Looking pale? Feeling weak and tired? There's a quick blood test available to assess whether anaemia is to blame – and if so, whether it's caused by iron-poor blood or something else.

What is it?

Anaemia is a condition in which there is a shortage of red cells in the body or a deficiency of haemoglobin (the pigment that carries oxygen) in these cells. When anaemia occurs, the body doesn't get enough oxygen, and weakness and fatigue result. Although symptoms may not appear – or may be very mild – for a long time, the condition can be life-threatening if it is left undiagnosed and untreated. If you suspect you are anaemic, it's essential for you to see your doctor promptly to ascertain the underlying cause of the problem. Treatment will vary, depending on the diagnosis.

What causes it?

Iron deficiency, which is the most common cause of anaemia, affects 2-5% of Australian adults. It usually results from a gradual, prolonged blood loss, which depletes the body's iron reserves. Without enough iron, haemoglobin levels fall. Menstruating women, particularly those whose periods are heavy, are prone to iron deficiency anaemia. However, both men and women can develop this problem as a result of any condition that causes slow bleeding – including long-term haemorrhoids, rectal polyps or ulcers; stomach or colon cancer; or prolonged use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin or ibuprofen. Iron-deficiency anaemia can rarely be attributed simply to lack of this mineral in the diet.

Less common is anaemia that results from a deficiency of vitamin B12 (in which case it's called pernicious anaemia) or folic acid. Both of these nutrients are essential to red blood cell production. Alcoholics, smokers, people with certain digestive disorders, vegetarians, those over the age of 50 and pregnant or lactating women are the most likely to be at risk because of poor nutrition or an inability to absorb these nutrients properly. Other forms of anaemia can be traced to chronic illnesses such as cancer, lupus or rheumatoid arthritis; hereditary disorders such as sickle-cell anaemia; or exposure to toxic drugs, chemicals or radiation.

What are the symptoms?

  • Weakness, fatigue, dizziness, irritability or mental confusion.
  • Paleness, especially of the gums and eyelids or under the nails.
  • Palpitations; shortness of breath.
  • Sores in the mouth or tongue; unusual bruising or bleeding.
  • Numbness or tingling of the feet or legs.
  • Nausea and diarrhoea.

Are there any natural therapies?

Before taking supplements to correct anaemia, you need to determine the underlying cause of the condition. It's especially important to consult a doctor if you have iron-deficiency anaemia, which may be caused by internal bleeding. If you're advised to take supplements, have blood tests every month to see if they are worthwhile.

If iron-deficiency anaemia is diagnosed, the mineral iron combined with vitamin C may be of value. Iron is a key component of haemoglobin, and vitamin C helps the body absorb the mineral. Take iron only under your doctor's supervision, because too much can be dangerous.

Various herbs may also be useful. Yellow dock has modest amounts of iron, but it's well absorbed and can raise blood iron levels. Other iron-rich herbs include seaweed and dulse. Taken as a tincture, juice or tea, some herbs (dandelion, burdock, mint and linden flowers) may enhance the body's ability to absorb iron from foods or supplements.

Vitamin C may also be beneficial if you have anaemia caused by a deficiency of vitamin B12 or folic acid; it helps the body to absorb these nutrients. Vitamin B12 and folic acid should always be taken in tandem, because a high intake of one can mask a deficiency of the other. Together they work to boost production of red blood cells. Once anaemia is corrected and the problem with absorption has been ruled out as a cause, the amount of B12 and folic acid in your daily multivitamin may be sufficient to prevent a recurrence.

What else can I do?

Eat food rich in iron (dried beans, liver, red meat, dried fruits, nuts and shellfish); folic acid (citrus fruits, asparagus, spinach, mushrooms, liver, soybeans and wheat germ); and vitamn B12 (liver, shellfish, lamb, beef, cheese, fish and eggs).

Did you know?

Most postmenopausal women, and men of all ages, get plenty of iron in their diet and may be better off not taking a multivitamin and mineral supplement that contains it. Iron overload affects one in 300 Australians of Caucasian background. Excess iron acts as an 'oxidant', generating harmful molecules called free radicals that can raise cholesterol and block arteries. Too much iron has been linked to heart disease – so don't take iron supplements unless your doctor says you need them.