Alcohol has many adverse health consequences—for example, its ability to cause harm to the liver is well-known. There is also a relationship between alcoholism and anemia. Moreover, excessive alcohol consumption has been linked to certain types of anemia that can be chronic without treatment.
What Is Anemia and Its Risks?
Anemia is a broad term that describe a lack of healthy red blood cells. Individuals with anemia may exhibit the following symptoms:
- Weakness and fatigue
- Shortness of breath
- Abnormal heartbeat
- Chest pain
- Pale or yellow skin
- Cold hands and feet
Anemia is the most prevalent blood disorder in the U.S. and can be found in many forms, including deficiencies in iron, folic acid, and vitamin B12.
The relationship between anemia and alcoholism is the product of many factors. The type(s) of anemia that a person experiences also depends on lifestyle choices and co-existing conditions.
The Link Between Anemia and Alcohol
Inadequate nutrition is a significant risk factor for anemia in those who consume alcohol excessively. Most people get the nutrients they need to produce healthy red blood cells (RBCs) from the foods they eat. For example, dairy products, shellfish, red meat, eggs, and iron-rich cereals have high amounts of vitamin B12.
Iron-rich foods include beans, dark leafy greens, certain grains such as oats and quinoa, and most types of meat. By incorporating a variety of these foods into one’s diet, a person will get the vitamins and minerals he or she needs to produce sufficient healthy red blood cells without difficulty.
Alcoholics, however, tend to neglect to eat regularly or may experience nausea and vomiting due to heavy alcohol use. When empty alcohol calories are substituted for healthy food calories and nutrients, excessive alcohol users are at risk for nutritional deficiencies and anemia. Holistic treatment may be necessary to get individuals in alcohol abuse treatment back to the healthy condition they need.
Toxic Effects of Anemia and Alcohol Abuse
While diet plays a vital role in anemia and alcoholism, alcohol also has a separate toxic effect on blood production. Moreover, alcohol affects bone marrow and impairs the natural production of red blood cells. Long-term, excessive alcohol use can result in abnormal formation of RBCs and the presence of macrocytes (enlarged RBCs). This disorder is known as macrocytosis.
Macrocytosis and Anemia
In alcoholics, macrocytosis is often suggestive of inadequate absorption of B12 and folic acid. B12 deficiency anemia exhibits some unique symptoms, which are relatively mild and may include the following:
- Lack of appetite
- Pale skin
- Swollen/bleeding gums
Over time, as vitamin b-12 depletes in the body, symptoms may become more severe and may include the following:
- Impaired concentration
- Tingling or numbness
Inadequate B-12 absorption can be caused by nutritional deficiencies or structural abnormalities of RBCs.
Alcohol-Related Hemolytic Anemia
Alcoholics are more likely to experience a unique condition known as hemolytic anemia. Normal red blood cells are disc- or donut-shaped, with a circle in the middle referred to as a neutrophil. Hemolytic anemia transpires when this shape is compromised, causing it to have a shorter life span. This is where the relationship between alcohol abuse and anemia gets particularly problematic.
Hemolytic anemia may lead to a spur-shaped RBC, or the neutrophil may be abnormally structured. When these cells die, the bone marrow cannot create enough to satisfy the body’s needs.
Treatment for Anemia
How a health provider treats anemia largely depends on the underlying factors involved. In B-12 or folic acid deficiency anemia, a proper diet may improve the condition. Persons with this condition may need to be administered B12 injections until the body’s stores of these nutrients are replenished.
For hemolytic anemia, individuals may require blood transfusions to keep up with the accelerated rate of cell death. The severity of hemolytic anemia ranges from asymptomatic to potentially lethal.
Outlook and Prognosis
An individual’s outlook for alcohol-related anemia is positive as long as he or she addresses excessive alcohol use. A comprehensive treatment program should include the following:
- A well-balanced diet high in B12, folic acid, iron, fats, proteins, and complex carbohydrates
- Attendance of all physician appointments until the condition is managed
- Participation in an alcohol rehab program
Fortunately, many of the structural abnormalities associated with hemolytic anemia and macrocytosis can repair themselves after the person abstains from alcohol use. In instances of severe liver damage, however, an individual may require treatment indefinitely.
Getting Professional Treatment for Alcoholism
Persons dependent on alcohol, whether or not they also experience anemia, should undergo a long-term, comprehensive addiction program. Therapeutic services should include those clinically proven to facilitate the recovery process, such as psychotherapy, counseling, substance abuse education, group support, art and music therapy, aftercare planning, and other beneficial methodologies.
Just Believe Recovery offers these treatments in various formats. We employ highly-skilled health professionals dedicated to providing those we treat with the tools, education, and support they need to reclaim their health and wellness, free from alcohol abuse.