Erika is the CEO and cofounder of Sanguina, an Atlanta-based biotech company with an emphasis on digital health wellness & diagnostic screening.
Growing up, I would frequently pass out at school and be taken to the hospital, only to find out I was anemic. There was no easy way for me to anticipate a fainting spell without having my blood drawn (which ironically, could also cause me to faint). I would often think about how helpful it would be to have a tool that could help me track my hemoglobin levels just like diabetes patients could measure their insulin levels from home.
As I grew up and went to college, I wanted to create a solution to tackle this problem. I studied biomedical engineering and helped co-found a biotech company called Sanguina, which offers an app that helps people measure their hemoglobin levels through a simple fingernail selfie.
You might be surprised as to the different ways blood health, heart health, and anemia are related. When it comes to maintaining a healthy heart, most people think about their diet, specifically cholesterol levels and exercise habits. These are certainly key factors, but remember to watch your hemoglobin levels to prevent anemia, which if left untreated, can put your heart health at risk.
When you exercise, your heart needs to send out red blood cells to pick up oxygen molecules from your lungs and deliver them to your muscles. If you have anemia, though, there are fewer red blood cells that can carry oxygen, so the cells have to make multiple trips which can put stress on your heart. This increases your heart rate as your heart has to compensate for having less oxygen with each pump. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, overworking your heart due to anemia could lead to fatal consequences.
Understanding Hemoglobin Levels
Most blood tests you get at your doctor’s office will include your hemoglobin levels. That’s one way to know if you’re anemic. You can also use Sanguina’s AnemoCheck app to instantly estimate and track your hemoglobin levels from the comfort of your home.
According to Mayo Clinic:
- For men, the normal range is between 13.2 to 16.6 g/dL
- For women, the normal range is between 11.6 to 15 g/dL
- For children, normal ranges vary with age and gender. Consult your child’s pediatrician for their target range.
It is also critical to understand that low hemoglobin levels for you may be different for someone whose levels have been lowered due to a blood disorder. For example, if you have anemia, and it’s caused by a blood disorder such as sickle cell disease or thalassemia, then your doctor may recommend blood transfusions to raise your hemoglobin levels as opposed to iron supplementation. In contrast, if you have anemia due to iron deficiency, then your doctor may recommend iron supplements and not blood transfusions. In any case, where your hemoglobin levels become very low, emergency intervention may be required to prevent heart attack or stroke from cardiovascular collapse, when the system just cannot keep up.
How Hemoglobin Levels Affect the Metaphorical Heart
Chronic anemia has been linked to poor emotional health. In one study, women with chronic anemia were more likely to report symptoms of depression and anxiety. There are several possible explanations for this. Anemia can cause physical fatigue, leading to feelings of exhaustion and low energy. It can also interfere with the body’s production of neurotransmitters (mood-regulating chemicals).
Generally, iron deficiency has been linked to depression. As oxygen-rich blood fails to reach organs and tissues, you may find yourself struggling to concentrate or feeling inexplicably tired, moody, and irritable. If you’re struggling with this, talk to your doctor. With treatment, you can improve your emotional and overall health.
Foods That Improve Heart Health and Anemia
A healthy diet is important for maintaining a well-functioning cardiovascular system, and there are many iron-rich foods that can help protect your heart health. However, knowing the differences between bioavailable and inaccessible iron sources can make all the difference.
Bioavailability refers to how easily your body can access and use iron in food. Eating foods that are especially bioavailable means more of the vitamin becomes available, making it easier for you to reap the benefits.
The bioavailability of iron differs significantly depending on its source. When evaluating the sources of iron that are most easily absorbed by the body, heme-containing foods are the clear winners. Heme iron molecules found in animal sources such as eggs, beef, chicken liver, oysters, and tuna are much easier to absorb than non-heme iron molecules in plant sources such as lentils, tofu, and spinach.
Furthermore, heme iron molecules need little digestive processing by your body before they can be absorbed, whereas non-heme iron requires additional digestion before it can be used. So to ensure optimum absorption of iron, make sure you incorporate heme-containing foods into your diet.
Eating a variety of foods and switching up your diet helps ensure that your body can get the most bioavailable forms of iron. Anemia prevention is all about keeping an eye on your hemoglobin levels and making sure they’re in the normal range for your medical history.
If you notice your numbers are trending outside of the normal range, talk to your doctor about possible treatment plans. They can help you figure out how best to treat your condition and prevent any further complications from occurring down the road.