafood etc. Such kind of iron can be easily absorbed in the body.
Non-Heme Iron: This is obtained from plant based sources. Examples of foods rich in non-heme iron include leafy greens esp. spinach and kale, legumes, seeds, nuts, beans, dark chocolate, etc. The body is not able to absorb non-heme iron efficiently. Thus people who are purely vegetarian must consider consuming iron fortified foods or supplements. To increase iron absorption, you may pair iron-rich food with Vitamin C rich items.
- Increase the intake of foods rich in Vitamin B12 like dairy products or meat.
- Avoid caffeinated drinks like tea as much as possible. They can interfere with the absorption of iron. Try to keep an ideal gap of 2 hours between your meals and tea breaks.
Before it gets too late, consult your physician to plan a healthy diet plan. Don’t forget - a conscious effort today, saves from problems of tomorrow!