3 effective ways to manage beta Thalassemia and iron deficiency

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Many people suffer from hereditary conditions; while some can be life-threatening, others have little or no impact on the quality of life.

For me, I found out that I have a hereditary blood condition called Beta Thalassemia (or Thalassemia Minor), and that I also have iron deficiency (a double whammy!). These conditions turn out to sound much scarier than they really are. The trick is to manage them through wise lifestyle choices.

While I am not a medical expert, I have lived long enough with Beta Thalassemia and have managed it pretty well over the last 3 decades. The aim of writing this post is to help those with Beta Thalassemia and iron deficiency to better manage their conditions and symptoms.

Disclaimer: Before we begin, remember that I am not a medical professional. What I write about is based on my own experience with the conditions and the knowledge gained from medical brochures and publicly available information.

Alright now that we got the formal stuff out of the way, let’s get on with the main topic!

Managing Iron Deficiency Thalassemia Minor through iron supplements
Credit: The YogaMad

What is Beta Thalassemia?

Thalassemia is an inherited blood disorder characterized by less haemoglobin and fewer red blood cells in your body than the normal person. Its effects range from anaemia, causing tiredness and pale skin, to bone problems to an enlarged spleen. [1]

There are several types of Thalassemia, and this depends on the number of gene mutations inherited from parents and which part of the haemoglobin molecule has been affected.

The type I have is called Thalassemia Minor, or Beta Thalassemia. This is where I only have 1 mutated gene and may only suffer from mild signs and symptoms.

Thalassemia Statistics. It’s more common than you think!

Thalassemia is common in certain populations. BusinessWire states that “Thalassemia is an emerging health concern around the world, especially in Southeast Asian countries. … South Asia is a major hub for hemoglobinopathies. It caters to nearly 23% of the world population.”[2]

Beta Thalassemia in dfferent regions
Source: Sikarwar, Archana & Dato, Mohd & Rahman, Seri. (2015). [3]

Effect of Beta Thalassemia & Iron Deficiency on Energy

For me, I never knew I had Beta Thalassemia until I went for a blood test for a scholarship at 18 years old. Honestly, I am not any different from anyone else except that I feel lethargic often.

Again, some of my lethargy can also be attributed to iron deficiency, which may or may not be present in everyone with Beta Thalassemia.

However, as I aged and my energy levels started falling, I found it hard to keep up with the long hours and work weeks demanded by my job. I started finding ways to boost my energy naturally through lifestyle changes.

The three changes below had the most effect on my energy levels.

Simple habits to boost energy and iron levels

1. Eat smart to boost iron levels

I am not a supporter of overly strict diets, mainly because it can trigger addictive or obsessive behaviours, which I personally have suffered before.

No food will completely heal iron deficiency or Thalassemia, but I believe that eating smart can help massively. So instead of listing the foods, we should and should not eat, these are some tips to remind yourself how best to eat the next time you sit for a meal.

Eat more leafy greens but be SELECTIVE

Leafy greens (think Kale, Spinach, Collard Greens, Swiss Chards) are one of the best sources of nonheme iron. In English, it means those found in plants or foods fortified with iron; and are less absorbable than heme iron found in animals.

However, greens such as spinach and kale also contain oxalates, which prevent the absorption of nonheme iron. So if you hate spinach and are thinking of taking some for the sake of boosting your iron levels, I’d say… probably not the most tasteful idea.

Managing Iron Deficiency Thalassemia Minor through smart eating
Credit: The YogaMad

Meat, Meat and More Meat (I personally don’t like this one..)

If you are an omnivorous or carnivorous person, then this is the tip for you. Sorry to say, I won’t fall into this bucket anytime soon.

Anyway, all meat and poultry contain iron. Organ meats are the richest at that – think liver, kidney or heart. Fish high in iron include canned sardines (in oil), canned tuna, fresh salmon, halibut or perch.

Pair iron-rich foods with some Vit C

Vitamin C helps with iron absorption, so pair up leafy greens with other Vitamin C (or citric acid ) rich foods such as lemon, red peppers, or strawberries.

Have some orange juice or use fresh lemon dressing on top of your salad or meats the next time you have them.

Don’t take calcium with iron-rich food

Now this one is tough! Did you know that calcium is not only found in milk or yoghurt? Broccoli (yum!) and tofu are also high in calcium.

Think again before you reach for a caffeine boost when you’re tired

Tea, coffee, cocoa and some soft drinks contain caffeine, which may inhibit the absorption of certain nutrients when taken in large amounts. According to Healthline, “Drinking coffee and other caffeinated beverages with a meal is associated with a 39–90% reduction in iron absorption. However, caffeine itself only binds a small amount of iron.” [4]

For normal people, caffeine will not cause major issues. However, for people with iron deficiencies, they are often advised to avoid caffeine due to its potential to reduce iron absorption

2. Supplementing with quality iron supplements

Not all Thalassemia Minor sufferers will have an iron deficiency. However, for those who have both conditions, iron supplements may be effective in helping with symptoms of lethargy.

The thing about iron supplements is to select quality providers. There are many different types of iron supplements – check with your doctor if you need in-depth advice.

Finding Floradix, now the only iron supplement brand I use

Personally, I used to hate all my iron or Vitamin B supplements because most of them cause symptoms of nausea less than 10 minutes into taking them. However, I changed my mind when I tried this brand called Floradix, which I accidentally found in a health store Holland & Barrett in the UK sometime in 2013.

I started out with the liquid version of Floradix, and I was amazed at its effect on my tiredness and the fact that I did not feel like puking after taking it! I was sold.

Floradix in Liquid (Left) and Table (Centre & Right)
Credit: The YogaMad

Where to Buy Floradix

Coming back to Singapore I wanted to stick with Floradix but there wasn’t an official distributor around. Few online merchants ship Floradix globally but thank God that iHerb, my long-time go-to online health store, does!

Besides the liquid version of Floradix, I now buy the tablet version from iHerb in bulk. The tablet version has a double seal and can be iffy to deal with but it means it is safe from rough handling especially during travels.

Floradix – an overview

Floradix Liquid Extract Formula
  • Vegetarian Liquid Formula
  • Easily Absorbed
  • Non-Constipating
  • Serving size of 10ml contains 10mg of iron (60% daily value), 1.8% vitamin B6 (90% daily value) and 6.75mcg vitamin B12 (110% daily value), etc
Floradix Iron Tablets Supplement
  • Yeast and Gluten Free
  • Serving size of 1 tablet contains 10mg of iron (60% daily value), 0.675g vitamin B6 (35% daily value), 1.35 µg (25% daily value), and 180 µg of folic acid (45% daily value), etc

The cons of taking dietary supplements

One of the disadvantages of taking dietary iron supplements is that we may start relying on them rather than on taking natural sources of iron from food. Ultimately, we still need to discipline ourselves to eat smarter and better rather than be overly dependent on dietary supplements

The verdict on Floradix

Initially, I thought that there must be another brand in the market that is suitable for my stomach. I’ve tried (yet again) around other 5-7 brands that are top rated on iHerb including. Alas, either I feel really nauseous especially if I take these on an empty stomach, or I get bad constipation. So after many rounds of trying, I gave up on finding alternatives and have since stuck to Floradix.

For those of you curious to try Floradix, I would recommend getting it from iHerb for a few reasons

  1. iHerb rewards 10% of your purchase value in loyalty credits for the next purchase (valid for up to 60 days)
  2. Free international shipping above US$ 40, which means you really do get more value than going through other merchants
  3. Buy 2 or more of selected products and get an additional 5-10% discount
  4. Sample or trial a product at below regular price (these come in smaller sample-sized quantity)

Note: I am an affiliate of iHerb, which means that if you do purchase through the links here, I will get a small commission at no additional cost to you at all. That said, this affiliate relationship will never influence my reviews.

3. Energize with the right workouts

The final tip for boosting energy is to adopt an active lifestyle through moderate exercise.

Yoga is the best workout choice for me, followed by light running. I do this every morning no matter how little time I have to spare because I know that I feel like crap (tired, cranky, lethargic) on days that I skip my exercise. Even if I am short on time, I usually stick to Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskara A and B), as well as various targeted stretches which take 10-15 min tops.

Managing Iron Deficiency Thalassemia Minor through energy boosting workouts
Credit: The YogaMad

The idea that expending energy helps boost your energy levels stems from the fact that regular exercise enables your body to better receive and utilize oxygen.

This is especially so in yoga, where movement is paired with deep breathing, which in turn stimulates blood flow, circulation and oxygen intake. Yoga poses that stretch the spine are especially helpful for boosting energy.

If you want to find out more about my yoga routines, there are several resources available on this blog:

Summary

In short, Beta Thalassemia is extremely manageable as long as we make the right choices in our daily activities.

Iron makes a world of difference for me; Besides eating and working out well, if you haven’t tried supplementing your diet with iron and you have low iron, you may wish to consider this as an option. I use Floradix and will probably never change brands unless this company goes bust. Again if you’re curious and want to give it a go, the link’s here.

As always, I am not a doctor and would suggest you seek your doctor’s advice before making any drastic changes to your lifestyle.

If any of you have questions on my life with Beta Thalassemia or iron deficiency, feel free to drop your questions below or email me!


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Sources

[1] Open Access Government. (2018). Is 2018 the year we will see a cure for Thalassemia? Available at this link

[2] BusinessWire. Global Thalassemia Drugs Market 2018-2022| Rising Disease Awareness Programs to Boost Demand| Technavio. Available at this link.

[3] Sikarwar, Archana & Dato, Mohd & Rahman, Seri. (2015). Early Diagnostics of Beta Thalassemia Minor. Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available at this link

[4] Healthline. (2017). Do Coffee and Caffeine Inhibit Iron Absorption? Available at this link.



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