Anemia is a condition in which there are not enough healthy red blood cells in the blood. You may be familiar with iron deficiency anemia, which occurs when a person does not have enough iron. This type of anemia can usually be remedied by increasing one’s iron intake.
Sickle cell anemia is different because it is hereditary. It is a type of sickle cell disease (SCD), which is a group of inherited red blood cell disorders. SCD occurs when a person inherits two abnormal copies of the hemoglobin gene—one from each parent. Sickle cell anemia is the most common and the most severe of sickle cell diseases.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), SCD affects approximately 100,000 Americans. African Americans are most likely to have sickle cell disease. Approximately one in 13 black or African American babies is born with sickle cell trait—meaning that they inherit the gene from one parent. One in 365 black or African American people has SCD. It also occurs in one out of every 16,300 Hispanic-American births. (1)
Red blood cells are normally shaped like discs. They’re flexible and round, which allows them to easily move through the blood vessels. People with sickle cell anemia, however, have red blood cells that are shaped like sickles, or crescent moons. They are rigid and sticky, and so they easily become trapped in small blood vessels, blocking the flow of blood and oxygen to certain parts of the body. This can cause pain and swelling. In addition, sickle cells break apart and die more quickly than healthy red blood cells, leaving the person with a shortage of red blood cells—also known as anemia.
Symptoms of sickle cell anemia include:
- Fatigue and weakness
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pains
- Vision problems
- Symptoms of fever
- Joint and bone pains
- Abdominal pains, nausea, and vomiting
- Swelling and fluid retention
- Symptoms of jaundice
- Pain crisis (sudden and severe pain that can occur anywhere in the body)
- Bone pain
Complications of sickle cell anemia can including compromised kidney function or liver function, heart disease, lung damage, brain damage, infection, and more.
The best way for a person with sickle cell anemia to stay healthy is to implement measures for prevention. The condition tends to get worse when a person is stressed, dehydrated, malnourished, or if they experience a sudden change in temperature or altitude.
The following natural treatments can help people to manage their sickle cell anemia so that they can live normal and healthy lives.
1. Healthy Diet
Unfortunately, there is no cure or known way to prevent sickle cell anemia. What is clear that healthy dietary choices help to keep the condition in check, while poor dietary choices can exacerbate it.
People with sickle cell anemia are more likely to suffer from malabsorption and malnutrition. When they lack in essential nutrients, such as healthy fats, iron, folate, calcium, and electrolytes, all functions of the body—especially the immune system—are compromised, which increases their risk of becoming ill.
Iron and B vitamins are crucial for people with sickle cell anemia because those nutrients are needed for blood production, which can prevent a person from becoming too anemic.
Another reason why a healthy diet is a fundamental part of health maintenance for people with sickle cell anemia is that the effects of inflammation can be detrimental to sickle cell patients. Studies show that oxidative stress—which causes damage to cells and chronic inflammation—is a major trigger for regression in sickle cell disease. In fact, chronic inflammation and reduced blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids are known characteristics of SCD. (2)
For that reason, it is imperative that SCD patients eat anti-inflammatory foods filled with healthy omega-3 fatty acids, essential vitamins and minerals, and antioxidants.
The best foods for people with sickle cell anemia include:
- Foods high in iron (e.g., liver, grass-fed beef, lentils, soybeans, lima beans, quinoa)
- Leafy green vegetables
- Fruits and vegetables of all different colors
- Whole grains
- Nuts and seeds
- Fatty fish (e.g., salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, albacore tuna)
On the same note, the following inflammatory foods should be avoided:
- Refined flour (e.g., white bread, white crackers, white pasta)
- Fried foods
- Soy, corn, cottonseed, safflower, and sunflower oils
- Artificial sweeteners
- Artificial additives
- Processed meat
- Pasteurized dairy products
- Saturated and trans fats
2. Nutritional Supplements
Sometimes SCD patients don’t get enough nutrients from eating a healthy, varied diet. Since many sickle cell patients have malabsorption problems, they may need to take nutritional supplements in order to make up for the nutrients they are lacking. It may be worth looking into taking the following supplements:
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin-B complex (especially B6 and B12)
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Folate/folic acid
- Multivitamins that include copper, zinc, and magnesium
3. Reduce Stress Levels
Stress and anxiety are known triggers for sickle cell anemia, so it is important for SCD patients to find ways to unwind. Relaxation techniques help to lower stress hormone levels in the body, high levels of which are linked to heart disease, digestive issues, weight problems and compromised immune function.
There are different ways people may choose to reduce stress levels, but the following techniques have been proven effective:
- Meditation (3)(4)
- Mindful breathing
- Yoga (5)(6)
- Nature walks
- Writing in a journal
4. Avoid Overexertion
People with sickle cell anemia are advised to engage in regular mild to moderate exercise. Studies show that regular exercise reduces oxidative stress and inflammation in the body. (7)
On the other hand, aggressive exercise causes acute inflammation, which can trigger an episode and make an SCD patient very sick.
People with SCD should take care to get enough rest in between workout sessions in order to fully recover.
5. Stay Hydrated
Dehydration is a major risk for people with sickle cell anemia. It can cause a person to go into what is called “sickle cell crisis”—a severe and painful reaction due to the low oxygen supply. (8)
It is recommended for adults with sickle cell disease to drink about 12 cups of water or more each day. SCD patients who exercise should be sure to drink even more water than that.
6. CBD Oil for Pain Control
Cannabidiol, or CBD, has been used to treat pain and control all kinds of symptoms for thousands of years. It is used to treat chronic pain, inflammatory diseases, anxiety, depression, seizure disorders, headache disorders, and more. (9)(10)(11)
Since we now know that cannabidiol helps to reduce inflammation and pain, it can be an effective treatment for those suffering from the painful symptoms of sickle cell disease. It can also be used to prevent flare-ups.
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The best form of treatment for any type of disease is prevention. The treatments mentioned above should be implemented as preventative measures to keep symptoms at bay so that people with sickle cell anemia can live healthy and normal lives.