vector image of red blood cells

—Marla-Ann R., Mount Allison University, New Brunswick

To answer your question, we need to define anemia, discuss the most likely causes of anemia in your gender and age group, and address how to treat it.

What is anemia?

comparison of normal level of red blood cells versus anemia level of red blood cellsAnemia is a blood disorder. If you have anemia, you don’t have enough red blood cells to carry sufficient oxygen to all the tissues in your body. Red blood cells contain hemoglobin; the role of this molecule is to haul oxygen from the lungs to all the cells of the body so they may do their work and keep us alive (a big bonus).

What causes anemia?

Here are a few causes of anemia:

  • A decreased production of blood: The dip can be due to a lack of iron and Vitamin B12, but can also be attributed to cancer, such as leukemia, or other diseases in the body.
  • When red blood cells get “old” they are destroyed in the liver and spleen: In some cases, these organs get overambitious and destroy more cells than they should.
  • Losing blood: This can be acute, as in an accident or during surgery, or chronic, e.g., heavy menstruation.

What are the most likely causes of anemia in college and university students?

The most common cause of anemia in young people is a lack of iron or Vitamin B12. Or, in young women, anemia can be caused by a loss of blood related to menstruation. These causes are common and do not mean that you are unhealthy.

How do you fix these problems?

  • Get a proper diagnosis from your health care practitioner.
  • Make sure that you are taking in enough iron. Iron sources include red meat and poultry, seafood, nuts, dark leafy green vegetables such as spinach, grains such as oatmeal, and meat alternatives including tofu and lentils. A list can be found on Health Canada’s website. If you are not getting enough iron from these natural sources, a supplement may be required.
  • You can’t forget about Vitamin B12, and your best bets here include meat, fish, seafood, and eggs. Again, supplements may be an option if you don’t eat these foods often enough, or if you are not absorbing the vitamin due to a stomach defect.
  • If you have heavy menstruation, then you can look at the use of hormonal contraceptives to decrease or stop the blood flow. You would need to discuss this with your health care practitioner.
  • Remember that a common cause of accidents in your age group is driving while impaired by alcohol or other substances, or being a passenger in a car when someone else is driving while impaired. Avoid these situations to reduce your risk of accidents that could lead to blood loss.

How to get more iron: Health Canada