For those of us with haemochromatosis, adhering to a regular venesection regime is a “must do” to reduce iron levels, however this simple procedure can also leave us feeling a little out of sorts. So, how do we give ourselves the best chance of recovery? Well, it all comes down to the planning!
But first, what is a venesection and what do we mean when we talk about reducing our iron levels?
A therapeutic venesection, or phlebotomy as it is also called in other parts of our wonderful world, is the simplest and quickest way of managing the iron levels in our blood. Each venesection removes approximately 470ml of blood (around 10% of the body’s overall blood levels) and can reduce the amount of iron in our body by about 250mg. The procedure is identical to a blood donation, with the exception that a venesection requires a doctor’s authorisation.
Just as people with haemochromatosis can experience different symptoms, so too the regularity of prescribed venesections can vary widely subject to age, gender, serum ferritin levels and the speed at which your body absorbs iron. At first it may be necessary to undergo a venesection weekly (particularly when you are first diagnosed with haemochromatosis and it is necessary to return iron levels to a healthy range), with this requirement reducing once your iron levels are under control.
When someone with haemochromatosis talks about having “high iron levels” we are really talking about iron which is excess to normal body function (which the body has no way of eliminating) and which is stored as ferritin, the major iron storage protein in the body.
A healthy ferritin range is around 12-300ng/mL (nanograms per millilitre) for a male and 12-150ng/mL for a female. People receiving treatment for haemochromatosis will generally be required by their GP to undertake regular venesections until they achieve a ferritin level below 50ng/mL, with maintenance thereafter to sustain a range of 25-75ng/mL. To ensure optimum health, it is important NOT to abandon your prescribed venesection regime once your iron levels appear to be under control (yes, you know who you are!).
I’m fortunate enough to be in what you might call the “maintenance” phase, whereby my iron levels have reduced to a healthy range which can be managed with periodic venesections. Until recently I was giving blood every two months, however with my ferritin levels now down to 59, my GP has recommended I drop back to 3 monthly venesections. Won’t argue with that advice!
Last week I visited my local Red Cross Blood Service for my scheduled venesection. While I know sticking to regular venesections will be a lifelong requirement, personally I just love the experience and get a real buzz from knowing my blood can be re-used to help others in need. It is the ultimate way to “pay it forward”.
The venesection procedure is simple enough, taking around 15 minutes to collect the blood, with a further 20-30 recovery period (I’m a massive people watcher so being told to sit and do nothing for half an hour is easy for me – the time whizzes by). For the most part, I recover pretty well from a venesection, however there are other times when recuperation is just that little more protracted and I feel washed out or my bruising lingers. Over the years, however, I have learnt how to best prepare for this treatment, and here’s my favourite tips:
- My number one tip in preparing for a venesection is to drink lots of H2O or coconut water (up to 8 cups overall). Before the treatment, the increased fluid assists with blood flow (you can be in and out more quickly) and post treatment it will assist with faster hydration and overall recovery.
- Eat a healthy meal before the donation as per normal. There is no requirement to be nil by mouth for these treatments, so be sure to eat plenty of nourishing whole grains and fruits and vegetables.
- After your venesection it is not unusual to feel a little dizzy, afterall your body has lost quite a lot of blood and the less blood you have the less oxygen it can carry around your body. Be kind to yourself and give yourself plenty of time to recover by enjoying the lounge and free refreshments (you could even use this time to Instagram or Tweet a photo to raise awareness of the importance of donating blood more generally using the hashtag #save3lives!).
- Drink cold liquids after your donation to assist your blood pressure return to normal. Personally I love the milkshakes on offer at the Blood Service, which enables me to not only replenish necessary liquid but also provides an additional calcium hit (I overlook the sugar on these occasions). You can also re-energise with a homemade smoothie, like my Strawberry, Banana and Coconut Delight or Watermelon, Cucumber and Mint Refresher, both of which are super delicious and hydrating.
- Plan your exercise regime around your venesection such that you don’t partake in any strenuous activity for 24 hours after donating. I always plan my venesection on a “rest day” to ensure I’m not putting undue stress on my body.
- Take a bottle of water with you to drink over the next few hours, and keep refilling it throughout the day.
- Reduce the risk of a large bruise by keeping the bandage on your arm for four hours after donating and by avoiding heavy lifting. If you do get a bruise, apply a cold pack to the area in the first instance to help reduce the swelling. Aloe Vera gel, lavender oil and crushed fresh parsley have also been noted to help speed up the heeling process.
- Be proud of yourself and revel in the knowledge that your donation (even though necessary for your own health) has helped save the lives of up to three other people.
What have you learnt from participating in regular venesections? Let me know your personal tips and experiences so we can collectively build on our “feel good” list above.
- 1/4 watermelon, chopped (skin removed)
- 1 cucumber, sliced
- 1 handful of mint leaves
- Throw all ingredients into a blender, blitz and enjoy!
- 1 ripe banana
- 100g strawberries
- 1 cup coconut water
- 1/4 cup coconut cream
- Simply place all ingredients in a blender, blitz and enjoy!
- You can also freeze the bananas and strawberries for a colder smoothie.