A low red blood cell (RBC) count can be due to reduced production of the blood cells or erythrocytes, an increase in its rate of destruction, or both.
To fix a low RBC count, increase your intake of foods rich in iron, copper, and several vitamins, exercise regularly and avoid drinking alcohol. Additionally, make sure to uncover underlying conditions linked to anemia and follow through with the recommended treatment. Read on to learn more about these actions.
Pro Tip: Monitor if there’s progress in your red blood cell count through an RBC blood test – a crucial part of any complete blood count (CBC).
- Increase Your Consumption of Nutrient-Rich Food
Low RBC can improve through dietary adjustments, especially if it is linked to nutrient deficiency. Minerals like iron and copper play a vital role in forming hemoglobin – a key protein in red blood cells.
In addition, some vitamins also aid in ensuring the RBCs are formed without deformities. Since these nutrients get absorbed from food, it only makes sense to increase your intake to provide the raw molecular ingredient for RBC production (clinically known as erythropoiesis).
Iron is a crucial component of heme, a co-factor required for building hemoglobin which facilitates the oxygen binding in the red blood cells. Thus, healthy blood cells cannot form without enough iron, which leads to insufficient or dysfunctional red blood cells.
The next time you plan for your meals, make sure to include these iron-dense foods:
- Lean meat
- Organ meats
- Fortified foods
- Dark chocolate
- Nuts and seeds
- Beans and lentils
Did You Know? If you’re a female and have low red blood cells due to a lack of iron, there’s also a chance that you develop alopecia. Read about how iron deficiency can cause female hair loss and the preventive measures you can take.
Copper is another mineral needed for the formation of hemoglobin and iron metabolism. It is present in all tissues, but copper can be found more in organs like the liver and brain, wherein they are stored and then used for RBC production. Foods high in copper are:
- Leafy greens
- Organ meats
- Whole grains
- Nuts and seeds
Different types of vitamins provide additional support for the absorption of iron, which in turn helps increase red blood cell buildup. These vitamins include folates and vitamins A and C.
Vitamin B12, for example, helps in the formation of heme and the maturation of red blood cells. It’s an essential prenatal vitamin that you can get from dietary sources and prevent low RBC during pregnancy. Other vitamins ensure the erythrocytes are formed without morphological defects.
Add the following food sources of these vitamins to your diet.
B Vitamins and Folic Acid
- Lean meat
- Leafy greens
- Dairy products
- Fortified breakfast cereals
- Fatty fish
- Dairy products
- Sweet potatoes
- Citrus fruits
- Bell peppers
- Cruciferous vegetables
Pro Tip: Vitamin deficiencies don’t just contribute to low RBC count or anemia. They also trigger other health conditions affecting your metabolism and other physiological activities. Monitor your insufficient absorption or intake of essential vitamins when you get the basic vitamin panel.
- Take Recommended Supplements
Iron supplementation is often prescribed for pregnant women and those diagnosed with anemia to improve their RBC count, along with folic acid and other vitamins. You can buy these supplements over the counter or in your local stores.
However, keep in mind that supplementation may not always work, especially if you are taking another treatment or certain medications for other diseases. For example, if you’re receiving iron injections, stir clear from taking oral iron supplements, as this could lead to iron poisoning or hemochromatosis. Thus, it’s crucial to consult your doctor first.
- Be Consistent With Your Exercise
Light to moderate exercise training can increase red blood cells by stimulating the healthy growth of the spongy tissue of the bone marrow. In addition, it helps release hormones that speed up RBC production. Plus, it also enables you to counteract extreme fatigue, allowing you to perform your daily tasks.
However, keep in mind that exercise must be done regularly. Also, avoid strenuous training or overexercising, as this impacts cardiovascular functions, affecting oxygen transport.
You can start with moderate exercises like running, cycling, or brisk walking. For best results, consult your doctor about which type of exercise suits your condition best.
Don’t have the time to go to a gym for a regular workout? Read our article on light physical activities you can do at home.
- Avoid Drinking Alcohol
Heavy alcohol drinking decreases the number of red blood cells produced in the bone marrow. This is because alcohol suppresses the development of healthy morphologically correct RBCs that do not undergo premature hemolysis. Plus, alcohol also impacts kidney function, limiting the production of erythropoietin – a critical hormone that stimulates erythrocyte formation.
Hence, if you receive a low RBC count in your CBC, make sure to avoid or limit your intake of alcohol and other unhealthy habits. If you’re pursuing detoxification, start the process by assessing how much alcohol you have in your system via an alcohol by ethanol urine test.
- Address the Underlying Condition
Low RBC means that there could be an underlying health condition requiring your attention. While it’s an abnormality in itself, it could also be part of symptoms for disorders, such as cancer, inflammatory disorders, infections, hypothyroidism, kidney disease, and other types of anemia. Below are mechanisms on how low blood count is triggered through the said conditions.
Some cancers affect the production of red blood cells in the bone marrow, prompting low RBC circulation. But cancer treatment, specifically chemotherapy, is also known to cause anemia – which is why blood transfusion is often part of the procedure.
Individuals who acquire human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection are prone to experience a drop in their RBC levels, along with a decrease in other blood cells, like the CD4 lymphocytes. Therefore, if you have a positive result in your HIV test, you’ll most likely need to take a CD4 count blood test and CBC.
An underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) means that thyroid hormones like thyroxine (T4) are secreted below normal values. This impacts the maturation of red blood cells since such hormones are required for their stimulation and regulation. In addition, low erythrocytes in hypothyroidism are also linked with the fact that plasma volume is notably lower among diagnosed patients.
Pro Tip: Boost your thyroid function by increasing your intake of foods that are rich in iron and selenium. Check out other ways to improve thyroid activities that stand alone or supplement treatment for thyroid problems.
Chronic Inflammatory Disorders
Frequent inflammation caused by flare-ups from disorders like rheumatoid arthritis can slow down red blood cell production. As a result, such conditions trigger different types of anemia. In the same way, those with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) also suffer the same consequence, which can be aggravated by nutrient malabsorption.
Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD)
Kidneys produce the hormone erythropoietin, which signals the making of RBCs. So if you have CKD, there’s a high chance that this hormone will be supplied short, leading to a low red blood cell count. Additionally, a 2019 study suggests that patients with early-stage CKD are also at risk of having erythrocytes with shorter lifespans.
Hemolytic anemia occurs when your body destroys red blood cells (hemolysis) faster than the normal rate. Hemolysis is necessary to replace old worn-out RBCs with new ones. However, medical conditions like certain autoimmune diseases and porphyria induce too much hemolysis leading to low RBC count.
Thalassemia is a genetic blood disorder wherein the body fails to make enough hemoglobin for the RBCs. Hence, as a direct consequence, you get insufficient red blood cells. While supplements and strict dietary adjustment help in managing thalassemia, a bone marrow transplant is often recommended for those with severe cases.
Sickle Cell Anemia
Sickle cell anemia is characterized by misshapen red blood cells that appear in a crescent or sickle shape, and have a relatively short lifespan. RBCs for patients with sickle cell anemia tend to die within 10 to 20 days instead of their normal lifespan of 120 days, leading to low red blood cell count. Also, due to the morphology of the red blood cells, hemoglobin often fails to bind with oxygen.
- Don’t Ignore Your Treatment
Whether it’s an iron supplement, lifestyle adjustment, or specific medications for underlying diseases, increasing your RBCs entails strict treatment compliance. Otherwise, you may suffer complications that could be fatal. In addition, if blood transfusion is required, make sure to follow proper protocol as instructed by your doctor and the medical technicians.
Before undergoing the procedure, you’ll typically have to undergo a blood typing test, especially if you’re unaware of what blood type you have. Once all crucial data is collected, and the medical professional facilitating the lab procedure finds a match, you’ll receive new blood via intravenous (IV) line. For more details on this process, read our article on how a blood type test can save your life.
What It Means To Have Low RBC
A low RBC count is the hallmark of anemia – a condition characterized by the lack of healthy red blood cells. As a result, critical physiological functions can become significantly affected, such as transporting insufficient oxygen to cells (hypoxia) and collecting wastes for excretion. In addition, cells receiving low oxygen can experience damage which will only worsen over time.
If left undiagnosed, let alone untreated, anemia can develop complications that can be life-threatening, such as:
- Heart failure: Low RBC levels force your heart to pump more blood to compensate for the inadequacy. This results in irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) and shortness of breath, leading to heart problems.
- Premature birth: Pregnant women are prone to anemia as the demand for more blood cells increases to support the growing fetus. Those who experience maternal anemia due to iron deficiency have a higher risk of giving birth prematurely.
These complications often develop with other conditions. For example, heart problems can result from confounding factors that include anemia and high cholesterol in the blood.
Nonetheless, detecting any indication of anemia through the following low red blood cell count symptoms can protect you from its critical consequences.
- Pale skin
- Chest pain
- Heart palpitations
- Breathing problem
- Cold hands and feet
Let your doctor know about these conditions. Then, get a complete blood count to assess your RBC count and other biomarkers for anemia.
Frequently Asked Questions
Should I be worried if my RBC is low?
Lower than normal RBC count should be a concern as it may indicate anemia due to malnutrition or nutrient deficiency. Although these conditions can be treated without a higher risk for complication, other low erythrocyte causes can be life-threatening, such as internal bleeding, chronic kidney disease (CKD), and certain types of cancer.
What level of low RBC is concerning?
Red blood cell count should not be lower than 6.1 million cells/ uL for men, 5.4 million cells/ uL for women, and 5.5 million cells/ uL for children. Otherwise, it signals low RBC leading to anemia. You also have to look out for dangerously low hemoglobin, which is ≦13.5 gm/dL for men and ≦12 gm/dL for women. These data allow for an accurate diagnosis of what’s causing the blood abnormality.
What cancers cause low blood count?
All types of cancer increase your risk of chronic anemia, characterized mainly by low blood count. But cancers like lymphoma, leukemia, and multiple myeloma directly contribute to decreased RBC production. This is because these cancers affect the bone marrow, the center of red blood cell formation.
Does RBC decrease with age?
Studies show the RBC count declines as you get older, along with your hemoglobin concentration, hematocrit values, and the general decrease in the serum metabolic rate. This trend is tied up with the fact that red blood cells undergo physiological damage and modifications over time, causing changes in their density and multiple chemical reactions at the molecular level.
What is the most common reason for low red blood cell count?
Affecting more than 1.2 billion people worldwide, iron-deficiency anemia remains the most common cause of low RBC count, with higher prevalence among women and children.
Iron-deficiency anemia develops when there is a shortage in red blood cells due to insufficient iron. This could be due to malabsorption in the gastrointestinal tract, blood loss, or underlying medical conditions that trigger such events. Although the lack of iron-rich dietary sources is not prevalent in the US as a crucial cause of the deficiency, low-income households are at risk for anemia due to such reasons.
The Bottom Line
Without proper action, a low red blood cell count causes complications that may eventually require a blood transfusion. However, you can supplement your health recovery and help fix low erythrocyte levels through the above mentioned steps. In addition, take an RBC test via CBC to monitor any improvement.