Can Alcoholism Cause Anemia

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis completed medical school at The University of Mississippi Medical Center and residency in general psychiatry in 2003. He completed a fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 2005. Following this, he served as Chief Medical Officer for 10 years of Brentwood Behavioral Healthcare a private health system including a 105-bed hospital, residential treatment, and intensive outpatient services.

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Understanding the Relationship Between Alcoholism and Anemia

When people think about alcohol-related health problems, they usually picture liver damage. However, it’s important to remember that alcohol can also harm many other parts of the body. Some people may even find that it affects their body’s ability to make healthy blood. If you are dealing with anemia, there is a chance that alcohol might be the culprit. Here’s what you need to know about the connection between alcohol and anemia. 

What Is Anemia?

To understand why alcoholism and anemia are so closely related, learning a little about how anemia works is helpful. Anemia is a medical condition that occurs whenever a person has an abnormally low number of red blood cells. Red blood cells are supposed to carry oxygen throughout the body, so if you are anemic, you will not get enough oxygen delivered to your organs and tissues. 

There are over 400 different types of anemia. Some anemia happens because your body is not producing enough red blood cells. Other types of anemia happen when your blood cells are too deformed to carry oxygen or when your blood cells are destroyed before they can carry oxygen throughout your body. There are all sorts of causes of anemia, ranging from nutritional deficiencies to organ damage. 

Can Alcoholism Cause Anemia?

Since anemia is such a complex health condition, it’s often hard for medical professionals to identify a single specific cause of anemia. Despite this difficulty, several studies agree that there is a direct link between alcohol consumption and anemia.

In addition, research has found that the amount of alcohol people drink affects their chances of developing the condition. A study of both severe and moderate alcoholics found that those who drank more than 11 drinks per day had a higher rate of anemia

The connection between alcohol consumption and anemia is especially high in cases where researchers examine people in poor health. For example, one study of alcoholic men with cancer found that those who drank more were more anemic, and test subjects’ anemia went away once they quit drinking alcohol. When a person is already in poor health, alcohol use makes it more likely they will develop anemia.

Factors That Contribute to Developing Anemia

Many different factors can contribute to increased anemia rates among people who drink heavily. 

Poor Nutrition

One of the most common issues associated with anemia is a poor diet. Many people who struggle with alcohol deal with malnutrition because they focus on drinking alcohol instead of eating food. While alcohol can provide your body with some basic carbohydrates, it doesn’t have many vitamins and minerals. This can make it hard for people with an alcohol use disorder to get enough folate, vitamin C, vitamin B-12, and other essential nutrients. Unfortunately, this malnourishment makes it hard for the body to produce enough healthy red blood cells. 

Liver Damage

The damage that alcohol does to the body can make it much harder for people to stay in good shape. If you have liver damage caused by alcohol consumption, you might find that you also have anemia as a side effect. The liver plays a vital role in producing the enzymes that your body uses to turn food into nutrients. If your liver is damaged, your diet might not matter. Even if you eat enough vitamins and minerals, your digestive system might be unable to process them properly. This can lead to anemia related to vitamin deficiency.

Excessive Internal Bleeding

Anemia isn’t always caused by a body that’s incapable of producing red blood cells. In some cases, anemia happens when your body isn’t healthy enough to hold onto the red blood cells that it creates. If you have internal bleeding, blood loss can be severe enough to cause anemia. In some people with alcohol use disorders, anemia is caused by gastrointestinal hemorrhages. Alcohol damages the sensitive linings of the esophagus, stomach, and intestines, and a person has frequent internal bleeding. If you lose blood faster than your body can replace it, anemia is often the outcome.

Bone Marrow Abnormalities

Your bone marrow is essentially the factory where blood cells are made, so producing healthy blood cells can become more difficult if it is compromised. Unfortunately, analysis of the bone marrow of heavy drinkers shows that there are structural abnormalities within their bone marrow. This leads to abnormally shaped blood cells that cannot properly perform their job. A person with bone marrow abnormalities can develop anemia.

Signs You May Have Anemia

Anemia often goes undiagnosed because it doesn’t usually cause drastic symptoms. Especially in the earlier stages, anemia may be very hard to notice. However, even asymptomatic anemia can still cause health problems, so being able to recognize it right away is very important. Because of their higher risk of developing anemia, people with alcohol use disorders need to be on the lookout for these symptoms of anemia:

  • Pale skin
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Headache
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Dizziness
  • Leg cramps
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness during physical activity
  • Brittle nails
  • Unusual cravings for non-food items
  • Blue tint to the whites of the eyes
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Numbness or tingling in the extremities

Treatment Options for Alcohol-induced Anemia

If you suspect that you have anemia, it’s essential to talk to a doctor as soon as you can. A medical professional can both diagnose the condition and help you find the right treatment. Since alcohol contributes to so many of the causes of anemia, one of the best things you can do to manage your anemia is to stop drinking. During your visit with a doctor, they will most likely recommend you get professional help to adopt a sober lifestyle. Depending on your situation, there are several other actions that your doctor may recommend.

Vitamin Supplementation

In cases where anemia is caused by a deficiency of iron, folic acid, or B-12, your doctor will usually recommend supplements. Eating certain foods like red meat, dark leafy greens, and beans can help, but if your nutrient levels are so low that you have anemia, diet alone cannot quickly reverse it. Instead, you’ll need to take vitamins or get shots to ensure that you are getting an appropriate amount of nutrients.

Treating the Underlying Cause

Since so many cases of alcohol-induced anemia are caused by organ damage or other chronic health conditions, it might be necessary to treat underlying causes. You might need to go on a regimen of medications, shots of a hormone called erythropoietin, or even get surgery. 

Seeking Substance Use Treatment to Improve Your Health

If you have developed anemia because of your alcohol use disorder, getting sober is a good decision for your health and will probably improve the quality of your life in other areas as well. However, quitting drinking can often feel overwhelming. If you’re at a point where you find it difficult to stop drinking even though you have tried, it’s a good idea to seek substance use treatment.


When you enter an alcohol rehab program, a professional will gather all your information, including how much you have been drinking. They will then conduct a medical assessment. The evaluation helps the medical professional and other staff make informed decisions during your detoxification process.

The detoxification (detox) stage of treatment is where the alcohol leaves your system. During this process, you may experience dangerous withdrawal symptoms. Professionals will monitor you 24 hours a day to ensure that you remain healthy, and you may also be given medications to help reduce withdrawal symptoms. The staff’s goal is to keep you as comfortable as possible during detox.

Detox usually takes a few days to a week. Towards the end of the detox stage, when you feel a little better, a professional will work with you to develop your treatment plan. 

Inpatient and Outpatient Programs

There are different treatment programs for people dealing with alcohol use disorder. An outpatient program may be suitable for people who have not been struggling with alcohol for an extended period and have a strong support network outside the facility. An inpatient program may be appropriate for people with a long history of problems with alcohol, who have attended a rehab program in the past, or who need a more structured environment to stay sober. 


Whether you attend an outpatient program or one where you stay at the rehab center, your treatment plan will include therapy. For instance, cognitive behavioral therapy involves learning to recognize and change harmful thought patterns to maintain a sober lifestyle. During this type of therapy, rather than focusing on your past, you will be working to create a positive future by making healthy decisions. 

In group therapy, other clients with alcohol issues can provide you with insight into your behavior. The group also acts as a support system while in rehab and provides a safe space to share your feelings and thoughts. In family therapy, your loved ones can learn how to support your recovery.

Aftercare and Support Groups

Before your rehab center treatment program ends, professionals will work with you to make a plan for the future. These often involve weekly meetings with a therapist. Many people in recovery also find that 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous can help them stay sober and offer ongoing support. 

Defining Wellness Centers Is Here to Help

If you or a loved one struggles with alcohol use, it may be necessary to seek professional help. Heavy alcohol use can cause anemia and other serious health issues if left untreated. 

At Defining Wellness Centers, our team is committed to helping people rebuild their health. We offer several rehab options, including inpatient and outpatient alcohol use disorder treatment. Contact us today to find out more.

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