Learning About Anemia the Hard Way With UC
Last updated: October 2022
"Our bodies are our gardens, to which our wills are gardeners." –William Shakespeare
One of the worst ulcerative colitis flares I've experienced landed me in the hospital. Granted, I was young and ignorant about the inflammatory bowel diesease that manifested itself within my body. But it was then that I first heard and learned about anemia.
Ignoring my ulcerative colitis symptoms
In my mid 20s, I wasn't sure how to live with the diagnosis of ulcerative colitis. I thought I could just go about my life as usual.
Sadly, I learned this lesson the hard way in the dressing room of a local clothing store. I had decided to go shopping as a way to distract myself from the colitis flare I was experiencing. At this young age, I didn't even know the meaning of "flare." All I knew was that my colitis was waging war against me. I thought it best to ignore what was happening in my body and go about life in a normal fashion.
Diarrhea and rectal bleeding from UC
For months I had been living with constant diarrhea and rectal bleeding. But as a "poor college student," I couldn't afford to run to the doctor, nor could I afford to pay for the medicine. So, I just lived with running continually to the bathroom.
But in a public setting like a clothing store, my body delivered an important message. That I couldn't ignore the flare raging inside me. After 3 bathroom trips to the store restroom, I thought, "Surely there’s nothing left in my colon. I've gone so many times today!" So, I returned to browsing through the racks of dresses, tops, and bottoms.
My body had different plans.
Almost passing out from anemia
As I looked through each clothing item, I noticed my vision began to blur. Then, I started seeing speckle-like stars. Everything started to look black, and I couldn't breathe well. My hands and feet felt ice cold. The store started spinning.
I thought, "I need to sit down."
Of course, no chairs were set out. So, I walked in slow motion to a dressing room. Banged the door shut and crumpled onto the bench inside. Instinct told me to draw my knees upward. I placed my head between my knees and took slow, deep breaths.
"Just breathe," I thought, "Or you're going to pass out."
How long did I remain in that dressing room? I don't even know. All I know is that after I made it out to my car, I knew I needed to call my gastroenterologist. A nurse instructed me to go to the nearest hospital. Here, the doctor did bloodwork and declared I was "anemic."
"What's that mean?"
Low iron levels and symptoms of anemia
"It means your bloody diarrhea has led to low iron levels. I'm going to put you on an IV with iron so that you can receive what you need most quickly and efficiently. Also, I'm starting you on a round of prednisone to get your colitis under control," he replied.
Today, I understand that people with UC are at risk of becoming anemic. In UC and Crohn's disease, intestinal inflammation can prevent the body from absorbing iron. Low iron levels can lead to anemia.
But not everyone who's anemic will experience symptoms. Some symptoms of anemia could include headaches, tingling or coldness in the hands or feet, fatigue, loss of appetite, irritability, or difficulty concentrating.
Back in that clothing store, I had experienced all those symptoms. Thank goodness, I got myself to a hospital. This allowed my doctor to check my bloodwork and put me on an iron-rich IV.
Ulcerative colitis symptoms are the cause
Those with IBD need to watch themselves. If they are feeling more tired than usual or any of the other symptoms mentioned, this could be a sign of anemia. People with bloody stools are at risk of losing too many essential red blood cells. These cells fuel oxygen throughout the body. Intestinal inflammation may also cause a person to not absorb iron properly.
One should inquire with their physician to screen for anemia. Simple bloodwork can check if gastrointestinal inflammation is hindering red blood cell distribution. Treatment depends on the levels of deficiency.
Years ago, I didn't understand the importance of my red blood cell count. Going without treatment for my UC led to continued loss of blood, and in turn, I ended up anemic.
It's important to treat UC symptoms
At the core, the disease needs treatment to prevent blood loss. If you think you might be anemic, my best advice is to speak to a doctor right away. You may not only need to get UC or Crohn's symptoms under control, but you might also need to increase iron levels. Soothing the inflammation will resolve anemia.
Over the years of living with UC, I've had to learn that tending to the garden of my body is of utmost priority. I cannot take care of others if I don't first take care of myself. Now, older and wiser, I understand my body better. That if left untreated, anemia causes the heart to pump harder to distribute oxygen.
Who wants their heart to work harder? This gardener now understands that tending to my gut is also tending to all other aspects of my body.
So, be good to yourself. Your heart will thank you.
Does living with IBD impact you financially?