Do you have a much higher resting pulse rate than you used to? Do you assume it’s because you’re overweight or out of shape?
Does your heart race at times, especially upon exertion, such as walking up a flight of stairs? Do you feel breathless or lightheaded? Does it take more time than in the past to get your breath back? Do you feel like you might have heart problems but heart and stress tests are normal?
Do you have concentration or memory issues and assume it’s age or menopause? Do you live in a brain fog all or some of the time? Do you have vision disturbances or blurriness that fluctuate and are not solved by an eyeglass prescription? Is your hair falling out?
Are you pale and assume it’s because you’ve been working too much and haven’t been outside? Do you feel everything you have to do is physically overwhelming, and you can’t keep up?
Are a combination of these factors making you depressed? Have you been gaining weight? Have you been tested for underactive thyroid but it came back normal? Have you been accused of having blood sugar swings but the numbers remain well within normal boundaries during fasting, after eating a meal, or even after consuming higher amounts of sugar?
Do you have cravings or feel “unsatisfied” (one reason for weight gain)? Do you have heavy and/or frequent periods?
Are you afraid you are not keeping up at work and your boss might perceive you as a slacker?
If you answered yes to any of these, you may have anemia.
Anemia is more than exhaustion, breathlessness, or feeling out of shape
If you have anemia symptoms, have your hemoglobin checked and save yourself a great deal of grief!
The Mayo Clinic: Hemoglobin test
MedicineNet: How is hemoglobin measured?
The hemoglobin or iron test is a blood test prescribed by a doctor, but the doctor has to specifically request it by checking it off on a blood form you take to a laboratory. Treatment can range from eating iron-rich foods to consuming concentrated iron tablets. (Take these only on the advice of a doctor and when you’re anemic, since high levels of iron can be dangerous! Hemoglobin levels should be monitored during treatment.)
Our blood needs hemoglobin to carry oxygen to cells, which then carry out all our daily functions and repairs. If you do not have enough hemoglobin, your body is oxygen starved and cannot function properly.
MedicineNet: What are normal hemoglobin values?
Have you ever heard, “If you exercise, you will have more energy”? This is true for a healthy person whose blood carries adequate oxygen, but if even the thought of moderate exercise makes you feel faint, or you’ve increased your physical output slightly and have been wiped out for hours afterward, it could be a warning sign. In fact, if you exert yourself, you are further taxing your heart.
The following list is a compilation of symptoms I experienced during the years I had undiagnosed anemia, which grew increasingly severe over many years. Not everyone will experience all of these, but if you experience some of them, it’s not a bad idea to check your hemoglobin levels. Many North American girls and women are slightly anemic and don’t know it. (Women are more prone to anemia in pregnancy and due to monthly blood loss through periods, but men can also be anemic under some circumstances. Again, do not take iron supplements beyond the amount in a multivitamin unless you have checked with your doctor!)
Note that anemia symptoms can mimic heart problems and blood pressure issues. Other symptoms are similar to signs of menopause, aging, and even underactive thyroid. If you are sleep deprived, you may believe you are tired or have symptoms due to that. Test your iron to be sure.
My list–you may not experience all of these:
Symptoms of Anemia
- high resting heart rate (heart beats faster to circulate less blood)
- racing heart upon exertion, heart palpitations, irregular heartbeat
- feeling lightheaded, faint, or breathless at any time, but especially during even mild physical exertion
- high blood pressure (body’s adaptation to chronic anemia)
- shaking or lack of coordination lasting for some time after mild or moderate exertion such as taking in groceries, walking up a flight of stairs, etc.
- chronic exhaustion, lack of energy
- concentration and memory problems
- cold all the time
- substantial, ongoing hair loss (handfuls per day–in the shower and when brushing hair)
- rapid greying of hair (this may have other causes, including genetics)
- digestion problems, inadequate nutrient absorption
- food cravings, weight gain (searching for nutrients)
- skin lesions that won’t heal, reduced overall healing
- vision disturbances (distance and reading), fluctuating blurriness (fine one day, blurry the next), which may be blamed on blood sugar (Type 2 Diabetes or precursor)
- heavy menstrual bleeding, or increase in severity or frequency
- can’t hold breath more than a few seconds
- loss of endurance (normal daily activities are exhausting and overwhelming)
- reduction of all but the most critical daily activities; difficulty keeping up with the demands of work, housework, kids
- inability to exercise; the thought of exercising instills terror
- loss of interest in activities; avoiding fun activities (take too much energy)
- loss of confidence, depression (can’t keep up with the demands of work, chores, life)
- feeling “off,” like you’re not yourself
- affecting relationships with spouse, people in the workplace, friends
- symptoms similar to perimenopause, menopause, aging, lack of fitness, sleep deprivation, overwork
Anemia can be treated
If you have even some of these symptoms, see a qualified medical professional to rule out underactive thyroid, abnormal blood sugar levels, eye problems, heart problems, causes of high blood pressure, and any other potentially serious health issues. Certain gynecological disorders such as endometriosis or adenomyosis also increase the risk of anemia. Low iron levels are an indicator of anemia.
The symptoms of anemia can be insidious, very mild at first and increasing slowly over time, making them difficult to detect.
I attributed my symptoms to decreased function because of age and lack of exercise. I was also working several jobs and going through life crises, so exhaustion was expected. I thought some of the other symptoms were due to stress. My health was failing because I couldn’t look after myself properly, I thought. It was hard to see a doctor around my work schedule.
With my medical knowledge and a genetic history of anemia, I should have known better.
I missed the signs because they crept up slowly, but also because anemia affected my mental acuity, because I was too exhausted to think or act, and because I was in survival mode, putting my personal and health needs last. And, I’ll admit–in case you recognize yourself–one part of me still believed I was invincible and would recover as soon as my crises were over, and another part of me had a deep-seated fear that something very serious was wrong, something like cancer or heart issues, neither of which I had the emotional, financial, or time resources to deal with during those years.
Don’t let this happen to you.
Since my diagnosis and treatment of anemia
For me, eating iron-rich foods and an iron tablet prescription helped, but my underlying issue was advanced adenomyosis, for which I had major abdominal surgery (done in only 10% of cases) in 2014. This solved the main problem, but I still have to be vigilant about my iron levels, since it is a genetic tendency.
Today, most of my skin lesions have healed, my hair has thickened, and I can exercise again. My complexion is pink, not white, and I can keep up with a pretty hectic schedule.
How much irreparable damage has been done, I do not know. I feel better and my organs must have healed considerably, but is it enough? I also still carry extra weight and my muscles have weakened.
But I have begun to get excited about physical endeavours, about challenging and pushing myself like I used to. This is a big deal because these same thoughts would have made me feel like passing out before the surgery.
More recently, I have become more mindful about the number of hours per week I work, creating a better work-life balance. In that regard, luck and time have come into play; in past years as a single parent supporting several children, I didn’t have a choice.
Healing takes time
I have a number of patchy memories I tend not to dwell upon. When I look back now, those years were absolutely horrific. But at the time, all I knew was that I had to keep going, had to go to work and other work, had to pay the rent and feed my kids. Failure or disability were luxuries I could not afford. I had tunnel vision and a voice inside that beat like a war drum: go–go–go. Just keep moving, one day at a time.
Some of my lasting damage is psychological. I am slowly beginning to relearn that I can increase my physical output without being out of commission for hours afterward. Years of habits, mindsets, and experiences must be reversed.
I have shared this story because I hope it helps others. I missed the signs because they were too easy to explain by overwork, stress, age, approaching menopause, and lack of opportunity to stay in shape. I also missed the signs because I was in survival mode, wasn’t paying attention, and the symptoms crept up subtly over time.
Most anemia cases are milder than my experience. But this has taught me something and serves as a warning: Get checked!
Disclaimer: The information in this article is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis, or treatment by a licensed physician. It is not meant to cover all symptoms or circumstances. You should seek prompt medical care for any health issues and consult your doctor before using iron tablets, medications, alternative treatments, or making a change to your regimen. You should also consult your doctor before increasing your physical exertion or beginning exercise programs.