BY Dr. Sanjiva Wijesinha

The term ‘anaemia’ is derived from two Greek words – an (meaning ‘without’) and haima (which means ‘blood’). So anaemia translates into ‘lacking blood.’

A human body has about five litres of the vital fluid, which is contained within a system of blood vessels that comprises the circulatory system. Blood is a clear liquid that derives its colour from red blood cells in circulation.

These erythrocytes function by moving around in the circulating fluid, picking up oxygen from the lungs and carrying it to all parts of the body and releasing it to our cells.

The function of combining with oxygen in the lungs and releasing it when the erythrocytes come in contact with the cells is due to a substance called ‘haemoglobin’ in the red blood cells.

To carry out its function of conveying oxygen (which is essential for cellular function) to the cells, the circulating fluid must have an adequate number of red blood cells – each of which needs to contain sufficient haemoglobin.

A red blood cell lasts for about 120 days; and as a result, the body has to keep manufacturing new erythrocytes constantly to maintain an adequate supply. This production takes place in the bone marrow.

Therefore, any disease of the marrow (such as leukaemia or multiple myeloma) or a lack of the raw materials needed to manufacture erythrocytes (such as protein and iron, and vitamins B9 and B12) can result in a reduced number of red blood cells being produced. An abnormal loss of blood (as during heavy menstruation; major injuries; surgical opera­tions; or the slow leakage of blood from haemorrhoids, stomach ulcers or growths in the bowel) can reduce the body’s population of red cells.

If one considers the body’s red cell production as being analogous to a business producing essential goods, a scarcity of blood can be the result of either overconsumption of the finished product (blood loss), lack of raw materials for production (malnutrition – both quantitative and qualitative) or the malfunctioning of the factory (bone marrow disease).

A lack of red blood cells (which can result from the body losing the same in larger than usual quantities), as well as a lack of adequate haemoglobin (which can arise if something goes wrong with the manufacture of red blood cells) will result in anaemia.

If someone develops symptoms of anaemia or is shown to be anaemic during a routine blood test, doctors have to decide if the problem is due to blood loss or inadequate red cell production. And if a source of blood loss is discovered, this must be corrected.

In case production is at fault and provided the marrow isn’t diseased, correcting one’s diet is often all that is needed. Natural dietary iron is found in dark red meats as well as dark-green leaves.

Drinking tea while eating food that contains iron hinders its absorption and consuming such items along with acidic orange or lemon juice enhances absorption of that metallic element.

Anaemia is a common occur­rence. Checking your blood count is recommended before you begin manifesting symp­toms of anaemia such as turning pale, and becoming breathless and tired – because in many instances, anaemia can be rectified with the right therapeutic measures.