Your blood contains red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. Taking a hematocrit, or HCT, blood test can help determine the amount of red blood cells in your blood. Both high and low levels can be indicative of a health problem that may require medical treatment and dietary changes.
Hematocrit Levels and Your Health
When a person has low hematocrit levels, it can be a sign of another medical problem. Low hematocrit levels can be caused by conditions like cancer, bone marrow disease, kidney problems, anemia or simply a nutritional deficiency of essential nutrients like iron, vitamin B-12 or folate. In contrast, high hematocrit levels may be caused by conditions like congenital heart disease, polycythemia vera, lung disease or dehydration.
Not all changes in hematocrit levels require medical treatment, though. Your hematocrit levels can also change because of recent blood transfusions, pregnancy or visiting a place at high altitude — which means that some amount of fluctuation is normal. If you already know that your hematocrit levels are higher or lower than average, it's best to consult your doctor about what to do next.
But once they're seriously high or low, it can be difficult to resolve your hematocrit levels on your own through lifestyle or dietary changes. Even nutritional deficiencies that have affected your hematocrit levels may require treatment by a healthcare practitioner.
Elevated Hematocrit Levels and Diet
The only dietary factor that might produce elevated hematocrit levels is your fluid consumption. The Mayo Clinic recommends the consumption of around 15.5 cups (3.7 liters) of fluid per day for men and 11.5 cups (2.7 liters) of fluid a day for women. This amount doesn't just refer to water, but the fluids you ingest from food products and other beverages too.
Of course, this amount can vary from person to person. Some people don't need this much fluid each day. In contrast, people who exercise or live in hot climates, or are pregnant, breastfeeding or ill all need more fluids than normal. Insufficient fluid intake is actually the most common cause of high hematocrit levels.
Fortunately, resolving dehydration-related elevated hematocrit levels is fairly simple. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine's website, MedlinePlus, simply increasing your fluid consumption can help bring your levels back to normal.
Low Hematocrit Levels and Diet
Resolving low hematocrit levels can be challenging and often requires the assistance of a medical practitioner. If your hematocrit levels are low from a nutrient deficiency, chances are that you're specifically deficient in an important blood-related vitamin or mineral. Deficiencies in nutrients like iron, vitamin B-12 and folic acid can all cause serious issues, like anemia.
If you're anemic and your doctor has identified that you have low hematocrit levels, you'll likely have to consume supplements to rapidly raise your levels. These may be pills, capsules or even intramuscular injections, depending on the nutrient. Your doctor will help you identify which supplement is best for you.
Low hematocrit levels may have originally been caused by a poor diet, so your doctor may also advise you on dietary changes you should make going forward. However, low levels may also be from other factors, like malabsorption disorders. In such cases, you may have been consuming a perfectly healthy diet, but your body may not have been able to absorb enough of the nutrients it needs.
If this is the case, you may need to take supplements over the long term. Nonetheless, you should still try to maintain a healthy diet. In particular, you'll want to keep an eye on your consumption of nutrients like copper, iron, vitamin A and most B-complex vitamins (specifically, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B5, vitamin B6, folic acid and vitamin B12). According to Harvard Health and the Food and Drug Administration, all of these nutrients are involved in blood cell production.
Nutrients to Support Hematocrit Levels
Copper, iron, vitamin A and B-complex vitamins are all essential vitamins. This means you need to consume them every day to maintain good health. However, they all need to be obtained in different amounts. According to the Food and Drug Administration, the recommended daily values for blood-related nutrients are:
- 2 milligrams for copper
- 18 milligrams for iron
- 5,000 international units for vitamin A
- 1.7 milligrams for riboflavin (vitamin B2)
- 20 milligrams for niacin (vitamin B3)
- 10 milligrams for vitamin B5
- 2 milligrams for vitamin B6
- 400 micrograms for folic acid (vitamin B9)
- 6 micrograms for cobalamin (vitamin B12)
These nutrients are present in many different plant and animal products. However, in many cases, animal products have much larger amounts of these nutrients compared to other foods. For instance, you can obtain 245 percent of the daily value for copper from 3 ounces of oysters, but you'll only be able to get 35 percent of the DV from a medium-sized baked potato.
Another particularly good example of this is vitamin B12 — a nutrient found in animal products such as meat, seafood, dairy products and eggs. This can make it challenging for vegans and other people following plant-based diets to obtain adequate amounts of this nutrient.
Fortunately, you can also get vitamin B12 through enriched foods. The National Institutes of Health states that cereals and yeasts are often fortified with this nutrient. You can also obtain naturally occurring vitamin B12 from a few specific plants. According to a May 2014 study in Nutrients, vitamin B12 can be found in black trumpet mushrooms, golden chanterelle mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms, green and purple laver seaweed, and chlorella, a type of micro-algae.
As you can see, many of these foods are fairly specific. If you're following a plant-based diet and are concerned about your red blood cell production, you won't be able to obtain most of the nutrients you need for good blood health from any single food. You'll need to consume a highly varied diet or consider taking supplements regularly.
- Nutrients: "Vitamin B12-Containing Plant Food Sources for Vegetarians"
- NIH: "Vitamin B12 Fact Sheet for Health Professionals"
- NIH: "Copper Fact Sheet for Health Professionals"
- FDA: "Vitamins and Minerals Chart"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Listing of Vitamins"
- MedlinePlus: "Hematocrit Test"
- Mayo Clinic: "Water: How Much Should You Drink Every Day?"