Living With Iron Deficiency Anemia

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Iron deficiency anemia (IDA) occurs when the body lacks enough iron to produce all of the hemoglobin necessary for healthy red blood cells (RBCs). Hemoglobin carries oxygen throughout the body.

You may have fatigue weakness, exercise intolerance, or headaches for up to six to eight weeks after you have begun iron replacement therapy. These symptoms are likely to affect your day-to-day function and your quality of life.

If you have not seen any substantial improvement in your symptoms after eight weeks or so, or if your symptoms seem particularly severe, let your doctor know. You may need treatment in addition to iron supplements. Keep reading to learn how to manage the emotional, physical, and social effects of IDA.

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Emotional

Studies have found a link between iron deficiency and mental health. People living with IDA can experience multiple psychological symptoms, including anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder.

There are many different things you can do to manage and lessen the emotional effects of IDA. Talk to your doctor if you find you are struggling to cope with the emotional effects of IDA.

There are different options to help you manage anxiety or depression. This might include:

  • Talk therapy: Also called psychotherapy, you talk to a psychotherapist and work through the root causes of anxiety and depression. Up to 75% of people find talk therapy helpful. Reviews find most people who engage in talk therapy are better off by the end of treatment than 80% of people who don’t attempt therapy.
  • Medication: If symptoms of anxiety and depression are severe and/or affecting your quality of life, your doctor can recommend different medicine options, including anti-anxiety medicines and antidepressants, to reduce symptoms of anxiety or to help improve your mood.

Physical

IDA generally isn’t serious in the long term, but symptoms can affect your daily quality of life. Fortunately, there are things you can do to manage some of these symptoms while your iron levels improve. In particular, it is important to manage fatigue and address the underlying causes of IDA.

Manage Fatigue

Fatigue connected to IDA can make you feel weak and tired.

One of the best ways to manage anemia-related fatigue is to try and get sufficient sleep. However, you will want to avoid sleeping too much because that will add to fatigue. Instead, aim to get seven to nine hours of sleep every night. Naps are fine but limit yourself to one short 20- to 30-minute nap a day.

Additional ways to manage fatigue are:

  • Diet: To keep your energy up, eat smaller meals and healthy snacks every three to four hours, rather than large meals less often.
  • Get moving: IDA can take away the energy you need to exercise. But exercise can make you less tired long-term, and you will have more energy. Try to do what you can to keep moving. Even a short 10- to 15-minute walk a day can boost your energy and help you to increase activity levels gradually.
  • Reduce stress: The stress associated with not feeling well takes a lot of energy. Conserve your energy by making use of relaxation activities throughout your day. Manage stress by working out, spending time with friends, listening to music, or practicing yoga or relaxation breathing.
  • Cut out caffeine: Caffeine is found in coffees, teas, colas, energy drinks, and even pain medications and herbal supplements. By cutting down on caffeine, you might find yourself less tired. You will want to cut down on caffeine slowly to avoid caffeine withdrawal headaches.
  • Drink less alcohol: While alcohol can help you fall asleep, you sleep less deeply after consuming it. That means you will be tired the next day, even if you have gotten a full night’s sleep. Avoid alcohol at bedtime to improve energy levels.
  • Drink more water: Being dehydrated—even mildly—can add to your fatigue regardless of what has caused it. Ensure you are drinking plenty of water and water-filled foods, such as fruits and vegetables, to help replenish water in your body and maintain energy.

Address Underlying Causes

Treatment for IDA won’t help much if underlying causes of IDA are not addressed.  Common causes of IDA include:

  • A diet low in iron
  • The body not being able to absorb iron due to a condition like celiac disease
  • Pregnancy because the body has more blood volume to maintain
  • Conditions that cause chronic inflammation

Work with your doctor to investigate and treat the root cause of your IDA. Treatment of that condition is often vital to replacing iron and increasing hemoglobin.

Social

Treatment for IDA may include taking iron supplements and eating an iron-rich diet to improve iron levels. You may start to feel better in a couple of weeks, but it may take several months to build up a steady supply of iron in your body.

In the meantime, IDA can have both emotional and physical effects, and you might need support from family and friends to manage tasks and the physical and emotional effects. It can be helpful to reach out to family and friends when you are struggling with high levels of fatigue and severe IDA symptoms.

This support can help you manage household tasks or care for loved ones. They might be able to help with preparing meals and caring for young children. But your family and friends won’t know that you need help or how you feel if you don’t speak up.

Try to communicate clearly and directly to loved ones. This is especially important on days where fatigue, headaches, and other IDA symptoms are making it hard to get through your day. Let people know how you are feeling, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Practical

Fatigue is not the only symptom of IDA you will need to manage so that you can better cope. In addition, you will want to pay attention to your diet.

Symptom Management

Pica, headache, cold hands and feet, fast heartbeat, and shortness of breath are common symptoms of IDA that are manageable.

Manage Pica

Pica is the term used to describe cravings for nonfood items, such as dirt, paper, and chalk. This is something that occurs in pregnant people and children who have IDA.

If you or your child experience this symptom, it is important to let your doctor know so you have a complete understanding of the risks associated with pica. Consider possible substitutes for your cravings, such as sugarless chewing gum, or ask a friend or family member to help you avoid nonfood items.

Treat Headache Symptoms

Headache is a common symptom associated with IDA. Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers can be helpful, but if you find you are still struggling with headache symptoms, talk to your doctor. If you are pregnant, ask your doctor which OTC pain relievers might be safe for you to take.

Many different prescription therapies can help manage and prevent headaches associated with IDA, including prescription headache medicine and antidepressants. Relaxation therapies like biofeedback and eating a healthy, balanced diet can also help to manage headaches.

Keep Your Body Warm

Feeling cold in your hands and feet is common with IDA. Wearing appropriate footwear and socks can keep feet warm. Wearing mittens and gloves can keep hands warm. You might also consider your core temperature and wear thin, layered clothing to keep the rest of your body warm.

It might also be helpful to avoid caffeine and nicotine because they are vasoconstrictors and can exacerbate cold.

Reduce Triggers of Fast Heartbeat and Shortness of Breath

Unless your doctor diagnoses you with a heart condition, these symptoms as they pertain to IDA do not require treatment. But your doctor will still want you to find ways to avoid triggers of a fast heartbeat or shortness of breath. Triggers might include caffeine, stress, and overexertion.

You can reduce triggers by utilizing relaxation techniques (yoga, meditation, or deep breathing) and avoiding stimulants, including caffeine and nicotine.

When To Get Help

While IDA does cause a fast heart rate and shortness of breath, you should still pay attention to these symptoms and know when to reach out to your doctor or call 911.

You should get immediate medical help for:

  • Any new chest pain or discomfort that is severe, unexpected, and comes with shortness of breath, weakness, sweating, and nausea
  • A fast heart rate of 120 to 150 beats per minute, especially if you are short of breath or dizzy
  • Shortness of breath not relieved by resting 

Your Diet

The single most important thing you can do to manage IDA and to better cope with the condition is to prioritize your diet. Diet is vital and helpful to managing many IDA symptoms and preventing the emotional effects of IDA:

  • Eat an iron-rich diet: Good sources of iron include lean meat and chicken, dark leafy vegetables, and beans.
  • Eat and drink foods that help iron absorption: Orange juice, strawberries, and a variety of fruits and vegetables that contain vitamin C help increase iron levels in the body.
  • Eat a healthy diet: Most people can get iron and vital nutrients by eating a healthy and well-balanced diet.
  • Avoid caffeine: Caffeine-containing foods and drinks can make it harder to absorb iron. You don’t have to completely rid your diet of caffeine, but avoid consuming caffeine with an iron-rich meal or with iron supplements.

Summary

Iron deficiency anemia can produce symptoms such as fatigue that impact your daily life. It can increase your risk of anxiety and depression. You can use strategies to manage the fatigue, including changes to sleep, diet, and activity. You may need help and support from family, friends, and medical professionals.

A Word From Verywell

Iron deficiency anemia is rarely a long-term condition. But as you wait for your iron levels to improve, be patient with yourself. You will have times where your symptoms, including fatigue and depression, are worse and other times where they are better.

Changes to diet, remembering to take supplements and other treatments, and conserving energy might seem challenging at first, but it will eventually become second nature. Take on changes one step at a time, and keep moving forward. Ask for help if you need it—from loved ones or a medical professional. 

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Article Sources
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