Anemia affects an estimated 400 million women worldwide, and most women are unaware of the symptoms and tend to attribute such mild symptoms to the stresses of modern life. It literally means "without blood" and refers to a condition in which the blood is deficient in red blood cells (RBC's) or the hemoglobin (iron-containing) portion of RBC's.

The primary function of the RBC's is to transport oxygen from the lungs to the cells of the body in exchange for carbon dioxide. Because the cells have less oxygen available to them, they have less energy to perform their normal functions.

Anemia is caused by excessive blood loss, excessive RBC destruction or deficient RBC production. There are several types, with iron deficiency anemia being the most common. Iron is an important factor because it is used to make hemoglobin. In the US, 20% of all women of childbearing age have iron deficiency anemia, compared to only 2% of men. The difference is that women can lose an excessive amount of blood during menstruation.

Also, not eating enough iron-rich foods or not absorbing enough iron can compound the problem. Chronic diseases that inhibit formation of new blood or cause blood loss can contribute to anemia. Examples of such diseases are peptic ulcer, bone marrow disease and bleeding hemorrhoids.

In the Chinese medical tradition, blood is the material foundation for bone, nerve, skin, muscle and organ creation. It also contains the Shen (spirit) which balances the psyche. Iron-deficiency anemia comes closest to the usual description of what is called "blood deficiency" in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). But the TCM view of blood deficiency doesn't completely correspond to the Western medical concept of anemia. From a symptomatic perspective, there are typical indicators of blood deficiency, which sometimes overlap and sometimes differ in the two medical systems.

If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms- pale or sallow complexion, pale lips and nailbeds, fatigue, dizziness, increased heart rate, sore or swollen tongue, shortness of breath, headache, irritability, and ringing in the ears-you may be anemic. Some people display an unusual symptom of having cravings for ice, dirt or paint. Look for these symptoms as well: blood deficiency in TCM can present with heart palpitations, blurry vision, insomnia, numbness of the limbs, scanty periods, delayed menstruation, or no periods. Also there could be unusual hair loss, premature graying and thin dry hair, dry skin and poor appetite.

The first step in treating anemia is to pinpoint the underlying cause through a complete diagnostic workup by a qualified health care professional. If you have a disease that causes anemia, such as peptic ulcer, you'll need to get the condition under control. If it's due to a poor diet, this can be easily corrected. If you suspect that you might be anemic, we can order a blood test that measures your RBC's, hemoglobin, hematocrit and serum ferritin (determines body iron stores).

Treatment of iron deficiency anemia with TCM most often revolves around acupuncture and Chinese herbs to nourish the blood and tonify the qi (energy), along with recommending a diet rich in iron. Then, if necessary, iron supplements can be used. The recommended daily allowance for iron ranges from 6 mg for infants to 30 mg for pregnant women. Consult your practitioner for proper dosage. One needs to be careful in not getting too much iron from supplements; excessive amounts of iron can cause constipation, impair the uptake of essential trace minerals, and at worst, high levels of iron in the blood may increase the risk of a heart attack. You can increase dietary fiber to prevent constipation.

Foods to eat that are good sources of iron for mild cases of anemia or blood deficiency are green, leafy vegetables, dried beans, blackstrap molasses, dried apricots, prunes, raisins and other dried fruits, almonds, seaweeds, parsley, whole grains and yams. When anemia or blood deficiency is severe, try beef liver, lean meat, oysters, lamb or chicken.

Foods high in vitamin C, such as citrus, tomatoes and strawberries or vitamin C supplements greatly enhance the absorption of iron from foods. Foods to avoid that interfere with iron absorption are tea, coffee, wheat bran, spinach, Swiss chard, rhubarb, chocolate, soft drinks, beer, ice cream and candy bars. Antacids and overuse of calcium supplements also decreases iron absorption.