A professor of haematology and transfusion medicine, College of Medicine, University of Lagos, and consultant haematologist at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, Sulaimon Akanmu, tells ARUKAINO UMUKORO about the use of products, popularly referred to as ‘blood tonics’
What are the major functions of the blood in the body?
A major function of the blood to the human body is that it collects and delivers oxygen from the lungs to the tissues via an important protein component called the haemoglobin in the red blood cell. The absence of the red cells and therefore haemoglobin means oxygen will not get to the body tissues, like the heart or the brain, which means the life span of a person can end within 180 minutes. Without blood collecting and delivering oxygen to the tissues, there is no life. The second major function of the blood is to transport rich metabolic products such as carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide throughout the body. Also, the white blood cells provide the body with a lot of immunity. It helps the body to fight a variety of infection – fungal, bacterial or parasitic – and infectious diseases. The blood also helps the body to heal properly.
What does it mean when someone is said to have a shortage of blood?
When one begins to see the symptoms of a shortage of blood, then the level of shortage may be much. By definition, an individual is said to have a shortage of blood if the amount of haemoglobin that is derived from a 100ml of blood is less than 10 grammes. Thus, that individual is said to be anaemic. However, an adult may not show very serious symptoms of anaemia, not until the haemoglobin levels have fallen to something below seven grammes per decilitres of blood. In children under five, the haemoglobin may have fallen to about five grammes per decilitre of blood. This leads to a shortage of oxygen in the body. As a result, this causes light-headedness, some people feel dizzy and have continual headache. The shortage of blood to the retina of the eye leads to a blurring of vision, while in the inner ear; one begins to hear funny noises.
Does anaemia affect all age groups?
Yes, anaemia affects all age groups and genders. The majority of anaemia cases in children are usually due to malaria infections which could lead to anaemic heart failure. Anaemia from malaria is a major cause of death in paediatric age groups. Also, some diseases such as cancer of the anus, cancer of the colon, lead to anaemia. In the very elderly, there is what is called the anaemia of the age, the bone marrow gets weak and does not form blood as it should. This is referred to as anaemia bone marrow failure. Factors that could raise one’s risk of anaemia include eating diet that is low in iron, vitamins, or minerals, blood loss from surgery or an injury, serious illnesses, such as kidney disease, cancer, diabetes and thyroid disease. Iron deficiency is the commonest cause of anaemia globally, including in Nigeria.
On the issue of ‘blood tonic,’ who are those who need it most?
As far as I am concerned, there is nothing like blood tonic. If you are talking about iron deficiency as a cause of anaemia, I can talk about the need for iron replacement therapy. Anybody that has been diagnosed to have iron deficiency need iron replacement therapy. It could also be as a result of folic acid or vitamin B deficiency. What is given to treat anaemia is dependent on the type of anaemia that the individual has. If an individual is anaemic as a result of iron deficiency, he or she is given iron replacement. Iron deficiency would require iron replacement therapy, folic acid deficiency would require folic acid replacement therapy, and vitamin B deficiency would require vitamin B replacement therapy. If anaemia is as a result of bone marrow failure, then the issues or causes have to be addressed.
Many people usually take what is generally known as blood tonic for such issues.
I think it is just a common, general-used term. But the term ‘blood tonic’ is alien to scientific medicine.
What then should be used to describe what is commonly referred to as blood tonics?
They are basically multivitamins and multivitamins help the enzymes in the body to function properly. All chemical reactions in the body are enzyme-dependent and enzymes require co-enzymes to function. They are useful to the body, but the idea that it is a blood tonic is misleading, because it does not boost the blood. People take these products as if they have the ability to increase their blood levels.
What do these blood tonics really do for the body?
All I can say is that they are not poisonous. I know these so-called blood tonics have multivitamins and minerals which may include iron, copper, zinc, manganese, magnesium, selenium and vitamins like vitamins A, D, B6, 9 and D12. These vital components are contained in such a low level that an excess intake of it is unlikely to cause any damage to the body. A pregnant woman compulsorily requires iron therapy because she is nurturing a whole baby growing inside of her that also needs iron to form its own blood and her placenta needs a lot of iron. She would also require a folic acid supplement as the baby derives folic acid from the mother. I would rather not classify it as ‘blood tonic,’ but I would say taking folic acid or iron therapy helps a pregnant woman.
What is your advice to people who buy ‘blood tonics’ for the specific purpose of boosting their blood levels?
The public needs to be properly enlightened on this. First of all, they should understand that the blood is not toned, so there is nothing like a ‘blood tonic.’ Secondly, people shouldn’t think that buying these so-called ‘blood tonic’ is able to correct the feelings of tiredness or weakness. Instead, they should find out the causes of their tiredness or weakness, and if it is proven that it is truly as a result of a shortage of blood, then it needs to be investigated medically and they should get direct treatment from a medical doctor. A lot of people have iron deficiency as the cause of shortage of blood and the answer to that is not blood tonic, but iron replacement therapy. According to the World Health Organisation, 80 per cent of the world’s population suffer from iron deficiency, with 30 per cent termed as being anaemic. There are no available statistics for Nigeria presently.
What should people look out for when they want to buy such products?
I will advise that people should visit the hospital when they feel tired or weak and are unable to function properly because of this. The automatic answer is not using ‘blood tonic.’ The constant use of blood tonics to treat all manner of weakness of tiredness or what one thinks is anaemia is not the way to go and it is not correct.
Are there natural food products to use instead of ‘blood tonics’?
If an individual truly has a shortage of blood, eating a particular kind of diet may not totally help in replacing it. However, that does not take away the fact that the reason why one may have a shortage of blood could be inadequate dietary intake. A number of people may actually develop a shortage of blood if they do not eat well. Some people deliberately don’t take the right food and so may become iron deficient.
For example, pregnant women would require more iron intake into their body not to develop anaemia caused by iron deficiency. In this scenario, a dietary supplement is very important. Also, there is also a group of people who calls itself vegans or vegetarians. Such people may also be deficient not only in iron, but in important vitamins such as Vitamin B12, which is derived only from animal products (meat). So, they will need iron and vitamin B12 supplements. But to say one should take an increased amount of such food to correct that deficiency doesn’t work like that. The use of ‘blood tonics’ is a myth. Of course, the pharmaceutical companies producing ‘blood tonic’ know why they refer to it as such.
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