It started out innocently enough. Thirsty and on the brink of dehydration I drank a glass of tap water at a family member’s house in India. It was just a glass of water. Yet mere hours later I was violently ill, shivering on the bathroom floor, unable to move. A doctor came to our house because I could not stop vomiting long enough to get into the car (house calls are still a thing in India, thank goodness!). It took several rounds of antibiotics and about two and a half months before my symptoms fully subsided. I was emaciated and weak. I decided to rest as much as possible and waited to feel better.
Three months later I still felt weak, miserable, and tired. I started forcing myself to exercise because I so desperately wanted to feel better. Exercise boosts energy, right? But instead of getting stronger, I was getting noticeably weaker. Every workout I did was harder than the last, even though I was doing the same routine. I slept and slept but woke up feeling more tired than ever. No matter how much sleep I got, it was never enough. Waking up from sleep was a Herculean effort, and I probably wouldn’t have bothered to open my eyes if not for my toddler.
I thought I was just being lazy. I honestly figured I didn’t have intrinsic motivation and became increasingly angry with myself for not being able to do anything. My kid spent most of the summer of 2020 watching Bambi while I laid down and berated myself for being a bad parent. I cried every day because I felt like I was failing and I didn’t know why.
Finally my breaking point came. I had been suffering for months without saying anything because I thought it was a “me” problem. I believed I was simply tired from recovering and caring for a high-energy toddler. But I knew deep down it was more than that.
Enough was enough. I told my husband everything, and cried, “This isn’t normal! I need to see a doctor.”
Two minutes after telling the doctor what I was experiencing, he looked at the inside of my lower eyelid. It was stark white. “You have severe anemia. Take these supplements and see me in a week.”
It was like a veil had lifted. All that time I’d been chastising myself and pushing myself when I could not be pushed. I felt like I had been dying, and well…I sort of was. The illness I had depleted my iron stores completely and eating a healthy diet was not enough. It took two full weeks before I started feeling better, but the diagnosis had an immediate effect on my mental health.
Unfortunately, my story is not an anomaly—especially for women and children. A shocking 30% of women and 42% of children under 5 are anemic. Anemia can occur after a prolonged illness (like in my case), from vitamin deficiencies due to poor diet, or due to blood loss from periods and childbirth. Anemia can cause heart problems and in extreme cases, heart failure.
Symptoms of anemia include: fatigue, dizziness, inability to concentrate, cold hands, depression, headaches, or cravings for non-food items. If you have iron deficiency anemia, it’s especially important to properly take iron supplements; taking them with caffeine or high-calcium foods will negate your body’s ability to absorb the iron. Take iron supplements after a meal, and preferably with vitamin C to boost absorption.
Along with supplements, here is a list of iron-rich foods that form the basis of a balanced vegan diet.
- Sweet potatoes
- Dark chocolate
- String beans
- Collard greens
Chocolate filled raspberries: Dark chocolate is a great source of iron; vitamin C in raspberries helps the absorption.
If you’re feeling miserably tired and unwell for seemingly no reason, please see a doctor. You might just save your life. Please don’t wait like I did and dismiss your valid concerns.
There is hope. You can feel better. You are not alone.
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Photo: Laura Chouette via Unsplash; Lauren Kirchmaier