White blood cells (WBCs), also known as leukocytes, are an essential component of the immune system, serving to protect the body from harmful microorganisms. When an infection develops in the body, the number of white blood cells quickly increases, and the cells are transported to the infection site to attack and destroy the bacteria, virus, or other “bug” causing it.
There are five types of WBCs that circulate in the blood — neutrophils, lymphocytes, monocytes, eosinophils, and basophils— and the concentrations of each can fluctuate on a day-to-day basis. The specific role and function of each type are described below.
This is the most common type of white blood cell, accounting for more than 50 percent of your body’s supply. Neutrophils are the cells that engulf and destroy infection-causing bacteria and other harmful pathogens. Immature neutrophils are known as band cells, while fully developed neutrohpils are called polys.
The two types of lymphocytes are B cells and T cells, which are produced in lymphoid tissue of the spleen, lymph nodes, and thymus gland. The B cells make antibodies that attack bacteria and toxins, and T cells target once-healthy cells in the body that have become cancerous or overtaken by a virus.
These WBCs, which are distinguished by their large nucleus, develop into either macrophages or dendritic cells. Macrophages ingest microbes that the body recognizes as dangerous, while dendritic cells acquire antigens— foreign substances that trigger antibody production— so that T cells are able to identify them.
Found in the bloodstream as well as the lining of various tissues, eosinophils contain proteins that aid the body in fighting off parasitic infections. However, when these cells accumulate, they can actually contribute to the kind of inflammation that occurs in allergic disorders such as asthma. The medical term for an abnormally high number of eosinophils is eosinophilia, a condition that is considered to be a reaction to a certain disease, allergen, or parasite, rather than a disease itself.
Constituting less than 1 percent of the total white blood count, basophils are present in both the blood and tissues, and, like other WBCs, help to ward off foreign invaders. However, basophils are unique in their ability to kill parasites that are external to the body, including ticks. Additionally, basophils release heparin, an anticoagulant, and histamine, a blood-thinning substance. Basophils are similar to eosinophils in that when their number climbs too high, they can contribute to allergies and other inflammatory reactions in the body. In fact, histamine is the substance that causes allergy symptoms like itchy skin, runny nose, and watery eyes, which is why those who suffer from allergies usually take antihistamine medication for relief.
REASONS FOR A WHITE BLOOD CELL COUNT TEST
Measuring the number of the different white blood cells in the body is useful for diagnosing infections and other diseases. This blood test is called a white blood cell differential test, and it calculates the number of each WBC type as well as the total WBC count, all of which are measured in micrograms per liter (mcg/ L). The normal ranges for the different kinds of white blood cells vary, but the generally accepted ranges for adults are provided in the table. Some labs may be at zero if the immune system is not under a specific type of stress.
REFERENCE RANGES FOR WHITE BLOOD CELL COUNTS (in “mcg/ L” & “%”)
- Total white blood cells: 4,500 to 11,000*
- Neutrophils: 1,800 to 7,800 (50 to 70 percent of total)
- Lymphocytes: 1,000 to 4,800 (15 to 45 percent of total)
- Monocytes: 0 to 800 (0 to 10 percent of total)
- Eosinophils: 0 to 450 (0 to 6 percent of total)
- Basophils: 0 to 200 (0 to 2 percent of total)
*For pregnant women, the normal range for total white blood cells is 5,900 to 17,000 mcg/ L.
If one or more of your WBC counts is abnormal, your doctor will order further testing to determine the cause. It is important to realize, though, that an abnormality does not necessarily mean you have a serious medical condition. As you will see, both high and low WBC counts can be triggered by a wide range of factors, and not all of them are significant.
WHAT CAUSES A HIGH WHITE BLOOD CELL COUNT?
The medical term for a high white blood cell count is leukocytosis. An elevated level usually indicates that an infection is present in the body, but may also be caused by lifestyle factors such as strenuous exercise and eating too many refined carbohydrates and sugars. These foods increase insulin release, thereby driving up baseline WBC counts. In other cases, though, the underlying cause is more severe. The following conditions are associated with high WBC counts:
- Allergies, especially severe allergic reactions
- Bacterial or viral infections
- Bone marrow disorders such as Myelofibrosis (serious bone marrow disorder that disrupts your body’s normal production of blood cells) and Polycythemia vera (an uncommon neoplasm in which the bone marrow makes too many red blood cells.)
- Certain medications, including allopurinol (Zyloprim), aspirin, corticosteroids, epinephrine, quinine (Qualaquin), and triamterene (Dyrenium)
- Chronic inflammatory conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis
- Eating a large meal
- Intense exercise
- Kidney failure
- Removal of the spleen
- Severe physical or emotional stress
- Thyroid imbalance, particularly autoimmune thyroiditis
- Tissue damage due to injuries such as burns Another condition may be the reason for your high count, so work with your doctor to find an accurate diagnosis.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF A HIGH WHITE BLOOD CELL COUNT?
Since an increased number of WBCs usually means that the body is trying to fight off an infection or illness, you may experience symptoms such as swollen lymph nodes, inflammation, or fever. General indicators of leukocytosis also include weight loss, poor appetite, bruising, and bleeding. Symptoms associated with specific medical conditions— like bone marrow disorders and thyroid imbalance— may occur as well. If any of these symptoms sound familiar to you, seek the advice of your physician.
HOW CAN A HIGH WHITE BLOOD CELL COUNT BE TREATED?
Treatment for elevated white blood cell counts must be directed at the cause. Antibiotics are usually prescribed for infections, while anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin and acetaminophen (Tylenol), may be used to reduce inflammation and fever. However, if an abnormally high count does not have any apparent cause, additional blood testing may be needed to clarify the source of the problem. A serious illness, like leukemia or other bone marrow disease, requires specific and aggressive treatments such as medication, intravenous fluids, bone marrow transplants, blood transfusions, or leukocytoreduction— a medical procedure used for decreasing the number of WBCs in leukemic patients. Treatment for an elevated WBC count should be obtained as soon as possible to order to prevent complications. Although less serious causes of high WBC counts, such as bacterial and viral infections, require medical treatment in many instances, it is also possible to prevent and treat them naturally with dietary and lifestyle change, as detailed below.
The goal of your diet should be to decrease your consumption of foods that lead to inflammation— a primary cause of high WBCs— as you increase your intake of immunity-boosting foods. First, cut out commercial baked goods and processed foods containing artificial sweeteners and other chemical additives, which promote inflammatory conditions in the body. Any food containing saturated or trans fats, like fried and fast food, should also be avoided. Second, allergens like wheat, dairy products, and soy should be eliminated from your diet, since they can both cause inflammation and raise WBC levels, especially if you have an underlying allergy or sensitivity. And to counteract inflammation, incorporate omega-3s into your diet by eating walnuts and flax seeds. Omega-3s are loaded with benefits, including anti-inflammatory properties. At the same time, you can bolster your immune system by eating foods rich in zinc and selenium. Zinc is plentiful in whole grains and pumpkin seeds. Great sources of selenium include Brazil nuts, garlic, and certain vegetables like cabbage, celery, cucumbers, and radishes. Minerals are often lost through food processing, so when possible, buy foods that are fresh and organic. Your lifestyle is central to maintaining a strong immune system. Lessen your exposure to environmental contaminants, such as pesticides, heavy metals, and plastics, by purchasing products free of these ingredients, which can compromise your immunity. Additionally, strive to get at least seven hours of sleep per night, drink plenty of filtered water (approximately 2 to 3 liters per day), and exercise in moderation. If your white blood cell count is already high, you may want to consider restricting the amount you exercise until your number returns to normal. Remember, overexertion can cause a spike in WBCs.
WHAT CAUSES A LOW WHITE BLOOD CELL COUNT?
While a high WBC count is not always cause for concern, a lower-than-normal number of white blood cells, or leukopenia, usually suggests a medical problem— though some individuals are genetically predisposed to a below-normal WBC count. Autoimmune diseases, bone marrow disorders, cancer, viral infections that impair the bone marrow, and certain drugs can all cause a drop in white blood cell counts.
Below is a list of specific causes of low counts, and many are similar to the causes of high WBCs. This is because if the immune system is activated and producing too many white blood cells, the body may wear out its ability to make WBCs. Neutrophil levels are most affected by this process, while other counts may remain within the normal range or become slightly elevated.
- Autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus
- Bone marrow dysfunction caused by conditions such as aplastic anemia, myelofibrosis, and other congenital disorders
- Chemotherapy and radiation therapy
- Chronic inflammation
- Hypersplenism (destruction of blood cells by the spleen)
- Immune deficiency caused by diseases like HIV/ AIDS
- Infectious diseases
- Nutritional deficiency, especially in vitamins A, B, C, E, selenium, and zinc.
In addition, the following medications may reduce the total number of white blood cells in the body:
- Anti-thyroid drugs
- Corticosteroids, such as cortisone, hydrocortisone, and prednisone
- Sulfonamide antibiotics, including Bactrim (sulfamethoxazole/ trimethoprim)
The condition causing your low white blood cell count may not be included in the list above. Your doctor will evaluate your WBC differential test and any symptoms you may have in order to make a diagnosis.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF A LOW BLOOD CELL COUNT?
Physical indicators of a low blood cell count may include recurrent infections, slow-healing wounds, and fatigue. It is also possible that you will experience no symptoms at all. If you have a low number of WBCs, contact your doctor if you have signs of an infection, such as swollen lymph nodes, sore throat, fever, or skin lesions.
Minor illnesses, bacterial infections, and nutritional deficiency can also be the cause of a low white blood cell count. Self-care is essential when it comes to preventing and treating this type of leukopenia. As mentioned earlier, zinc and selenium are vital minerals that help boost the immune system. Vitamin C, which is abundant in citrus fruits and dark leafy greens, is another important nutrient that you should be sure to work into your diet. Although it is not a cure for the common cold or flu, vitamin C activates WBCs to fight off infection, helping the immune system defend itself against invaders. The body uses up to six times more vitamin C when it’s trying to fight off a bug. L-glutamine, an amino acid, is also used more by white blood cells when they need to become more active. For example, marathon runners and endurance athletes may experience a drop in L-glutamine after a major athletic event, making them more prone to illnesses like upper respiratory infections. In addition, be careful about eating raw fish or undercooked meat, which can harbor bacteria and make you ill. This also goes for raw fruits and vegetables; while it’s best to buy and eat them fresh, make sure you wash them before consuming. Adequate sleep— at least seven to restful hours per night— is also essential for maintaining a healthy immune system; studies show that getting five hours of sleep per night can cause a nine-fold increase in your risk of developing cold or flu. Moderate physical activity is important for stimulating WBC production, boosting your overall health, and lowering stress, which can make you more prone to illness and drive up your body’s inflammatory response. And if your white blood cell count is currently low, be sure to avoid direct contact with people who are sick until your level returns to normal. This is especially important for those undergoing chemotherapy or another medical treatment that increases susceptibility to disease. You should also follow the dietary and lifestyle guidelines for treating high white blood cell counts. Namely, avoid inflammation-causing foods, chemical additives, artificial sweeteners, and harmful chemicals found in many household and personal care products. All of these substances can trigger inflammatory conditions that wear down your body’s immune response. For example, do not microwave food in plastic containers, drink out of plastic water bottles, or use products that contain phthalates. The presence of toxins and their negative impact on immunity is another good reason to buy your food organic when you can. Of course, these lifestyle modifications will not necessarily raise your white blood cell count, but they do support overall wellness, as well as cut your risk of developing infections and other medical complications.
- Myelofibrosis, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/myelofibrosis/symptoms-causes/syc-20355057
- Consumption of a Defined, Plant-Based Diet Reduces Lipoprotein(a), Inflammation, and Other Atherogenic Lipoproteins and Particles Within Four Weeks., https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30014498
- The White Blood Cell and Differential Count, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK261/
- Factors affecting leukocyte count in healthy adults., https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/4070192
- White Blood Cells in Obesity and Diabetes, http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/27/10/2501#ref-14
- White Blood Cell Count and Mortality in the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0735109707006870
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