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Can Hormonal Birth Control Alleviate Anemia?

Iron-deficiency anemia is a common health condition that can range in severity from minor annoyance to severe and life-threatening. Studies show that 20% of US women suffer from anemia. Worldwide, a third of the global population suffers from anemia. Anemia is a common condition, but it is curable.

What is anemia?

Red blood cells carry oxygen and other nutrients to every part of the body. Oxygen-rich red blood cells enable the organs and other bodily systems to function. For red blood cells to do their job, they need a healthy amount of hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the substance in the red blood cells that enables them to carry oxygen. The body needs sufficient iron stores to produce hemoglobin. When the body doesn’t have enough iron, it can’t produce hemoglobin, and the red blood cells can’t deliver oxygen to the body’s tissues and organs. This condition is called iron-deficiency anemia.

"Anemia"written on doctor's clipboard

What causes iron-deficiency anemia?

Different health conditions can cause iron-deficiency anemia, including:

  • Medical conditions that prevent the body from absorbing iron in the diet, including Celiac disease
  • Pregnancy (due to the growing fetus needing iron for its blood)
  • Blood loss (heavy periods, bleeding disroders)
  • A lack of iron in the diet (vegetarians, poverty)

Women with heavy periods and women who are pregnant are at increased risk of iron-deficiency anemia. A growing fetus can use up the mother’s iron stores, but taking prenatal vitamins while pregnant can prevent anemia in pregnant women.

Gastrointestinal disorders that result in slow, chronic blood loss can also increase a person’s risk of becoming anemic – like peptic ulcers, hiatal hernias, and colorectal cancer can lead to insufficient iron stores.

Taking iron supplements and eating iron-rich: meats (beef, chicken, turkey, ham, veal), fish ( sardines, halibut, haddock, perch, salmon, tuna), leafy green vegetables, and foods fortified with iron can increase the body’s iron stores. Vegetarians risk getting anemia if they don’t get enough fortified foods into their diets.

Iron in plants such as lentils, beans, and spinach is nonheme iron. This form of iron is added to iron-enriched and iron-fortified foods. Unfortunately, our bodies are less efficient at absorbing nonheme iron.

What are the symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia?

  • Weak, tired, fatigue
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Pale
  • Rapid heart rate, chest pain, and shortness of breath
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Brittle nails
  • Cravings for non-food substances, such as ice or dirt (called Pica in medical speak)
  • Inflamed or sore tongue

How is anemia diagnosed?

If anemia is suspected, a doctor/provider may order

  • a Complete Blood Count (CBC) to check the number of red blood cells
  • Hematocrit to check for percentage of red blood cells in the blood
  • Hemoglobin level
  • Iron level
  • Ferritin to check iron stores
  • TIBC (total iron binding capacity) to see what percentage of your stores are full. Low number means that you could store more aka your stores aren’t full and you need more iron.
  • Transferrin Saturation tells how much serum iron is bound

For adult women, hematocrit levels should be between 35% and 47%. Hemoglobin levels for a healthy adult woman should measure between 14 and 18 grams per deciliter of blood.

What are the complications of anemia?

Mild anemia usually won’t cause any serious complications, and in many cases, people with mild anemia won’t experience any disruptive symptoms. However, mild anemia can worsen and lead to severe iron-deficiency. Moderate to severe anemia can impair a person’s daily functioning and lead to the following health problems if left untreated:

  • Heart problems: Anemia can cause a rapid or irregular heart rate, which can lead to an enlarged heart, stroke, heart attack, or heart failure.
  • Pregnancy complications: Pregnant women who are iron deficient can have a premature baby or a low birth weight baby. Taking iron supplements while pregnant can prevent this complication.
  • Growth Delays in Children: Infants and children with anemia can experience delayed growth and fail to reach essential milestones on schedule.

What can be done to treat anemia?

Iron supplements and incorporating iron-rich foods into the diet can cure anemia. For severe cases of anemia, a blood transfusion might be needed. But if anemia is being caused by chronic blood loss from menstruation, women can take birth control to either prevent menstruation from occurring altogether or lighten menstrual periods.

What can birth control do for anemia?

About 14% of women in their childbearing years suffer from heavy and painful menstrual bleeding. Not only is this a painful, frustrating, and expensive condition to have, it also puts women at risk of iron-deficiency anemia.

Although many things can be done to fix anemia after it has occurred, for women with a risk of anemia, preventing the causes of the condition in the first place is usually the best thing to do. Hormonal birth control can be used to either prevent menstruation from occurring for some time until a patient can increase their iron stores. Or, hormonal birth control can lighten  menstrual periods so a woman won’t experience much blood loss.

The hormonal IUD, the birth control pill, patch, ring, and shot can be used to treat or prevent iron-deficiency anemia in women during their childbearing years. The copper IUD, however, can make periods heavier and should not be used in iron-deficient women.

Combination hormonal birth control pills that use both estrogen and progestin hormones are the most effective for preventing or lightening menstruation. Women over 35 and smoke or have a history of blood clots should not use combination birth control options. But, there are progestin-only pills that can be used to treat iron-deficiency anemia in women with these contraindications.

For women with severe anemia from menstruation (menorrhagia) who cannot use hormonal birth control, they may need to consider dilation and curettage (D&C) as a temporary measure, and for who are done having children: endometrial ablation/resection, or hysterectomy to treat anemia. Fibroids can be the cause of the heavy bleeding and they would be treated surgically if medications can’t control the bleed.

Are you suffering from heavy menstrual periods (menorrhagia) and the symptoms of anemia?

Hormonal birth control can be taken continuously to prevent a period from happening for months at a time.

Taking the birth control pill  or NuvaRing continually can help you increase your iron stores and find relief from debilitating anemia symptoms. Please contact Pandia Health today to see what types of hormonal birth control will work best for you. Representatives are standing by to assist you with any questions you may have.