Treat Anemia with Functional Medicine

Anemia may be the root cause of many chronic conditions such as headache, migraine, mood disorders, and fatigue.  Getting assessed by a functional medicine provider trained in the diagnosis and treatment of anemia may be the missing link towards optimal health.  In this blog post I will be focusing on iron deficiency anemia as it is the most prevalent in our clinical practice.  While both males and females can be affected by anemia, females are affected at a much higher rate.  

What is anemia?

Anemia is defined as a low red blood cell count (RBC), low hemoglobin (Hgb), and a low hematocrit (red blood cell concentration in whole blood). Iron deficiency anemia, or IDA, is defined as a microcytic, hypochromic anemia, where the red blood cells are small in size and pale in color due to poor hemoglobin concentration. These red blood cells do not carry oxygen as efficiently, and your tissues can become hypoxic or starved of oxygen. As a result, your heart pumps faster to try and bring more oxygen to the tissues. Additionally, your brain gets less oxygen which causes headaches and mental fatigue.  Symptoms of anemia include fatigue, cold hands/feet, rapid or irregular heart rate, headaches, dizziness and lightheadedness, pale or yellow skin, and shortness of breath. When iron status is addressed, we have seen issues like anxiety, depression, and insomnia improve drastically in our patients. 

There are many types of anemias that can affect the body. For instance, Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) and Vitamin B9 (folate) deficiencies can cause anemia.  These anemias will present as a ‘macrocytic’ anemia where red blood count is low and the red blood cells actually become larger as part of the deficiency.  When assessing your bloodwork for anemia and any other condition, make sure to consult with a physician trained in functional medicine.

How do you measure it?

To assess iron status, we order a simple test called plasma ferritin. Ferritin is your body’s storage form of iron and is in largest concentration in your liver, spleen, and bone marrow. Small amounts of ferritin circulate in your bloodstream in direct proportion to the amount of ferritin stored in tissues. Normal values for ferritin vary with age and sex, and good laboratories will provide age and sex specific reference ranges. The lab reference ranges for ferritin are typically quite large, e.g. 16-154 ng/ mL for a 40 year old female, meaning stricter ‘functional ranges’ need to be used for clinical decision making. Using functional medicine standards, we prefer to see ferritin levels above 100 ng/ mL. It’s important to note too much iron is also a problem, and can cause conditions such as iron overload or hemochromatosis.  

What to do: 

If your ferritin levels are low, look to optimize digestion of iron by taking a hydrochloric acid supplement which will help increase the acidity of your gut. Having an appropriately low stomach pH (more acidic) is necessary for the proper digestion of iron, vitamin B12, calcium, and magnesium among other vital nutrients. For more information, refer to my blog post on stomach acid and digestion here.  

To improve iron status it’s important to consume foods high in iron. Animal protein is one of the best ways to get iron. Red meat, organ meats, shellfish, and turkey are excellent ways to increase iron status when paired with optimal digestion. Cooking daily with a cast iron skillet is another easy way to improve iron status. One of my favorite iron and vitamin B12 rich meals is a grass fed ribeye steak cooked with butter or coconut oil in a cast iron skillet. Another option is to use an ‘iron fish’ which can be dropped into warm beverages and will safely release iron into your drink. Consider using an iron fish in hot water with honey and apple cider vinegar. The apple cider vinegar will help increase gut acidity and improve iron absorption.  

Take action!

If you can relate to the symptoms described above, make sure to get a ferritin and complete blood count (CBC) test as soon as possible from your doctor. It’s always better to ‘test rather than guess’ because too much iron can also be problematic. The tests are simple and inexpensive so don’t hesitate to ask your doctor to order it for you. Having healthy red blood cells is essential for optimal health, and a CBC test looking at iron levels will help determine what steps you may need to take to improve your overall well-being. 

Post written by Dr. Riley Kulm, DC.  Check out his bio here.

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