Red blood cells: how to increase red blood cell count through food and lifestyle
A low red blood count or anemia can cause feelings of fatigue and weakness. When people have a lower red blood count than normal, their body has to work overtime to get enough oxygen to the cells. This can leave a person feeling drained. Low red blood cell count can cause a variety of symptoms and complications.
There are a number of diet and lifestyle changes that people can make to help the body increase the number of red blood cells. However, if symptoms persist, it is important to see a doctor. Red blood cells are the most abundant cells in human blood. The cells contain hemoglobin, which is a protein that carries oxygen around the body. Hemoglobin is also responsible for the blood's distinctive color.
Red blood cells will circulate in the body for an average of 115 days. After this, they go to the liver, where they are broken down, and their nutrients are recycled back into the cells. Red blood cells are continuously produced in the bone marrow. If the body does not receive a regular supply of necessary nutrients, the red blood cells may become malformed or die off at a faster rate than the body can replace them.
How to know if I have a low red blood count?
Having a low red blood count or anemia can cause the following symptoms:
• shortness of breath
• heart palpitations
Anemia, which is the condition caused by low blood cell numbers, can lead to serious complications that may be life-threatening if left untreated.
Foods that increase red blood cell count
A low red blood cell count is usually due to low consumption of essential nutrients. Eating more nutrient-rich foods can give the body the necessary tools to create healthy red blood cells. These vitamins and minerals can also be taken as supplements, although it is best to get nutrients straight from healthful foods.
Try to consume foods that contain the following nutrients:
Iron is the nutrient most commonly associated with anemia. The body uses iron to make the hemoglobin that stores the oxygen in the blood cells. Without iron, these cells can die or be unable to deliver oxygen to the body. Eating foods rich in iron can help prevent symptoms of anemia and keep the blood healthy. Sources of iron include:
• shellfish, such as oysters, clams, and mussels
• fortified cereals
• prune juice
• chicken liver
• white beans
Vitamin B-12 is important for brain function and creating new red blood cells. Low vitamin B-12 levels can prevent red blood cells from fully maturing. This deficiency can lead to abnormal red blood cells called megaloblasts, and a condition called megaloblastic anemia. Vitamin B-12 is bound to protein in food and is naturally found in red meat, fish, and shellfish. Dairy products, such as milk and cheese, also contain vitamin B-12.
Vitamin B-12 is often added to fortified breakfast cereals, soya and nut milks, and nutritional yeast to supplement a person's daily intake, particularly if they follow a vegetarian or vegan diet.
Vitamin B-9 is also known as folic acid or folate. It is an essential nutrient for the nervous system and adrenal glands and helps create new cells in the body. People with low levels of folic acid may develop anemia. Foods high in folic acid include:
• enriched breads and grains
While vitamin C does not directly affect the red blood cells, it is still important because it helps the body absorb more iron. Iron helps increase the number of red blood cells that the body can make.
Vitamin C is found in a variety of foods, including:
• kiwi fruit
• sweet red pepper
• grapefruit juice
Copper is an essential mineral that helps the body use the iron in the bloodstream. If there is not enough copper in the body, it can be difficult for the body to absorb the iron the blood cells need to survive.
Copper can be found in foods such as:
• beef liver
• shellfish, such as oysters and crabs
• sunflower seeds
Retinol, commonly known as vitamin A, supports the red blood cell count in a similar way to copper. It can help the cells absorb the iron they need to stay healthy.
Foods rich in vitamin A include:
• beef liver
• sweet potato
• cod liver oil
• dark leafy greens, such as kale, collards, and spinach
• certain fruits, including cantaloupe and mango
Adopting new lifestyle habits
Making simple lifestyle changes can make a big difference in increasing red blood cell count. The following measures are examples of what can be undertaken:
Reducing alcohol consumption
It may be helpful to eliminate or reduce alcoholic beverages from the diet, as drinking too much alcohol may lower the RBC count.
According to dietary guidelines in the United States, moderate drinking for men is two alcoholic drinks per day or less and moderate drinking for women is one alcoholic drink a day or less.
Moderate exercise is beneficial for everyone, but it is especially important to create healthy red blood cells. Sustained vigorous exercise that raises the heart rate causes the body and brain to need more oxygen. This is why the heart beats faster, and the lungs breathe deeper and quicker. This need for oxygen stimulates the body to produce more red blood cells. Regular exercise combined with a healthful diet means the bone marrow has the best tools to create those cells.
• guided exercise classes, such as spinning or aerobics
Understanding blood count
Normal red blood cell counts vary from around 4.7 to 6.1 million cells per microliter (µL) for men and 4.2 to 5.4 million cells per µL for women. The normal count in children is 4.0 to 5.5 million cells per µL. These ranges can vary from person to person, and may also change depending on the lab that is doing the tests. Lower than average red blood cell counts can be caused by a number of conditions. These can include:
• bleeding and hemorrhaging
• kidney disease
• bone marrow failure
Higher than average red blood cell counts are dangerous and possibly life-threatening as well. They can be caused by several conditions, including:
• heart conditions
• bone marrow disease
• smoking tobacco
• kidney problems
Certain medications can also affect the blood count, making it higher or lower than normal levels.
When to see a doctor
Dietary and lifestyle changes are not enough in some cases, and doctors may recommend other options to help increase the number of red blood cells. Doctors may prescribe certain medications to stimulate the production of red blood cells in the body. Hormone treatment may be prescribed in cases of anemia caused by cancer, kidney disease, diabetes, or any other disorder that may have caused the body's natural hormones to malfunction.
If test results show that the person's low red blood cell count is caused by something else, doctors will attempt to treat the underlying condition. This may help the red blood cell count improve on its own, although diet and lifestyle choices can support this. In rare cases, doctors recommend blood transfusions. This is typically only done if the body does not respond to medications and lifestyle changes.
Author: Jon Johnson, reviewed by Elaine K. Luo, MD – 09/2017
Text slightly adapted
With kind permission to publish from MNT
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