Anemia is a relatively common condition, particularly in menstruating women and in people who follow a vegetarian diet. Nevertheless, anemia is a blood disorder and can be quite serious. It’s caused by a lack of healthy red blood cells, which may be due to excessive blood loss or inadequate nutrition. Symptoms can include easy bruising, tiredness and lethargy, paleness, and lack of concentration. Pica—a craving for substances other than food (like ice, cornstarch, laundry starch, or dirt)—can also be a sign of anemia.
Anemia can sometimes signal an underlying condition, such as celiac disease or hypothyroidism. If you suspect that you suffer from anemia, consult your doctor. Iron supplements can frequently correct less acute anemia. Dietary alterations also may make a difference. Consider cutting out items such as wine, tea, and soy, which can block iron absorption. It also may be helpful to add iron-rich foods, such as spinach, beets, beans, and nuts, to your diet. For non-vegetarians, poultry, fish, or meat (especially liver) can provide iron from the blood protein hemoglobin, which the body more readily absorbs. Other foods rich in non-hemoglobin iron include quinoa (a grain), raisins, and blackstrap molasses.
You recently answered a question from a vegetarian blood donor who has low hemoglobin. He was concerned about caffeine. I too am a vegetarian and donate blood every 56 days. I do not consume caffeine, but my iron level at times has been too low to allow me to donate. I was told that tea (even herbal and decaf) robs the body of iron. So a week before I donate, I stop drinking tea. Since I started doing that, I have not had a problem with my iron level. For a hot drink before donating, the donor should try a tablespoonful of blackstrap molasses in hot water. It’ll warm him up and provide iron.
Thanks for the recommendation for the iron-rich hot drink using blackstrap molasses. Caffeine doesn’t affect iron levels, but many kinds of hot drinks have tannins and polyphenols that can interfere with iron absorption. Tea is rich in these compounds, and coffee and cocoa can also hinder iron absorption. So can herbal teas made from peppermint or chamomile.
Joe Graedon & Terry Graedon, The People’s Pharmacy: Quick & Handy Home Remedies, published by National Geographic