If you have anemia, it’s probably best to avoid alcohol. Let’s look at why it can do further damage to your blood vessels and how you can change your relationship with alcohol.

Most people are generally aware of anemia and associate it with iron deficiency. In truth, there are many types of anemia — all of which are classified as blood disorders.

In most cases, whether temporary or long-term, the harmful effects of anemia can usually be counterbalanced by consuming more iron via diet and supplements.

But lifestyle choices can also influence how anemia affects the body. As with many other long-term conditions, alcohol can create adverse effects and worsen anemia symptoms in people who consume it regularly.

Alcohol is a depressant that can cause a wide range of associated symptoms not just in your blood but throughout the body. Older research has established that routinely consuming large amounts of alcohol can suppress blood cell production. In many cases, this can make anemia worse.

Excessive alcohol consumption can also cause red blood cells with structural abnormalities. As a result, these cells don’t mature into functional blood cells.

Another unexpected effect is abnormally high iron levels. Even mild or moderate routine alcohol consumption has been linked with an increase in iron concentrations in the body. This can have dangerous side effects such as increasing the risk of dying from alcoholic cirrhosis or alcohol-induced liver disease.

Excessive alcohol consumption can also increase the chances of a person developing hemochromatosis, a disorder in which iron levels are dangerously high. Along with harming the liver, this condition is also linked with damage to the pancreas, heart, endocrine glands, and even your joints.

How do you know if you’re anemic?

Anemia is one of the most common blood disorders and affects more than 3 million Americans. People who are menstruating, pregnant, or have just given birth are at a higher risk of developing it.

People with chronic conditions like an autoimmune disease, kidney disease, liver disease, cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, or even thyroid disease are equally susceptible.

The symptoms can be very subtle, often making it hard for people to know they have it until revealed in a blood test. However, common signs include:

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While many studies have attempted to investigate and determine a direct link between alcohol consumption and anemia, most stop short of explicitly stating that heavy alcohol consumption will cause anemia.

Instead, most experts agree that while a link exists, heavy alcohol consumption is a contributing factor rather than a primary cause. In many of the documented cases where someone heavily consumes alcohol and is also anemic, other underlying chronic conditions or even poor overall nutrition are usually also present.

Additionally, many of these cases included people who didn’t have reliable access to healthcare. As a result, conditions worsened, and when they sought medical care, symptoms and outcomes were poor.

However, alcohol’s ability to influence iron levels can contribute to someone developing anemia.

It’s important to note that there are multiple types of anemia, with iron deficiency anemia being the most prevalent and well-known. In general, alcohol consumption can make anemia worse since the depressant is known to have a direct effect on iron levels as well as blood cell production and function.

If you have anemia — especially anemia that isn’t well managed — avoiding alcohol is the best option to prevent complications. But in general, significantly reducing how much alcohol you drink can make a difference.

What does the data say?

A 2017 study in Japan reviewed 925 Japanese men who identified as “alcoholic” and had also been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. All of the men were age 40 or older and qualified as anemic from blood tests given just before the study. The goal was to improve the patients’ health before they began cancer treatment.

All of the participants were entered into an 8-week inpatient alcohol treatment program where alcohol was completely restricted, their diet was monitored, and they also received supplements for iron deficiency.

Consistently, by week 4 of the program, the majority of the participants had resolved their anemia. By week 8, many were ready to begin cancer treatments as hemoglobin and leukocytopenia levels had normalized by the end of the inpatient program.

While media influences often suggest otherwise, you don’t need alcohol to relax or have fun.

If you feel like you might have alcohol dependence, seeking professional help or support is one of the best things you can do. Trying to quit “cold turkey” without assistance can be difficult, and it’s more likely that you’ll experience a relapse.

Along with professional support, you need a social circle that’s going to support your choice, rather than encourage you to keep drinking.

If you know that certain scenarios or people are more likely to make you want to drink, you might need to limit your exposure in these instances. Also, keep in mind that the journey through alcohol cessation is a personal one. The method that works for one person might not be as effective for someone else.

Learn more about ways to reduce or quit drinking alcohol.

Get support for alcohol addiction

Don’t feel like you have to quit drinking alone. Having professional, peer, and social support can make the transition to an alcohol-free life more realistic and easier to achieve.

Start your journey by visiting the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) Alcohol Treatment Navigator.

This site offers searchable databases with details for programs, therapists, doctors, and peer groups. It also provides details on associated expenses as well as what you need to know for insurance coverage.

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Alcohol should always be consumed in moderation given how quickly it can negatively affect your body. However, if you have anemia, it’s best to steer clear of alcohol, as it can make your already compromised blood cells worse.

Alcohol has been shown to worsen poor iron absorption in the body as well as increase the risk of hemochromatosis.

If you think you might have an alcohol use disorder, don’t try to quit alone. Seek professional help as well as peer and social support to navigate your new normal.