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A low red blood count, or anemia, can cause feelings of fatigue and weakness. When a person has a lower red blood count than is normal, their body has to work harder to get enough oxygen to the cells.

A low red blood cell (RBC) count can cause a variety of symptoms and health complications.

There are several diet and lifestyle changes people can make to help the body increase its RBC count. However, if symptoms continue, it is important to see a doctor.

RBCs are the most common component of human blood. The cells contain hemoglobin, which is a protein that carries oxygen around the body. Hemoglobin is also responsible for blood's red color.

RBCs circulate the body for an average of 115 days. After this, they go to the liver, where they break down. The body recycles their nutrients back into the cells.

The bone marrow continuously produces RBCs. If the body does not receive a regular supply of necessary nutrients, the RBCs may become malformed or die off at a faster rate than the body can replace them.

In this article, we look at dietary and lifestyle changes that support RBC production, as well as giving an overview of how to understand RBC count and recognize the symptoms of low RBC levels.

a person eating a plate of food that may help increase red blood cell countShare on Pinterest
A person may increase their RBC count by eating more nutrient-dense foods.

A low RBC count usually occurs when a person does not eat enough essential nutrients. Eating more nutrient-dense foods can give the body the necessary tools to create functional RBCs.

People can also take these essential vitamins and minerals as supplements, although it is best to get nutrients from healthful foods in the diet if possible. It is best to consume foods that provide the following nutrients:

Iron

Iron is the nutrient with most links to anemia. The body uses iron to make hemoglobin, which stores oxygen in the blood cells. Without iron, these cells may die or become unable to send oxygen around the body.

Eating foods with plenty of iron can help prevent symptoms of anemia and nourish the blood. Good sources of iron include:

  • shellfish, such as oysters, clams, and mussels
  • fortified cereals
  • oysters
  • spinach
  • chocolate with 45–69% cacao solids
  • chickpeas
  • tuna
  • sardines
  • baked potato with the skin attached
  • beef liver
  • beef
  • tofu
  • chicken liver
  • white beans
  • lentils

Vitamin B-12

Vitamin B-12 is important for brain function and creating new RBCs. Low vitamin B-12 levels can prevent RBCs from fully maturing.

A B-12 deficiency can trigger the development of abnormal RBCs called megaloblasts, which may lead to a condition doctors call megaloblastic anemia.

Vitamin B-12 binds to protein in food and naturally occurs in red meat, fish, and shellfish. Dairy products, such as milk and cheese, also contain vitamin B-12.

Manufacturers often fortify breakfast cereals, milk substitutes, and nutritional yeast with vitamin B-12. Eating these foods can supplement a person's daily intake, particularly if they do not eat meat or dairy.

Vitamin B-9

Vitamin B-9 is also known as folic acid or folate. It is an essential nutrient for the nervous system and adrenal glands. Folate also helps to create new cells in the body.

People with low levels of folate may develop anemia. Foods high in folic acid include:

  • beef liver
  • asparagus
  • brussels sprouts
  • green, leafy vegetables, such as spinach and mustard greens
  • oranges and orange juice
  • peanuts
  • black-eyed peas
  • kidney beans
  • enriched breads and grains

Vitamin C

While vitamin C does not directly affect RBCs, it is still important, because it helps the body absorb more iron. Iron increases the number of RBCs that the body makes.

Vitamin C occurs in a variety of foods, including:

  • kiwifruit
  • red and green peppers
  • broccoli
  • strawberries
  • tomatoes
  • baked potatoes
  • oranges
  • grapefruit juice

Some manufacturers also fortify food with vitamin C.

Copper

Copper is an essential mineral that helps the body use the iron in the blood. If someone is deficient in copper, their body has difficulties absorbing iron into the blood cells.

The following foods are good sources of copper:

  • beef liver
  • shellfish, such as oysters and crabs
  • cashews
  • chocolate
  • sunflower seeds
  • sesame seeds
  • potatoes
  • mushrooms
  • avocados
  • chickpeas
  • tofu

Vitamin A

Retinol, or vitamin A, supports a person's RBC count similarly to copper. It may help the cells absorb the iron they need to function at full capacity.

Foods that can supply vitamin A include:

  • beef liver
  • some fish, including salmon
  • sweet potato
  • carrot
  • dark leafy greens, such as kale, collards, and spinach
  • broccoli
  • carrots
  • squash
  • certain fruits, including cantaloupe, apricots, and mango
  • cod liver oil

Making simple lifestyle changes can have a significant impact on a person's RBC count.

Reducing alcohol consumption

It may be helpful to eliminate or reduce alcoholic beverages from the diet, as drinking too much alcohol may lower the RBC count.

According to dietary guidelines in the United States, moderate drinking for adult males is two alcoholic drinks per day or less. For adult females, moderate drinking is one alcoholic drink a day or less.

Exercising

Moderate exercise can provide benefits for any person who practices it. However, it is especially important for creating healthy RBCs.

Sustained vigorous exercise that raises the heart rate increases the body and brain's need for oxygen. This is why the heart beats faster, and the lungs breathe deeper and quicker.

This need for oxygen stimulates the body to produce more RBCs. Regular exercise alongside a healthful diet means the bone marrow has the best tools to create those cells.

Possible workouts include:

  • running
  • jogging
  • cycling
  • swimming
  • guided exercise classes, such as spinning or aerobics

However, even taking the stairs instead of an elevator, going for a walk, or engaging in a little gardening can count toward a daily or weekly exercise requirement.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommend engaging in 150 minutes of moderate-to-intense physical activity per week.

Having a low red blood count or anemia can cause symptoms that may include:

Anemia can lead to serious complications that may be life threatening without treatment.

Read more on anemia here.

Normal RBC counts vary from around:

  • 4.7–6.1 million cells per microliter (µL) of blood for males
  • 4.2–5.4 million cells per µL of blood for females
  • 4.0–5.5 million cells per µL of blood for children

These ranges can vary between individuals and may also change depending on the lab performing the tests.

Several disorders can cause an RBC count to be lower than normal. These can include:

  • bleeding and hemorrhaging
  • malnutrition
  • kidney disease
  • bone marrow failure
  • pregnancy
  • overhydration

Higher than average RBC counts are also dangerous and may also be life threatening. Several conditions can increase RBC levels too far, including:

  • heart conditions
  • bone marrow disease
  • smoking tobacco
  • kidney problems
  • dehydration

Certain medications can also affect the RBC count, making it too high or too low.

Dietary and lifestyle changes are not enough to manage RBC levels in some people. Doctors may recommend other options to help increase the number of RBCs in the blood.

A doctor may prescribe certain medications to stimulate the production of RBCs. They may recommend hormone treatment to people with anemia due to cancer, kidney disease, diabetes, or any other disorder that may have caused a hormonal malfunction.

If tests show that the person's low RBC count is due to a different cause, doctors will attempt to treat the underlying condition. Treatment may help the RBC count improve on its own. However, diet and lifestyle choices can support a healthy RBC count alongside specific treatment.

A doctor may rarely recommend a blood transfusion if RBC levels do not respond to medications and lifestyle changes.

SHOP FOR SUPPLEMENTS

The supplements listed in this article are available for purchase online.

Q:

Can any diet or lifestyle change improve the production of white blood cells.

A:

No specific diets have proven to increase white blood cell count. However, the body needs two vitamins in order to make white blood cells.

These two vitamins are B-12 and folate (see information above for foods that contain these vitamins).

In general, recommendations are to eat a well balanced diet and exercises regularly to boost the immune system.

Kevin Martinez, M.D. Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.