11 Facts About Anemia

David Gregory & Debbie Marshall, Wellcome Collection // CC BY 4.0
David Gregory & Debbie Marshall, Wellcome Collection // CC BY 4.0

Anemia is so pervasive that the word anemic has become synonymous with a lack of vitality, substance, or flavor. But anemia symptoms go beyond the common signs of pallor and fatigue. The disorder is characterized by a lack of red blood cells or hemoglobin in the body that arises from a variety of underlying conditions—some that are serious and others that are barely noticeable. Anemia causes can even include pregnancy, poor diet, and cancer in rare cases. Here are some more facts worth knowing about anemia symptoms and treatments.

1. The most common type is iron deficiency anemia.

The body needs iron to produce hemoglobin—the protein that allows red blood cells to transport oxygen throughout the body—and when it doesn’t get enough of it, iron deficiency anemia can develop. Vitamin deficiency anemia works in a similar way. The vitamins B12 and folate are also essential to producing healthy red blood cells, and deficiencies in either vitamin can contribute to anemia. Patients may be lacking iron, B12, or folate because they’re not getting enough of the vitamins or mineral from their diet, or because their body has trouble absorbing them, either due to gastrointestinal surgery, a genetic disorder, or some other issue. In contrast, sickle cell anemia is an inherited condition in which malformed hemoglobin can't carry enough oxygen, causing blood cells to take on a crescent shape and impede blood flow.

2. Even mild anemia symptoms should be taken seriously.

There are roughly 400 different anemia causes. Some are relatively benign, like not including enough leafy greens in your diet, while others are more serious, like blood cancers or aplastic anemia, a condition that develops when bone marrow stops producing red blood cells at a healthy rate. Mild anemia may be one of the first signs of a serious condition that impedes your blood cell production, so even if the symptoms of the anemia itself are manageable, it shouldn’t be brushed off as nothing.

3. Anemia is Greek for lack of blood.

Put simply, someone with anemia doesn’t have a healthy amount of red blood cells or hemoglobin in their bloodstream. The word is a Latinized version of the Greek word anaimia, which means lack of blood (an meaning "without" and haima meaning "blood").

4. The fatigue comes from a lack of oxygen.

Even with a healthy respiratory system, the tissues of people with anemia may not get enough oxygen—a phenomenon known as hypoxia. This can lead to symptoms like headaches, dizziness, shortness of breath, and fatigue. While these symptoms can be debilitating in patients with severe anemia, they may be mild or even nonexistent in people with less severe cases. The signs are also hard to measure and can overlap with those of several chronic conditions, which means mild anemia often goes undiagnosed.

5. Anemia compels some people to chew ice.

Constantly craving an ice cube to chew on may be a sign your blood is at anemic levels. Pica is the medical term for the compulsion to chew substances devoid of nutritional value, like ice, dirt, and paper, and it's one of the more distinctive symptoms of iron deficiency anemia. Doctors still aren't entirely sure why the craving afflicts so many anemic patients. One explanation is that ice calms inflammation in the mouth that sometimes comes with iron deficiencies, while additional research suggests that chewing on ice is one way for fatigued people to stay alert.

6. It’s diagnosed with a simple blood test.

Though the symptoms can be tricky to identify, testing for anemia is simple once a doctor suspects a patient has it. After taking a sample, doctors calculate the complete blood count, or CBC, which measures the percentage of red blood cells (a measurement called the hematocrit) and hemoglobin in a patient’s blood. By looking at red blood cell and hemoglobin percentages specifically, they can determine if the patient’s blood is healthy or anemic. The typical adult man has blood with 40 to 52 percent red blood cells (the rest is plasma), and for the typical adult woman, it’s 35 to 47 percent, according to the Mayo Clinic.

7. Anemia is more common in developing nations.

Approximately 25 percent of the world population—almost 2 billion people—is affected by anemia. In about half of these cases, iron deficiency is the root cause. Anemia is more common in developing parts of the world where malnutrition is also rampant, while in the U.S., just under 6 percent of the population is anemic. In the U.S., the prevalence of anemia varies by group: Women, elderly people, African Americans, and Latino Americans are all more likely to have it, with black women between ages 80 and 85 developing the condition at rates 6.4 times higher than the national average, according to a 2016 study. The majority of anemia cases around the world are moderate or mild, and at those levels the lack of healthy blood cells itself doesn’t pose significant health risks (though an underlying disease that's causing it might).

8. Anemia also has a surprising benefit.

Having a low amount of iron in your body has an unexpected effect: It makes it harder for infections to develop. Most bacteria depends on iron to gain strength and spread throughout a host, and in the bodies of people with iron deficiency anemia, bacteria has a greater chance of dying before it multiplies into a dangerous infection. Studies have shown that people with low iron counts have a smaller risk of contracting malaria, tuberculosis, and certain respiratory conditions. Iron deficiency anemia can also boost survival rates in patients with HIV and lower the risk of cancer (like bacteria, cancer cells need iron to grow). Denying pathogens iron is such an effective way of killing them that our bodies naturally slow iron production when they detect an infection.

9. Pregnant people are more likely to have anemia ...

People who are pregnant have a much higher risk of becoming anemic. According to the World Health Organization, anemia affects over 40 percent of pregnant women worldwide. The bodies of pregnant women naturally produce about 20 to 30 percent more blood to supply oxygen to the baby, but it isn’t always enough for the mother to maintain healthy red blood cell and hemoglobin levels. Anemia is especially common during the second and third trimesters when the baby needs the most blood. Pregnant patients with anemia are usually prescribed iron supplements to prevent birth defects and complications during delivery.

10. … and so are vegetarians.

Many people get their iron by eating meat like beef, chicken, pork, and shellfish. Without meat in their diet, people have a greater chance of developing iron deficiency anemia: A small Indian study published in the Journal of Nutrition & Food Science found that approximately 60 percent of vegetarian women were anemic. But it is possible to consume healthy amounts of iron while adhering to a meat-free diet. In addition to dietary supplements, legumes, dried fruits, and leafy greens are great sources of the mineral.

11. Anemia treatments range from vitamins to blood transfusions.

Treatments for anemia vary depending on the cause of the condition. For iron deficiency anemia, the most common variety, doctors usually prescribe iron supplements as well as a diet rich in the foods mentioned above. Daily folic acid tablets and B12 shots—starting once every other day and transitioning to once a month—may also be prescribed to patients deficient in either vitamin. In cases when red blood cell and hemoglobin counts dip into dangerous territory, more drastic treatments like blood transfusions and bone marrow transplants may be necessary.

12 Intriguing Facts About the Intestines

When we talk about the belly, gut, or bowels, what we're really talking about are the intestines—long, hollow, coiled tubes that comprise a major part of the digestive tract, running from the stomach to the anus. The intestines begin with the small intestine, divided into three parts whimsically named the duodenum, jejunum, and ileum, which absorb most of the nutrients from what we eat and drink. Food then moves into the large intestine, or colon, which absorbs water from the digested food and expels it into the rectum. That's when sensitive nerves in your rectum create the sensation of needing to poop.

These organs can be the source of intestinal pain, such as in irritable bowel syndrome, but they can also support microbes that are beneficial to your overall health. Here are some more facts about your intestines.

1. The intestines were named by medieval anatomists.

Medieval anatomists had a pretty good understanding of the physiology of the gut, and are the ones who gave the intestinal sections their names, which are still used today in modern anatomy. When they weren't moralizing about the organs, they got metaphorical about them. In 1535, the Spanish doctor Andrés Laguna noted that because the intestines "carry the chyle and all the excrement through the entire region of the stomach as if through the Ocean Sea," they could be likened to "those tall ships which as soon as they have crossed the ocean come to Rouen with their cargoes on their way to Paris but transfer their cargoes at Rouen into small boats for the last stage of the journey up the Seine."

2. Leonardo da Vinci believed the intestines helped you breathe.

Leonardo mistakenly believed the digestive system aided respiratory function. In 1490, he wrote in his unpublished notebooks, "The compressed intestines with the condensed air which is generated in them, thrust the diaphragm upwards; the diaphragm compresses the lungs and expresses the air." While that isn't anatomically accurate, it is true that the opening of the lungs is helped by the relaxation of stomach muscles, which does draw down the diaphragm.

3. Your intestines could cover two tennis courts ...

Your intestines take up a whole lot of square footage inside you. "The surface area of the intestines, if laid out flat, would cover two tennis courts," Colby Zaph, a professor of immunology in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at Melbourne's Monash University, tells Mental Floss. The small intestine alone is about 20 feet long, and the large intestine about 5 feet long.

4. ... and they're pretty athletic.

The process of moving food through your intestines requires a wave-like pattern of muscular action, known as peristalsis, which you can see in action during surgery in this YouTube video.

5. Your intestines can fold like a telescope—but that's not something you want to happen.

Intussusception is the name of a condition where a part of your intestine folds in on itself, usually between the lower part of the small intestine and the beginning of the large intestine. It often presents as severe intestinal pain and requires immediate medical attention. It's very rare, and in children may be related to a viral infection. In adults, it's more commonly a symptom of an abnormal growth or polyp.

6. Intestines are very discriminating.

"The intestines have to discriminate between good things—food, water, vitamins, good bacteria—and bad things, such as infectious organisms like viruses, parasites and bad bacteria," Zaph says. Researchers don't entirely know how the intestines do this. Zaph says that while your intestines are designed to keep dangerous bacteria contained, infectious microbes can sometimes penetrate your immune system through your intestines.

7. The small intestine is covered in "fingers" ...

The lining of the small intestine is blanketed in tiny finger-like protrusions known as villi. These villi are then covered in even tinier protrusions called microvilli, which help capture food particles to absorb nutrients, and move food on to the large intestine.

8. ... And you can't live without it.

Your small intestine "is the sole point of food and water absorption," Zaph says. Without it, "you'd have to be fed through the blood."

9. The intestines house your microbiome. 

The microbiome is made up of all kinds of microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoans, "and probably used to include worm parasites too," says Zaph. So in a way, he adds, "we are constantly infected with something, but it [can be] helpful, not harmful."

10. Intestines are sensitive to change.

Zaph says that many factors change the composition of the microbiome, including antibiotics, foods we eat, stress, and infections. But in general, most people's microbiomes return to a stable state after these events. "The microbiome composition is different between people and affected by diseases. But we still don't know whether the different microbiomes cause disease, or are a result in the development of disease," he says.

11. Transferring bacteria from one gut to another can transfer disease—or maybe cure it.

"Studies in mice show that transplanting microbes from obese mice can transfer obesity to thin mice," Zaph says. But transplanting microbes from healthy people into sick people can be a powerful treatment for some intestinal infections, like that of the bacteria Clostridium difficile, he adds. Research is pouring out on how the microbiome affects various diseases, including multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's, and even autism.

12. The microbes in your intestines might influence how you respond to medical treatments.

Some people don't respond to cancer drugs as effectively as others, Zaph says. "One reason is that different microbiomes can metabolize the drugs differently." This has huge ramifications for chemotherapy and new cancer treatments called checkpoint inhibitors. As scientists learn more about how different bacteria metabolize drugs, they could possibly improve how effective existing cancer treatments are.

15 Unique Illnesses You Can Only Come Down With in German

iStock.com/monkeybusinessimages
iStock.com/monkeybusinessimages

The German language is so perfectly suited for these syndromes, coming down with them in any other language just won’t do.

1. Kevinismus

At some point in the last couple of decades, parents in Germany started coming down with Kevinismus—a strange propensity to give their kids wholly un-German, American-sounding names like Justin, Mandy, Dennis, Cindy, and Kevin. Kids with these names reportedly tend to be less successful in school and in life, although some researchers have suggested this could be due to a combination of teachers’ prejudices toward the names and the lower social status of parents who choose names like Kevin.

2. Föhnkrankheit

Föhn is the name for a specific wind that cools air as it draws up one side of a mountain, and then warms it as it compresses coming down the other side. These winds are believed to cause headaches and other feelings of illness. Many a 19th century German lady took to her fainting couch with a cold compress, suffering from Föhnkrankheit.

3. Kreislaufzusammenbruch

Kreislaufzusammenbruch, or “circulatory collapse,” sounds deathly serious, but it’s used quite commonly in Germany to mean something like “feeling woozy” or “I don’t think I can come into work today.”

4. Hörsturz

Hörsturz refers to a sudden loss of hearing, which in Germany is apparently frequently caused by stress. Strangely, while every German knows at least five people who have had a bout of Hörsturz, it is practically unheard of anywhere else.

5. Frühjahrsmüdigkeit

Frühjahrsmüdigkeit or “early year tiredness” can be translated as “spring fatigue.” Is it from the change in the weather? Changing sunlight patterns? Hormone imbalance? Allergies? As afflictions go, Frühjahrsmüdigkeit is much less fun than our “spring fever,” which is instead associated with increased vim, vigor, pep, and randiness.

6. Fernweh

Fernweh is the opposite of homesickness. It is the longing for travel, or getting out there beyond the horizon, or what you might call wanderlust.

7. Putzfimmel

Putzen means “to clean” and Fimmel is a mania or obsession. Putzfimmel is an obsession with cleaning. It is not unheard of outside of Germany, but elsewhere it is less culturally embedded and less fun to say.

8. Werthersfieber

An old-fashioned type of miserable lovesickness that was named “Werther’s fever” for the hero of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. Poor young Werther suffers for the love of a peasant girl who is already married. Death is his only way out. A generation of sensitive young men brought made Werthersfieber quite fashionable in the late 18th century.

9. Ostalgie

Ostalgie is nostalgia for the old way of life in East Germany (ost means East). If you miss your old Trabant and those weekly visits from the secret police, you may have Ostalgie.

10. Zeitkrankheit

Zeitkrankheit is “time sickness” or “illness of the times.” It’s a general term for whatever the damaging mindset or preoccupations of a certain era are.

11. Weltschmerz

Weltschmerz or “world pain,” is a sadness brought on by a realization that the world cannot be the way you wish it would be. It’s more emotional than pessimism, and more painful than ennui.

12. Ichschmerz

Ichschmerz is like Weltschmerz, but it is dissatisfaction with the self rather than the world. Which is probably what Weltschmerz really boils down to most of the time.

13. Lebensmüdigkeit

Lebensmüdigkeit translates as despair or world-weariness, but it also more literally means “life tiredness.” When someone does something stupidly dangerous, you might sarcastically ask, “What are you doing? Are you lebensmüde?!”

14. Zivilisationskrankheit

Zivilisationskrankheit, or “civilization sickness” is a problem caused by living in the modern world. Stress, obesity, eating disorders, carpal tunnel syndrome, and diseases like type 2 diabetes are all examples.

15. Torschlusspanik

Torschlusspanik or “gate closing panic” is the anxiety-inducing awareness that as time goes on, life’s opportunities just keep getting fewer and fewer and there’s no way to know which ones you should be taking before they close forever. It’s a Zivilisationskrankheit that may result in Weltschmerz, Ichschmerz, or Lebensmüdigkeit.

This list first ran in 2015.

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