Fast Facts about Blood Health and Diet
Blood is the biggest organ in our body and blood health is often overlooked. As a hematologist, I often get questions about diet especially whether there are special nutrients that would boost the blood counts. Although there is no one special food or diet that is known to be improving blood health, there are common nutritional problems that can be linked to low blood counts.
Iron is an important ingredient for the body to make blood and interestingly most of the bodies iron stores is in blood. Iron deficiency is a common cause of low blood counts (a.k.a. anemia). Most common reason is usually bleeding as most Western diets contain plenty of iron. Therefore it’s unlikely to become iron deficient because of nutritional problems. It is fairly common in young women who have regular menstrual periods. In older people, it is often associated with invisible blood loss from digestive tract. Rarely, people may have trouble absorbing iron from the nutrients; especially after weight loss surgery. It is fairly easy to treat by iron supplements which are easily available over-the-counter. Most people experience some constipation while taking iron supplements. Contrary to the common belief, iron supplements or iron rich diet will not increase blood counts unless there is true iron deficiency. Some common iron rich food items include red meat, poultry, green leafy vegetables, dried fruit and nuts, fortified cereal and pastas. Vitamin C on the other hand will increase body’s ability to absorb iron so taking the iron pills with some orange juice is a simple but effective measure.
Alcohol: good or bad?
Little is well known about the effects of alcohol in blood health. There are several potential negative effects of alcohol especially if it’s consumed regularly. It can cause low red blood count leading to fatigue and shortness of breath. It can also lower your immune system by reducing white blood cell counts. It can cause a similar effect on blood platelet counts and clotting proteins which may result in propensity for bleeding.
What about blood type?
Blood type diet has become recently popular which is based on choosing a particular diet according to your blood type. There is absolutely no medical research data suggesting any health benefit from this approach.
Vitamin b12 and folic acid are two other important ingredients for red blood cell production. Vitamin B12 is ubiquitous in most diets and deficiency is usually because of digestive tracts inability to absorb the nutrients such as celiac disease. Therefore it is usually treated with B-12 injections. Folic acid on the other hand can be due to a diet poor in fresh vegetables. Cooked vegetables and meat are inferior sources because cooking destroys much of the folic acid. People who have celiac disease and chronic bowel problems are also prone. It is also well known that pregnancy increases the need for folic acid.
Blood counts are important part of your health in general. Your family doctor usually gets a “complete blood count” with your physicals. If there are any abnormalities in your blood counts, it may be a smart move to be referred to a hematologist who can offer a more comprehensive evaluation.
Written by Dr. Hande Tuncer
Lahey Medical Center, Department of Hematology-Oncology, Burlington MA