Anemia affects your red blood cells and hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from your lungs to all the tissues and organs in your body. The most common cause of anemia is a lack of iron, which your body needs to make hemoglobin.

Anemia has several possible causes, one of which is heavy periods.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at how heavy periods can cause anemia, the symptoms to watch out for, and the treatment options.

Anemia is the most common blood disorder in the United States and around the world. It can be a temporary or long-term condition, and the symptoms can vary depending on the type of anemia you have and how severe it is.

If you have anemia, you don’t have enough red blood cells and hemoglobin to carry the oxygen you need to all the tissues and organs in your body.

Hemoglobin is a protein that’s produced by your bone marrow and stored in your red blood cells. Its job is to transport oxygen from your lungs to every part of your body through your blood vessels.

Anemia typically has three main causes:

  • loss of blood
  • insufficient production of red blood cells
  • a high rate of red blood cell destruction

The most common type of anemia is iron deficiency anemia, which can develop if you don’t have enough iron in your body. You need iron to make hemoglobin.

Iron deficiency anemia is more common among women than men. Risk factors for iron deficiency anemia among women include:

  • heavy periods
  • pregnancy
  • a diet too low in iron, vitamin B12, and folate
  • health conditions such as malabsorption disorders, chronic conditions, and genetic diseases

Heavy periods, also known as menorrhagia, affect 1 in 5 women in the United States each year.

When you lose a lot of blood during your period, you may end up losing more red blood cells than your body can make. This can reduce the amount of iron in your body. As a result, your body will have a harder time making the hemoglobin that’s needed to carry oxygen throughout your body.

So, how do you know if you have heavy menstrual bleeding? Symptoms of heavy periods include:

  • needing to change pads or tampons every hour for hours in a row
  • having to double up on pads to absorb your menstrual flow
  • having to change pads or tampons during the night
  • menstrual bleeding that lasts 7 days or longer
  • passing clumps or clots of blood that are larger than a quarter
  • feeling weak or tired when you have your period
  • not being able to do the things you would normally do

However, anemia from heavy menstrual bleeding depends on many factors, including your diet and your overall health. Getting enough iron and other nutrients in your diet may help prevent iron deficiency anemia.

If you have low levels of iron and hemoglobin in your blood, you may notice the following symptoms:

Heavy periods can be caused by imbalances in your levels of hormones, especially progesterone and estrogen. Other causes:

Be sure to follow up with your healthcare provider if you:

  • often feel weak, tired, dizzy, or lightheaded or have shortness of breath during or after your period
  • need to change or restrict your daily activities because of your heavy periods or because of how weak or tired you feel
  • often have periods that last longer than 7 days
  • pass large blood clots during your period
  • bleed through one or more pads or tampons every 1 to 2 hours

To diagnose iron deficiency anemia, your healthcare provider will first take a medical and family history. Then they’ll do a physical exam. If you have heavy periods, this will likely include a pelvic exam.

The main test for anemia is a complete blood count. Your healthcare provider will draw blood and do a test to count your red blood cells. This test can also tell your provider how much iron your cells store.

These tests are usually enough to make a diagnosis. But depending on your symptoms and what type of anemia your healthcare provider thinks you may have, you may need other tests.

Treatment options for iron deficiency anemia from heavy periods depend on the cause of the heavy bleeding.

Your healthcare provider may treat it with hormonal birth control or iron supplements and recommendations to eat more iron-rich foods.

Severe cases may require surgery, which may include:

  • uterine artery embolization (a procedure that prevents arteries from supplying blood to uterine fibroids, which may be causing your heavy periods)
  • focused ultrasound surgery (a procedure that uses ultrasound waves to shrink fibroids)
  • endometrial ablation, which destroys the uterine lining
  • a hysterectomy, which removes your uterus

The best way to prevent iron deficiency anemia is to pay attention to your diet. In particular, try to do the following:

  • Eat foods that are good sources of iron. Foods that are high in iron include red meat, spinach, legumes, shellfish, turkey, and quinoa.
  • Eat foods that help with iron absorption. Vitamin C can help your body absorb iron. Foods that are good sources of vitamin C include guavas, kiwis, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, lemons, strawberries, oranges, and kale.
  • Limit coffee and tea at meal times. These beverages may make it harder for your body to get the iron you need from your food.
  • Pay attention to calcium pills. Calcium can interfere with your body’s ability to absorb iron. If you take calcium pills, talk to your healthcare provider to make sure you’re getting enough calcium and iron.

Talk to your healthcare provider before taking any iron supplements, because these supplements can have certain side effects.

There are several different types of anemia, and each can have different causes. Some of the most common causes are:

  • Low iron intake. Not getting enough iron in your diet can lead to anemia. Iron deficiency anemia can also develop if your body doesn’t absorb iron properly, which can happen with certain conditions, such as Crohn’s disease.
  • Internal bleeding. Ulcers, colon polyps, gastritis, and other conditions can cause internal bleeding that leads to anemia.
  • Pregnancy. If you don’t increase your intake of folic acid and iron while you’re pregnant, you may be at a higher risk for anemia.
  • Low levels of vitamin B12. You may be at a higher risk of a vitamin B12 deficiency if you’re vegan or if your body doesn’t absorb the vitamin properly. You need vitamin B12 to make red blood cells.
  • Bone marrow diseases. Diseases that affect your bone marrow, such as leukemia, can impact your body’s production of red blood cells.
  • Genetics. Some types of anemia, including sickle cell disease and thalassemia, are inherited.
  • Chronic diseases. Some chronic diseases, including kidney disease, certain autoimmune conditions, and HIV, can lead to anemia.

Heavy periods can cause iron deficiency anemia because of the amount of blood that’s lost. In most cases, this type of anemia can be treated, either by addressing the underlying cause of heavy periods or through supplemental iron or hormonal birth control.

If you have symptoms of iron deficiency anemia or heavy periods, make an appointment to talk to your healthcare provider. They can diagnose the cause and work with you to find the treatment that works best for you.