People with kidney issues, cancer and anemia often have too few red blood cells. In such cases, certain medicines can increase the number of red blood cells in the body. However, it's also possible to support the health of your blood with vitamins and minerals.
Nutrients, like copper, iron, vitamin A and B-complex vitamins, and drugs, like erythropoietin-stimulating agents, can all help increase red blood cell levels.
Blood Health and Nutrient Intake
Insufficient red blood cells can occur due to blood loss. This can also happen when your body produces less red blood cells than it ought to or destroys them faster than it can replace them. These blood-related problems can be caused by a variety of different issues.
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The Mayo Clinic says that the health issues that affect your red blood cell count can be caused by lead poisoning; cancer; inflammation of your blood vessels; and liver, kidney and spleen problems. It's also possible for your red blood cell count to be cause by anemia, which is associated with nutritional deficiencies.
According to Harvard Health Publishing and the Food and Drug Administration, a variety of nutrients are required for healthy blood. These nutrients, which affect your cardiovascular health in different ways, include:
- Vitamin A
- Riboflavin (vitamin B2)
- Niacin (vitamin B3)
- Vitamin B5
- Vitamin B6
- Folic acid (vitamin B9)
- Cobalamin (vitamin B12)
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin K
Out of these nutrients, copper, iron, vitamin A, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B5, vitamin B6, vitamin B9 and vitamin B12 are specifically associated with the production of blood cells. If you're concerned about the health of your blood, pay attention to your intake of these vitamins and minerals.
Essential Blood Vitamins and Minerals
Copper, iron, vitamin A, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B5, vitamin B6, vitamin B9 and vitamin B12 are all essential nutrients, which means you need to consume them on a daily basis for optimal health. The Food and Drug Administration states that the daily values (DVs) for these nutrients are:
- 2 milligrams of copper
- 18 milligrams of iron
- 5,000 international units of vitamin A
- 1.7 milligrams of riboflavin (vitamin B2)
- 20 milligrams of niacin (vitamin B3)
- 10 milligrams of vitamin B5
- 2 milligrams of vitamin B6
- 400 micrograms of folic acid (vitamin B9)
- 6 micrograms of vitamin B12
With the exception of folic acid, which can be found in many plant-based foods, all of these are nutrients are commonly found in animal products like eggs, dairy, meat and seafood. If you exclusively consume a plant-based diet, you may not find it easy to get enough of these essential vitamins and minerals.
Certain nutrients that affect the health of your blood are vitamins and minerals that are not consumed in sufficient quantities by many Americans. The FDA refers to these as nutrients of concern.
Calcium, potassium and vitamin D, which are involved in other aspects of cardiovascular health, are all considered nutrients of concern. Iron, which is directly involved in red blood cell formation, is a nutrient of concern for young children, pregnant women and women who may become pregnant.
Foods Rich in Blood-Related Nutrients
If you know that you're deficient in a certain blood-related nutrient, you should increase your consumption of foods rich in that particular vitamin or mineral. You can easily find:
- Copper in legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains and shellfish.
- Iron in meat products, eggs, fruits and green vegetables.
- Vitamin A in most animal products, including dairy and eggs, as retinoids. It can also be found in many plants, like sweet potatoes, carrots, pumpkins, mangoes and spinach as beta-carotene.
- Vitamin B2 in dairy, eggs and leafy green vegetables.
- Vitamin B3 in meat, seafood, whole grains, mushrooms and potatoes.
- Vitamin B5 in meat, eggs, whole grains, broccoli, mushrooms, avocados and tomatoes.
- Vitamin B6 in meat products, seafood products, legumes, soy products, potatoes, bananas and watermelons.
- Vitamin B9 in asparagus, okra, spinach, broccoli and legumes.
- Vitamin B12 in meat products, seafood products, dairy and eggs. Certain mushrooms and sea vegetables are also rich plant-based sources of this nutrient.
Iron and several B-complex vitamins, particularly vitamins B2, B9 and B12, can also be found in fortified grains and cereals. You might also find these nutrients in fortified soy beverages or juices.
Supplements and Blood-Related Nutrients
It's also possible to take supplements that contain blood-related nutrients. In certain cases, like with anemia caused by a nutrient deficiency, your doctor may recommend that you take a vitamin or mineral supplement to bring your levels back to normal. This is common for both vitamin B12 and iron-related deficiencies.
It's best to try to meet your nutritional needs from your diet, when possible. If you choose to take supplements, make sure you don't consume excessive amounts. Consuming too much of certain vitamins and minerals may result in unpleasant side effects.
Harvard Health Publishing lists the upper limit for blood vitamins and minerals as:
- 10 milligrams of copper
- 45 milligrams of iron
- 10,000 international units (or 3,000 micrograms) of vitamin A
- 35 milligrams of niacin (vitamin B3)
- 100 milligrams of vitamin B6
- 1,000 micrograms of folic acid (vitamin B9)
That being said, certain people do need more nutrients than average. For example, people with malabsorption disorders can't absorb nutrients very well and may require long-term supplementation. In such cases, these upper limits may not apply and dietary changes may be required.
Medications to Increase Blood Cells
Dietary changes may not be enough to increase red blood cells in people with chronic illness. If you have anemia caused by cancer, kidney disease or other serious or ongoing health problems, your doctor may recommend a blood-making medicine known as an erythropoietin-stimulating agent.
Erythropoietin is a hormone produced by your kidneys. According to the Cleveland Clinic, this hormone helps make red blood cells in your bone marrow. In some cases, people (including those with kidney problems or receiving chemotherapy) aren't able to produce enough erythropoietin. In other cases, people may not be able to receive blood transfusions. Erythropoietin-stimulating agents are consequently used as a medicine to increase blood in the body.
However, these blood-making medications can also come with side effects. Common side effects of erythropoietin-stimulating agents include:
- Increased blood pressure
- Swelling and inflammation
This blood-making medication also has the potential to increase your risk of blood clots. If your hemoglobin levels become excessively elevated, they could also put you at risk for other cardiovascular issues, like heart attacks and strokes.
If your doctor has recommended that you take erythropoietin-stimulating agents, consuming a healthy diet rich in blood vitamins and minerals is still essential. In many cases, additional iron or other nutrient supplementation may also be necessary.
- Cleveland Clinic: "Erythropoietin-Stimulating Agents"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Listing of Vitamins"
- Mayo Clinic: "Supplements: Nutrition in a Pill?"
- FDA: "Vitamins and Minerals Chart"
- Mayo Clinic: "Low Hemoglobin Count"
- NIH: "Iron Fact Sheet for Health Professionals"
- NIH: "Vitamin B12 Fact Sheet for Health Professionals"