The “Dancing with the Stars” judge and co-host of “The Talk” opens up about living with iron deficiency anemia.
About six years ago, dancer, choreographer and TV host Carrie Ann Inaba noticed something was off.
Athletic, active, and healthy throughout her life, she was always used to being high energy. She loved to kickbox and dance, and felt invigorated moving between her different professional worlds of dance and television.
That’s why she knew something was off when she started to feel chronically tired — a complete 180 from her typical fast pace.
“I was fatigued and very pale. I had symptoms that sound like what happens when people are getting older. I went from a super active lifestyle to not doing anything. I gained weight, I was on ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ and I was not feeling good about myself,” Inaba told Healthline.
Inaba learned she had iron deficiency anemia (IDA).
What is it?
IDA is condition where your body doesn’t have enough iron to produce the right amount of hemoglobin in red blood cells, according to Mayo Clinic. Hemoglobin plays a role in transporting oxygen throughout the body’s tissues.
Today, Inaba is the celebrity face of “Get Iron Informed,” an IDA awareness campaign from Japanese pharmaceutical company Daiichi-Sankyo, Inc.
Inaba said she’s always viewed herself as an advocate for people taking better care of their health. She said that as someone who lives with a condition that needs to be monitored and treated, it was important to be part of an effort that encourages people to “develop good connections with doctors, to open a dialogue with the trusted people on your side.”
“I thought, ‘I should talk about this.’ It affects about 5 million adults — males and females — in America,” she added.
“I thought it would be important to encourage people to go to their doctors, get the proper testing, find out if they have iron deficiency anemia. It’s very important to live a healthy life.”
While Inaba experienced fatigue and pale skin as a result of her IDA, the condition has a range of other symptoms.
People with the condition can also experience weakness, chest pain, fast heartbeat or shortness of breath, headaches and lightheadedness, cold hands and feet, inflammation and soreness of the tongue, brittle nails, odd and out-of-character cravings for nonnutritious items like ice or starch, and a poor appetite, according to Mayo Clinic.
Inaba said that before she was diagnosed, she had never even heard of the condition and worried that a host of other ailments could be affecting her.
This isn’t uncommon. Dr. Stephanie Martin, DO, the medical director and co-owner of Clinical Concepts in Obstetrics, LLC, in Brentwood, Tennessee, is also affiliated with the campaign and said that people can often go for years unaware that they have the condition.
“It’s a story you hear from a lot of patients that the symptoms can either be nonexistent or it’s very possible patients have no symptoms at all or that the symptoms might be mild or mimic other conditions. Symptoms like fatigue or anxiety are not specific or unique to IDA, so it is common for people to jump to other possibilities,” Martin said.
However, testing for IDA is pretty simple.
Josh Sasine, PhD, the director of the CAR T Program at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, told Healthline that a basic blood test is used to look for anemia.
Sasine, who is not affiliated with the campaign, said that some people can in fact have iron deficiency without having anemia — something that is often glossed over.
Martin said that there are several groups of people who are particularly at risk for IDA. These include women and babies who don’t get enough iron through formula or breast milk.
Mayo Clinic reports that people who frequently donate their blood and some vegetarians who don’t eat meat and don’t supplement their diets with other iron-rich foods are also at high risk.
Since IDA is such a variable condition, there is no one-size-fits all approach for how to treat it.
Inaba said that she gets iron infusions twice a year to increase her body’s iron levels. Sasine said that treatments vary depending on cause of IDA and severity.
“Sometimes it can be mild and fixed with dietary changes alone,” he explained.
“Other times, iron supplementation is required, and these often have gastrointestinal side effects — mainly nausea and constipation. Rarely, we need to replace it intravenously if it can’t be absorbed through pills. This can be done with one or two IV doses.”
Because children and infants are particularly at risk for IDA, Dr. Lee R. Atkinson-McEvoy, a pediatrician at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, told Healthline that it is generally recommended that infants be screened with a blood test for IDA at 12 months old.
More screening is done based on whether they have any other elevated risk factors.
“The symptoms of anemia are very generic, and it is generally standard practice in the workup for many problems — tiredness, school difficulty, hyperactivity, et cetera — to do a CBC (complete blood count) screening for anemia,” said Atkinson-McEvoy, who is not part of the awareness campaign.
“Given the general symptoms, it is common that parents or people themselves do not recognize that they may have symptoms due to anemia. The common cause for anemia in children is inadequate intake, although overall in all populations blood loss is the most common cause.”
She added that in adolescent girls, anemia can occur with heavy menses. Excess intake of cow’s milk is also a cause, as are chronic diseases like kidney disease.
Treatment obviously involves taking iron and increasing iron-containing foods in an adult or child’s diet, Atkinson-McEvoy added.
She said that most people who develop anemia experience a period of iron deficiency “without the anemia part” first. Once the supplies of iron are critically low to the extent that they impact a person’s ability to make hemoglobin, the molecule that carries oxygen to tissue, then the anemia starts.
“Once iron deficiency is found, we must not only replace the iron stores, but find why it went down in the first place,” Sasine added.
“Occult blood loss, especially in the gastrointestinal system, should be tested, unless there is an established alternative etiology (the cause of a disease).”
Today, Inaba says she’s feeling better than ever. The popular judge on “Dancing with the Stars” was named a co-host of “The Talk” earlier this year.
When she thinks back on her diagnosis six years ago, she said she was relieved to put a name to what was going on with her body.
“Not knowing is the worst part — your imagination is the worst, you keep thinking, ‘What could it be?'” Inaba said.
She added that it’s important everyone become their own best advocate for their health — if something’s wrong, don’t be afraid to ask your doctor. In fact, she encourages people to feel empowered to do so.
When asked why she uses her celebrity as a platform to direct a clarifying spotlight on this particular issue, Inaba said it was a no-brainer to get involved.
“It made sense to me be a part of it,” she said. “I love to help people.”