You just had a blood test and your white blood cell count (WBC) is low. Maybe you keep getting sick and you want to know why. Or maybe you’re being treated for cancer and your treatment team has told you to watch out for infections.
White blood cells make up a miniscule amount of your blood. Most of it is plasma (mostly water) and red blood cells, which transport oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body and clear carbon dioxide. But without white blood cells, you’d be at the mercy of any passing viruses or bacteria. They’re your immune system’s bouncers, hunters, soldiers, and cleanup crew, all rolled into one (actually, five — keep reading).
You’re probably wondering what a low WBC means, what to look out for, and how to increase your white blood cell count — naturally. We’ve got it all and more. Here’s what you need to know about increasing your white blood cell count.
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What Is White Blood Cell Count?
White blood cell count (WBC) is the total number of white blood cells, or leukocytes (leuko- meaning “white” and -cyte meaning “cell”) in your blood. It’s often done with a test called a blood differential, which measures the amount of each of the five types of leukocytes in your blood.
A high white blood cell count can be a sign of an active infection, an autoimmune or inflammatory disease, certain types of cancers, and allergic reactions. A low WBC count can put you at risk of infection. It could also be the result of an infection, cancer treatment, spleen or liver troubles, and some cancers and autoimmune diseases.
What’s a Good White Blood Cell Count?
Normal white blood cell count varies widely. For men, it’s 5,000 to 10,000 leukocytes per millionth of a liter (called a microliter or mm3). For women, it’s 4,500 to 11,000 mm3
Low white blood cell count (leukopenia): Less than 4,000 mm3
High white blood cell count (leukocytosis): More than 11,000 mm3
Does Low WBC Count Mean Cancer?
Not necessarily. When you hear “leukopenia” (low WBC) you may think of leukemia, a term for a number of cancers of the bone marrow and other leukocyte-forming tissue. Leukemia can cause leukopenia, according to Cleveland Clinic, and so can other blood or bone marrow cancers such as multiple myeloma.
Yet other factors aside from cancer can also cause your white blood cell count to be low, including infections and autoimmune diseases. A number of cancer medications can also cause a low white blood cell count.
Can Low WBC Count Be Normal?
Yes, a specific type of leukopenia called neutropenia (when you’re low on neutrophils, the most common type of white blood cell) can be normal for some healthy people. It’s called benign ethnic neutropenia (BEN), and it may be found in people of African, Middle Eastern, and West Indian descent.
It’s considered neutropenia when your neutrophil count is below 1500. The neutrophil count in people with BEN is usually between 1,000 and 1,500, and it does not increase their risk of infection.
How Do I Naturally Increase My White Blood Cells?
There are several ways to help increase your white blood cell count and the effectiveness of your existing leukocytes, including drinking plenty of water, eating a variety of vegetables, and eating more fish. Your healthcare provider may prescribe medication to help a low white blood cell count.
1. Stay Hydrated
You’re mostly water — about 60%, according to the United States Geological Survey — so it’s no surprise that increasing your white blood cell production starts with drinking enough water.
One small 2017 study examined the blood of people who drank two liters of water a day for two weeks. They had more oxygen-rich hemoglobin, less C-reactive protein (a sign of inflammation) and other markers of healthy blood than people who weren’t trying to hit an intake target. The study’s authors wrote that a steady intake of water may help your bone marrow produce B cells — a type of white blood cell that neutralizes pathogens and toxins.
Even so, that old saw about eight glasses a day may not, well, hold water. Estimates vary wildly — Google it and you’ll see what we mean — but both the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic recommend 125 oz a day (almost a gallon) for men, and 91 oz for women.
2. Don’t Forget Your ABCs
No, not the song, we mean vitamins: A, B, C, and more. When they’re in food they’re called phytonutrients, and the best way to get a variety of them is by eating lots of different colored vegetables. You can also get your vitamins and minerals through supplements.
Some of the most important vitamins and minerals for your immune system are:
Vitamin A: According to some studies, vitamin A is important for T cells and for your bone marrow, where many of your blood cells are made. You can get more naturally by eating sweet potatoes or carrots.
Vitamin B: The B vitamins, including B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, and B12, play a variety of roles in your immune system. Some, like B3 (niacin), enhance the activity of white blood cells, while others such as B9/folate lower rates of infections. Sunflower seeds and eggs pack in plenty of B vitamins.
Vitamin C: Vitamin C is often marketed as a cold-fighter and immune-booster. Studies suggest vitamin C is important for neutrophils, the most numerous type of white blood cell in your body, and it promotes T-cell regeneration as well.
3. Go Fishing
Fish pulls double duty when it comes to your immune system. First, it’s packed protein, which according to some sources helps your body produce more white blood cells. Fatty cold water fish like salmon and tuna are also full of omega-3 fatty acid.
Evidence strongly suggests omega 3s are good for your immune system. They’re probably most extensively studied for their anti-inflammatory properties, but they also boost the effects of neutrophils. That’s good, because neutrophils are the most numerous type of white blood cells. So, if you have a low white blood cell count, you’re probably lacking neutrophils.
Pro Tip: Omega 3s have a ton of benefits that extend beyond their immune-boosting properties. Learn why you should probably be getting more of them in our article, Best Omega-3 Supplement 2023: How to Choose Them and What to Avoid
4. Prep Right
If you have a low white blood cell count, you could be more susceptible to infections. That’s why you have to be extra vigilant with your cleanliness and food preparation. You don’t want to stock up on all those fish and multicolored veggies, only to prepare them unsafely and get sick.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends washing your hands multiple times a day. The National Library of Medicine further suggests the following food prep and hygiene tips during cancer treatment, when you’re likely to have a low white blood cell count:
Wash all raw fruits and vegetables
Avoid raw vegetable sprouts like alfalfa
Make sure all dairy products are pasteurized
Don’t eat soft cheeses
Cook egg yolks all the way through
Cook poultry to 165℉ and other meat to at least 160℉
Avoid raw fish and shellfish
5. Peak Defense
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Other natural boosters like vitamin C (which can be found in many citrus fruits like oranges and lemons) are another great addition to your daily routine. You may know just how crucial this essential vitamin is for our immune system, but how exactly does it work?
Now that you know all about the different types of WBCs in our blood, here’s the science behind vitamin C: when we ingest vitamin C, two types of white blood cells known as neutrophils and monocytes work to accumulate and store it for future use. Through a complex cell signaling system, our WBCs can support our immune system with our vitamin C stores by protecting vital components of the cell’s structure.
Why Does White Blood Cell Count Matter?
Your white blood cell count is a good first clue for your doctor or healthcare provider. A WBC that’s either too low or too high signals that something may not be right in your body. The measurement’s drawback, though, is that it’s not very specific. It tells you something is wrong, but not what.
You’re likely to need more tests — including blood differential, complete blood count, X-ray, or urinalysis — before arriving at a diagnosis.
Symptoms of Low White Blood Cell Count
A low white blood cell count doesn’t cause symptoms, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Instead, watch out for signs of infection, such as:
Fever and chills — caused by several different infections
Mouth sores, sore throat, red or white patches in your mouth — could be a bacterial infection such as strep, or a yeast infection (thrush)
Painful urination — urinary tract infection
Diarrhea — bacterial or viral infection in the stomach or digestive tract
Cough or difficulty breathing — lung infection (aka pneumonia)
What Causes Low White Blood Cell Count?
Low white blood cell count causes include:
Antibiotics and antivirals
Chemotherapy and radiation therapy for cancer
Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs)
Bone marrow disorders
Why Increase White Blood Cell Count Naturally?
You can increase your white blood cell count through medications including aspirin, chloroform, corticosteroids, and others, but many of those require a prescription or carry the risk of side effects. Increasing your white blood cell count naturally is inexpensive, simple, carries few or no side effects, and is beneficial to other aspects of your health.
What Do White Blood Cells Do?
White blood cells, also referred to as “WBCs” or “leukocytes,” help our bodies fight off infection and illness. Their main function is to act as our body’s first line of defense. However, they also signal other immune cells to come to their aid within the body, and battle against foreign invaders.
Factors like inflammation or even a cut on our arm cause our white blood cells to jump into action and protect us so our tissue can heal. They’re another small but mighty part of the body, as they only make up 1% of our blood.
How Many Different Types of White Blood Cells Are There?
If you took a peek under a microscope, you’d see that your white blood cells aren’t really “white,” but clear. Our WBCs are created via stem cells in our bone marrow and stored until an infection occurs and our immune system deploys them.
But did you know not all white blood cells are created equal? There are five different types of WBCs in our bodies, and they can be grouped into three different categories:
Granulocytes earned their name because they contain small protein granules necessary to our body’s function. There are several different types of granulocyte white blood cells, including:
Neutrophils are the majority of the types of WBCs you’ll find in your blood. They’re the “scavengers” of your white blood cells. They work to hunt down various bacteria and fungi and eliminate them before they can attack.
Eosinophils: We owe our general immune response to these WBCs. They are disease-fighting cells, tackling parasites, allergic reactions, and other disease-causing pathogens.
Basophils are rare (they make up less than 1% of our overall WBC count), but you can thank them for helping your body respond to allergic reactions. You’ll find more of them in your blood when you’ve been exposed to something you’re sensitive to.
This type of white blood cell helps your body battle cancer cells, along with viruses and bacteria. There are a few types of lymphocyte white blood cells, including:
B cells: Lymphocytes are “helper” or “soldier” cells, meaning they assist the granulocytes with their respective jobs (mostly to help us heal and recover). B cells produce antibodies to boost our immune system’s response to infection.
T cells help recognize and kill infectious cells, making them our B cells’ best friend. T cells are also instrumental in vaccine efficacy, as they help create “memory” T cells that will recognize when a certain pathogen has returned. These then signal to our immune system that it’s fought this invader before, making it easier and faster for us to recover.
Natural killer cells: These WBCs do some intense heavy lifting. They’re responsible for targeting and killing viral cells, especially cancerous ones.
Monocytes are one of a kind (pun intended). They make up around 5% of your white blood cells, and their primary function is to stave off chronic infections and destroy any infectious cells they find.
Here are answers to frequently asked questions about how to boost your white blood cell count.
What is a dangerous white blood cell count?
Be on guard when your white blood cell count dips below 4,000 or rises above 11,000. Either could signal an infection or another health condition. However, some people naturally have an apparently dangerous low or high white blood cell count without being unhealthy.
What does high white blood cell count mean?
A high white blood cell count means your immune system is working overtime. Known as leukocytosis, it’s frequently the sign of infection or inflammation. Other causes can include autoimmune disease and some forms of cancer. Emotional or physical stress can also raise your white blood cell count.
What cancer causes high white blood cell count?
Some of the same kinds of cancers that cause low white blood cell count, such as certain types of leukemia and multiple myeloma, can also cause a high white blood cell count. However, a high white blood cell count can also be a sign of a simple infection, or a natural condition for some people.
What is a normal white blood cell count for women?
A normal white blood cell count for women is between 4,500 to 11,000. Women have a larger normal range than men, for whom normal is 5,000 to 10,000. Children have a white blood cell count range of between 5,000 and 10,000.
Support Your White Blood Cells With Lifeforce
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White blood cells protect our bodies against viruses and infections. We can help naturally increase our white blood cell count through our diet, making sure we’re getting plenty of necessary vitamins, and through clinician-grade nutraceuticals like Peak Defense™.
This winning combination helps our WBCs do what they do best if we fall ill: help us recover. Let Lifeforce create that one convenient solution to help you reach your peak. From convenient diagnostics, to clinician-grade nutraceuticals and pharmaceuticals, to expert clinical care, you’ll get a personalized plan so you can reach your optimal health, and stay there.
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This article was originally published on February 06, 2022. Updated on August 21, 2023.