Sickle Cell Anemia (Holistic)

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About This Condition

Get support for sickle cell anemia by focusing on your unique nutritional needs. According to research or other evidence, the following self-care steps may be helpful.
  • Fight back with fish oil

    Reduce the frequency of severe pain episodes by taking a daily fish oil supplement providing 33 mg of EPA and 23 mg of DHA for every 2.2 pounds of body weight

  • Think zinc

    Under the supervision of a doctor, take a daily supplement of 100 mg of zinc, plus 2 mg of copper, to help prevent cell damage and speed healing of leg ulcers associated with sickle cell anemia

  • Fill up on fluids

    Drink plenty of water and other fluids to maintain good circulation

  • Take a test

    Have your blood homocysteine levels checked to find out if daily folic acid supplements of 1 to 4 mg are right for you, or to discover if you have a vitamin B12 deficiency that requires treatment

About

About This Condition

Anemia is a deficiency of the oxygen-carrying capacity of red blood cells. Sickle cell anemia is an inherited chronic anemia in which the red blood cells become sickle or crescent-shaped. The symptoms of sickle cell anemia are caused by the clogging of small blood vessels by the sickle cells or by poor delivery of oxygen to the tissues due to the anemia itself.

A sickle cell crisis is a painful episode that occurs when the body becomes severely deprived of oxygen. The disease and the trait occur in people of African descent, as well as in people from Mediterranean countries, India, and the Middle East, but rarely in people of European descent.

Symptoms

Symptoms include fatigue, joint and abdominal pain, irritability, yellow discoloration of the skin and eyes, leg sores, gum disease, frequent respiratory infections, blindness later in life, and periods of prolonged, sometimes painful erections in males. People with sickle cell anemia can have episodes of severe pain in the arms, legs, chest, and abdomen that may be accompanied by fever, nausea, and difficulty breathing. These symptoms occur only in people who inherit copies of the sickle cell gene from both parents. People who inherit a sickle cell gene from only one parent have what is known as sickle cell trait and are without symptoms.

Eating Right

The right diet is the key to managing many diseases and to improving general quality of life. For this condition, scientific research has found benefit in the following healthy eating tips.

Recommendation Why
Balance nutrition
Sickle cell patients suffer from nutrient deficiencies, which may be due to increased nutritional needs. Aim to eat a balanced diet high in nutrient-rich, whole foods.

People with sickle cell anemia suffer from many nutrient deficiencies, but preliminary research on dietary habits shows that food and nutrient intake by sickle cell patients in general meets or exceeds recommendations and is not significantly different from healthy controls. This suggests the higher rate of nutrient deficiencies may be due to an increased need for many nutrients in sickle cell patients. The effectiveness of dietary interventions in supplying adequate nutrition to meet these higher demands has not been examined.

Supplements

What Are Star Ratings?
Supplement Why
2 Stars
Arginine (Pulmonary Hypertension)
100 mg per 2.2 lbs (1 kg) of body weight, three times per day
People with pulmonary hypertension (a life-threatening complication of sickle cell anemia) who received L-arginine had significant improvement in one study.
In a preliminary study, individuals with pulmonary hypertension (a life-threatening complication of sickle cell anemia) received L-arginine in the amount of 100 mg per 2.2 pounds of body weight, three times per day for five days. L-arginine treatment resulted in a significant improvement in pulmonary hypertension, as determined by a 15% decline in the pulmonary artery systolic pressure. Longer-term studies are needed to confirm these preliminary results.
2 Stars
Fish Oil
250 mg of oil per 2.2 lbs (1 kg) of body weight daily
Supplementing with fish oil appears to reduce the frequency of severe pain episodes.

In a preliminary trial, 13 patients with sickle cell anemia were given two supplement combinations for seven to eight months each. The first combination included 109 mg zinc, 153 IU vitamin E, 600 mg vitamin C, and 400 ml (about 14 ounces) of soybean oil containing 11 grams of linoleic acid and 1.5 grams of alpha linolenic acid. The second combination included 140 IU vitamin E, 600 mg vitamin C, and 20 grams of fish oil containing 6 grams of omega-3 fatty acids. Reduction in diseased cells was observed only during the administration of the first protocol. The authors concluded that zinc was the important difference between the two combinations and may be a protector of red blood cell membranes.

Fish oil alone has also been studied. In a double-blind trial, supplementation with menhaden oil, in the amount of 250 mg per 2.2 pounds of body weight per day for one year, reduced the frequency of severe pain episodes by approximately 45%, compared with placebo. This treatment may work by correcting an imbalance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids that occurs in people with sickle cell anemia. The beneficial effect of the omega-3 fatty acids present in fish oil was confirmed in another double-blind study.

2 Stars
Folic Acid (High Homocysteine)
Consult a qualified healthcare practitioner
In one trial, patients with sickle cell anemia who were given folic acid plus aged garlic extract, vitamin C, and vitamin E saw significant improvement and less painful crises.

In a preliminary trial, 20 patients with sickle cell anemia were given either 1 mg of folic acid per day or folic acid plus 6 grams of aged garlic extract, 6 grams of vitamin C, and 1,200 mg of vitamin E per day for six months. Patients taking the combination had a significant improvement in their hematocrit (an index of anemia) and less painful crises than those taking just folic acid.

Preliminary research has found that patients with sickle cell anemia are more likely to have elevated blood levels of homocysteine compared to healthy people. Elevated homocysteine is recognized as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. In particular, high levels of homocysteine in sickle cell anemia patients have been associated with a higher incidence of stroke. Deficiencies of vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and folic acid occur more frequently in people with sickle cell anemia than in others and are a cause of high homocysteine levels. A controlled trial found homocysteine levels were reduced 53% in children with sickle cell anemia receiving a 2-4 mg supplement of folic acid per day, depending on age, but vitamin B6 or B12 had no effect on homocysteine levels. A double-blind trial of children with sickle cell anemia found that children given 5 mg of folic acid per day had less painful swelling of the hands and feet compared with those receiving placebo, but blood abnormalities and impaired growth rate associated with sickle cell anemia were not improved. In the treatment of sickle cell anemia, folic acid is typically supplemented in amounts of 1,000 mcg daily. Anyone taking this amount of folic acid should have vitamin B12 status assessed by a healthcare professional.

2 Stars
L-Carnitine
50 mg per 2.2 lbs (1 kg) of body weight daily
In a study of children with sickle cell anemia, supplementing with L-carnitine reduced the number of painful crises and improved abnormal heart function and pulmonary hypertension.

In a preliminary study of children with sickle cell anemia, supplementing with L-carnitine (50 mg per 2.2 pounds of body weight per day for six months) significantly reduced the number of painful crises and significantly improved the abnormal heart function (diastolic dysfunction) that was present in most of the children. L-carnitine supplementation also significantly improved pulmonary hypertension in the children who had this abnormality prior to treatment.

2 Stars
Zinc
Take under medical supervision: 100 mg of zinc (plus 2 mg of copper daily to protect against depletion)
Supplementing with zinc appears to help prevent cell damage and speed healing of leg ulcers associated with sickle cell anemia.

Antioxidant nutrients protect the body's cells from oxygen-related damage. Many studies show that sickle cell anemia patients tend to have low blood levels of antioxidants, including carotenoids, vitamin A, vitamin E, and vitamin C, despite adequate intake. Low blood levels of vitamin E in particular have been associated with higher numbers of diseased cells in children and with greater frequency of symptoms in adults. A small, preliminary trial reported a 44% decrease in the average number of diseased cells in six sickle cell anemia patients given 450 IU vitamin E per day for up to 35 weeks. This effect was maintained as long as supplementation continued.

In another preliminary trial, 13 patients with sickle cell anemia were given two supplement combinations for seven to eight months each. The first combination included 109 mg zinc, 153 IU vitamin E, 600 mg vitamin C, and 400 ml (about 14 ounces) of soybean oil containing 11 grams of linoleic acid and 1.5 grams of alpha linolenic acid. The second combination included 140 IU vitamin E, 600 mg vitamin C, and 20 grams of fish oil containing 6 grams of omega-3 fatty acids. Reduction in diseased cells was observed only during the administration of the first protocol. The authors concluded that zinc was the important difference between the two combinations and may be a protector of red blood cell membranes.

Fish oil alone has also been studied. In a double-blind trial, supplementation with menhaden oil, in the amount of 250 mg per 2.2 pounds of body weight per day for one year, reduced the frequency of severe pain episodes by approximately 45%, compared with placebo. This treatment may work by correcting an imbalance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids that occurs in people with sickle cell anemia.

The zinc deficiency associated with sickle cell anemia appears to play a role in various aspects of the illness. For example, preliminary research has correlated low zinc levels with poor growth in children with sickle cell anemia. In a preliminary trial, 12 people with sickle cell anemia received 25 mg of zinc every four hours for 3 to 18 months. The number of damaged red blood cells fell from 28% to 18.6%. Addition of 2 mg of copper per day did not inhibit the effect of zinc. (Zinc supplementation in the absence of copper supplementation induces a copper deficiency.) Patients with the highest number of damaged red blood cells had a marked response to zinc, but those with lower levels of damaged cells (less than 20% irreversibly sickled cells) had little or no response.

Chronic leg ulcers occur in about 75% of adults with sickle cell disease. In a controlled trial, sickle cell patients with low blood levels of zinc received 88 mg of zinc three times per day for 12 weeks. Ulcer healing rate was more than three times faster in the zinc group than in the placebo group. Zinc supplementation (25 mg 3 times per day for 3 months) also decreased the number of infections in adults with sickle cell anemia.

1 Star
Beta-Carotene
Refer to label instructions
Sickle cell anemia patients tend to have low levels of antioxidants, which protect cells from oxygen-related damage. Supplementing with beta-carotene may help correct a deficiency.

Caution: Synthetic beta-carotene has been linked to increased risk of lung cancer in smokers. Until more is known, smokers should avoid all beta-carotene supplements.

Antioxidant nutrients protect the body's cells from oxygen-related damage. Many studies show that sickle cell anemia patients tend to have low blood levels of antioxidants, including carotenoids, vitamin A, vitamin E, and vitamin C, despite adequate intake. Low blood levels of vitamin E in particular have been associated with higher numbers of diseased cells in children and with greater frequency of symptoms in adults. A small, preliminary trial reported a 44% decrease in the average number of diseased cells in six sickle cell anemia patients given 450 IU vitamin E per day for up to 35 weeks. This effect was maintained as long as supplementation continued.

1 Star
Garlic
Refer to label instructions
In one trial, patients with sickle cell anemia who were given folic acid plus aged garlic extract, vitamin C, and vitamin E saw significant improvement and less painful crises.

In a preliminary trial, 20 patients with sickle cell anemia were given either 1 mg of folic acid per day or folic acid plus 6 grams of aged garlic extract, 6 grams of vitamin C, and 1,200 mg of vitamin E per day for six months. Patients taking the combination had a significant improvement in their hematocrit (an index of anemia) and less painful crises than those taking just folic acid.

1 Star
Magnesium
Refer to label instructions
In one trial, supplementing with magnesium dramatically reduced the number of painful days for people with sickle cell anemia.

Low concentrations of red blood cell magnesium have been noted in patients with sickle cell anemia. Low magnesium, in turn, is thought to contribute to red blood cell dehydration and a concomitant increase in symptoms. In a preliminary trial, administration of 540 mg of magnesium per day for six months to sickle cell anemia patients reversed some of the characteristic red blood cell abnormalities and dramatically reduced the number of painful days for these patients. The form of magnesium used in this trial, magnesium pidolate, is not supplied by most magnesium supplements; it is unknown whether other forms of magnesium would produce similar results.

1 Star
Vitamin A
Refer to label instructions
Sickle cell anemia patients tend to have low levels of antioxidants, which protect cells from oxygen-related damage. Supplementing with vitamin A may help correct a deficiency.

Antioxidant nutrients protect the body's cells from oxygen-related damage. Many studies show that sickle cell anemia patients tend to have low blood levels of antioxidants, including carotenoids, vitamin A, vitamin E, and vitamin C, despite adequate intake. Low blood levels of vitamin E in particular have been associated with higher numbers of diseased cells in children and with greater frequency of symptoms in adults. A small, preliminary trial reported a 44% decrease in the average number of diseased cells in six sickle cell anemia patients given 450 IU vitamin E per day for up to 35 weeks. This effect was maintained as long as supplementation continued.

1 Star
Vitamin B6
Refer to label instructions
Vitamin B6 has been shown to have anti-sickling effects on the red blood cells. It can also correct vitamin B6 deficiency, which is common in people with sickle cell anemia.

Preliminary research has found that patients with sickle cell anemia are more likely to have elevated blood levels of homocysteine compared to healthy people. Elevated homocysteine is recognized as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. In particular, high levels of homocysteine in sickle cell anemia patients have been associated with a higher incidence of stroke. Deficiencies of vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and folic acid occur more frequently in people with sickle cell anemia than in others and are a cause of high homocysteine levels. A controlled trial found homocysteine levels were reduced 53% in children with sickle cell anemia receiving a 2-4 mg supplement of folic acid per day, depending on age, but vitamin B6 or B12 had no effect on homocysteine levels. A double-blind trial of children with sickle cell anemia found that children given 5 mg of folic acid per day had less painful swelling of the hands and feet compared with those receiving placebo, but blood abnormalities and impaired growth rate associated with sickle cell anemia were not improved. In the treatment of sickle cell anemia, folic acid is typically supplemented in amounts of 1,000 mcg daily. Anyone taking this amount of folic acid should have vitamin B12 status assessed by a healthcare professional.

In test tube studies, vitamin B6 has been shown to have anti-sickling effects on the red blood cells of people with sickle cell anemia. Vitamin B6 deficiency has been reported in some research to be more common in people with sickle cell anemia than in healthy people. In a controlled trial, five sickle cell anemia patients with evidence of vitamin B6 deficiency were given 50 mg of vitamin B6 twice daily. The deficiency was reversed with this supplement, but improvement in anemia was slight and considered insignificant. Therefore, evidence in support of vitamin B6 supplementation for people with sickle cell anemia remains weak.

1 Star
Vitamin C
Refer to label instructions
Sickle cell anemia patients tend to have low levels of antioxidants, which protect cells from oxygen-related damage. Supplementing with vitamin C may help correct a deficiency.

Antioxidant nutrients protect the body's cells from oxygen-related damage. Many studies show that sickle cell anemia patients tend to have low blood levels of antioxidants, including carotenoids, vitamin A, vitamin E, and vitamin C, despite adequate intake. Low blood levels of vitamin E in particular have been associated with higher numbers of diseased cells in children and with greater frequency of symptoms in adults. A small, preliminary trial reported a 44% decrease in the average number of diseased cells in six sickle cell anemia patients given 450 IU vitamin E per day for up to 35 weeks. This effect was maintained as long as supplementation continued.

In another preliminary trial, 13 patients with sickle cell anemia were given two supplement combinations for seven to eight months each. The first combination included 109 mg zinc, 153 IU vitamin E, 600 mg vitamin C, and 400 ml (about 14 ounces) of soybean oil containing 11 grams of linoleic acid and 1.5 grams of alpha linolenic acid. The second combination included 140 IU vitamin E, 600 mg vitamin C, and 20 grams of fish oil containing 6 grams of omega-3 fatty acids. Reduction in diseased cells was observed only during the administration of the first protocol. The authors concluded that zinc was the important difference between the two combinations and may be a protector of red blood cell membranes.

Fish oil alone has also been studied. In a double-blind trial, supplementation with menhaden oil, in the amount of 250 mg per 2.2 pounds of body weight per day for one year, reduced the frequency of severe pain episodes by approximately 45%, compared with placebo. This treatment may work by correcting an imbalance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids that occurs in people with sickle cell anemia.

1 Star
Vitamin E
Refer to label instructions
Low vitamin E levels have been associated with higher numbers of diseased cells in children and with greater symptom frequency in adults. Supplementing with the vitamin can help restore levels.

Antioxidant nutrients protect the body's cells from oxygen-related damage. Many studies show that sickle cell anemia patients tend to have low blood levels of antioxidants, including carotenoids, vitamin A, vitamin E, and vitamin C, despite adequate intake. Low blood levels of vitamin E in particular have been associated with higher numbers of diseased cells in children and with greater frequency of symptoms in adults. A small, preliminary trial reported a 44% decrease in the average number of diseased cells in six sickle cell anemia patients given 450 IU vitamin E per day for up to 35 weeks. This effect was maintained as long as supplementation continued.

In another preliminary trial, 13 patients with sickle cell anemia were given two supplement combinations for seven to eight months each. The first combination included 109 mg zinc, 153 IU vitamin E, 600 mg vitamin C, and 400 ml (about 14 ounces) of soybean oil containing 11 grams of linoleic acid and 1.5 grams of alpha linolenic acid. The second combination included 140 IU vitamin E, 600 mg vitamin C, and 20 grams of fish oil containing 6 grams of omega-3 fatty acids. Reduction in diseased cells was observed only during the administration of the first protocol. The authors concluded that zinc was the important difference between the two combinations and may be a protector of red blood cell membranes.

Fish oil alone has also been studied. In a double-blind trial, supplementation with menhaden oil, in the amount of 250 mg per 2.2 pounds of body weight per day for one year, reduced the frequency of severe pain episodes by approximately 45%, compared with placebo. This treatment may work by correcting an imbalance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids that occurs in people with sickle cell anemia.