The cells in your body need oxygen to carry out metabolism and produce enough energy to live and support your activities. Red blood cells are responsible for picking up oxygen from your lungs, transporting it in your bloodstream and delivering it to cells that need it. You need iron and a variety of vitamins for maintaining high numbers of healthy red blood cells to keep oxygen levels in your blood as high as necessary. Nutrition may prevent anemia, or unhealthy red blood cells, but hypoxemia, or low blood oxygen, can be a serious medical condition that requires a doctor’s attention, according to the Mayo Clinic.
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Iron is the mineral in red blood cells that binds to oxygen, and vitamin C increases your body’s ability to absorb iron in its nonheme form, according to the Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Center. Nonheme iron is the form that you get from plant-based sources of iron, such as potatoes, prunes, beans, lentils and nuts. Some of the best sources of vitamin C are citrus fruits, such as oranges, grapefruits and their juices, tomatoes, onions, strawberries, bell peppers and potatoes. Vitamin C does not affect the absorption of heme iron from animal-based sources.
Vitamins for Heme
Your blood oxygen levels could be low if you are not getting enough pantothenic acid, or vitamin B-5, and vitamin B-6. These vitamins are essential for synthesizing heme, which is the protein part of the hemoglobin molecule that carries iron and oxygen in your blood, according to the Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Center. Both of these vitamins are in a wide range of foods, such as fish, chicken, vegetables, nuts and lentils.
A deficiency of vitamin B-12 leads to megaloblastic anemia, with low blood oxygen levels and symptoms of fatigue and shortness of breath, according to the National Institutes of Health. Deficiency is rare among individuals who eat a varied diet, but strict vegetarians, or vegans, may be at risk for vitamin B-12 deficiency. The only natural sources of vitamin B-12 are animal-based foods, such as fish, yogurt, milk, chicken, beef and shrimp, but it is also in many fortified cereals.
Vitamin A deficiency makes iron deficiency more severe, so if you have low blood oxygen levels, be sure to take enough vitamin A, according to the Linus Pauling Institute. Vitamin A is in meats, cod liver oil, carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, mangoes, melon and pumpkin, as well as fortified milk. Vitamin A from fruits and vegetables does not lead to symptoms of toxicity, but it is possible to get toxic doses of vitamin A from meat or dietary supplements. Consult your doctor to reduce your risk of symptoms such as headaches, fatigue or muscle aches.
REFERENCES & RESOURCES
- National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements: Vitamin B-12
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010; January 2010
- Linus Pauling Institute; Vitamin C; Jane Higdon; January 2006
- Linus Pauling Institute; Vitamin A; Jane Higdon; January 2003
- Linus Pauling Institute; Vitamin B-6; Jane Higdon; February 2002
- MayoClinic.com; Hypoxemia (low blood oxygen); September 2010
- Linus Pauling Institute; Iron; Jane Higdon; January 2006