I’ll never forget what it felt like to faint on the teacher’s desk in front of the entire class in fourth grade. As you can imagine, it was quite the spectacle. From a young age, I dealt with dizzy fainting spells. If I was outside at a carnival or festival and it was too hot, I would black out. To this day, if my showers are too hot and I haven’t eaten, my vision can go blurry and a loud “shhhh” sound blasts in my ears. I always have to be extra careful not to stand up abruptly. I was the girl in high school who carried glucose tabs when I got too weak.
Little did the doctors and I know in fourth grade that down the road when I turned 21 I would be diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. To this day I wonder if my anemia from a young age was a sign of what was to come. Upon my diagnosis, my hemoglobin plummeted to seven. To give you an idea, most people can’t function and are in dire need of a blood transfusion at that point. The general rule of thumb when it comes to hemoglobin is 13 and above for men and 12 and above for women. IBD patients fall into the same expectation as “normal” people when it comes to these ranges. For as long as I can remember, I’ve celebrated being in the double digits—a 10 is often hard for me to come by.
For those who don’t know what anemia is, it’s marked by a deficiency of red blood cells which means you have less blood to carry oxygen to the rest of your body. When you have a low hemoglobin you often feel extreme fatigue, weakness, experience chest pain or shortness of breath, have a fast heartbeat, headache, dizziness and lightheadedness. For many of us in the IBD community, we deal with what is called Iron Deficient Anemia or IDA. With Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, long-term irritation and inflammation in our intestines can interfere with our body’s ability to use and absorb iron properly. IDA is considered an extraintestinal manifestation of IBD.
I’ve teetered back and forth with IDA for as long as I can remember. And the same can be said for much of our community. According to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation, 1 in 3 people with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis has anemia.
Causes for IDA:
- Low iron
- Inflammation in your intestines can interfere with your body’s ability to use or absorb iron.
- Blood loss from intestinal bleeding—oftentimes you can be bleeding in your stool, and not be able to see it.
- Poor absorption of vitamins and minerals, like vitamin B12 or folic acid.
Treatments for boosting your hemoglobin and Iron Levels:
- Iron supplements—I’ve taken oral iron for years. I currently take a prescription prenatal vitamin with iron, calcium, folic acid and vitamin D, daily.
- IV iron for those with active IBD, or for those who cannot tolerate oral iron.
- Get your IBD under control with the right medication
- Blood transfusions in severe cases.
It’s important you communicate how you are feeling with your gastroenterologist, so they know if you are struggling. All it takes is a simple blood test ordered by your doctor. The test would need to include a typical CBC along with an iron panel.
I recently traveled to Houston and participated in a videotaped round-table discussion on this topic with two physicians and a nurse practitioner. I provided the patient perspective. It was a great opportunity, but also taught me a lot about the prevalence of IDA with the IBD community, and the importance about being proactive and getting yourself the boost you need so you can feel your best each day. As a mom of two little ones, my anemia along with my Crohn’s can be a heavy burden to bear. That’s why I do my best to stay on top of managing my illness and taking all the supplements necessary to try and combat my malabsorption problems. I hope this article inspires you to do the same and realize you are never alone in your struggles.