If you have leukopenia, your levels of infection-fighting white blood cells, or leukocytes, are too low. Because neutrophils are the most common white blood cell, neutropenia also is used to describe low white cell counts. Numerous diseases or situations can cause lower production or increase destruction of white blood cells -- including radiation, chemotherapy, cancer, some genetic conditions, autoimmune disorders and certain medications. In general, specific foods, supplements or lifestyle interventions do not improve leukopenia. However, it's important to take steps to reduce infection risk and have your doctor evaluate and treat your low white blood cell count.
Leukopenia is managed by addressing the underlying reason for the low counts. In the case of nutrition, there are no known foods that increase white blood cells, but there are severe nutritional deficiencies -- vitamin B12, folate, copper or protein -- that can lead to leukopenia, and treating these low nutrient levels will increase white cell counts. However, it's rare to have leukopenia caused by these severe nutrient shortfalls, and correction of such deficiencies needs to be done in consultation with your doctor and dietitian. If you have leukopenia from any cause, good nutrition is important for providing the building blocks your body needs to make new white blood cells and to broadly improve your immune system. Eating an overall healthful diet, exercising regularly, getting adequate sleep and managing stress are known to benefit immune function.
If your white cell counts are already within a normal range, an increase is not necessarily a good thing. White blood cells increase with inflammation -- a normal and helpful immune function that helps healing. However, chronic or long-term inflammation can promote the development diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease. Unhealthy lifestyle behaviors are known to increase inflammation -- and white cell counts. In fact, even white blood cell counts within the upper end of the normal range may indicate an increased heart disease risk. A study published in the March 2003 issue of “Occupational Medicine” found higher white blood cell counts in people who smoked, skipped breakfast regularly, hardly ever exercised and in those who rarely ate a nutritionally balanced diet. A small study published in the July 2015 issue of “Brain, Behavior, and Immunity” found that a poor sleeping pattern can also increase white counts.
Reducing Infection Risk
Because low levels of white blood cells increase the risk of infection, it's wise for anyone with low counts to practice good oral hygiene, wash hands frequently, clean and properly bandage cuts and scrapes and avoid contact people who are ill. A neutropenic diet that restricts raw fruits and vegetables and unpasteurized or undercooked foods is sometimes recommended. This diet does not help improve white cell counts but has often been used to reduce the bacterial count of food and minimize infection risk. However, this diet has come under scrutiny in recent years as being too restrictive and not more effective in preventing infections compared to regular diets, according to summary of research published in the July 2015 issue of "Nutrition and Cancer." If you have low white cell counts, ask your doctor for advice on how to reduce your risk of infection.
If you have a low white blood cell count, your doctor will work with you to determine the cause and develop a treatment plan. This plan may include removing the cause, managing the underlying condition or using medications to increase white blood cell counts. Eating well is important for good immune function, but specific foods are not known to increase white cell counts. It is important to take steps to reduce infection risk. If you have leukopenia, any fever or infection should be reported to your doctor.
Reviewed by: Kay Peck, MPH, RD