Hemoglobin is the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to various body parts. Many things – from viruses and infections to underlying medical conditions – can affect the production of hemoglobin or cause it to be deformed (as different blood types are), which affects the body's ability to carry oxygen throughout the body. Hemoglobin levels are a reliable measurement of the oxygen-carrying ability of the blood. A hematocrit test measures the percentage of packed red cells in a volume of whole blood. Hemoglobin tests measure the amount of iron-containing proteins in the red blood cells. Both are standard tests used to evaluate health.
Hemoglobin levels are a crucial indicator of overall health and can indicate a variety of potential issues. A low hemoglobin level may be caused by issues like anemia, while a high level may be an indication of cancer or other conditions.
Proper Hemoglobin Levels
Normal hemoglobin levels are reflected in the amount of oxygen in the blood. The body uses oxygen to transfer nutrients across cell membranes and generate the energy needed for living. Each red blood cell contains an iron-rich molecule that binds with oxygen when exposed to it, producing hemoglobin.
Normal hemoglobin levels should be between 13.5 -17.5 grams per deciliter (g/dl) for males and 12-16 g/dl for females. This is equivalent to 6.5 to 8.0 mmol/L (6.5 to 8.0 mEq/L) or 113 to 154 mg/dL (114 to 155 mmol/L). The hemoglobin test, a CBC or complete blood count, is a standard blood test for monitoring overall health and detecting possible lifestyle-related conditions such as anemia and certain cancers.
High hemoglobin levels mean a higher concentration of red blood cells in the blood, leading to an increased amount of oxygen being transferred from the blood to the tissues. Low hemoglobin levels mean fewer red blood cells are present, meaning less oxygen can reach tissues throughout the body.
Conditions That Cause Hemoglobin to Drop
There are many conditions which may cause a person’s hemoglobin to become outside the norms. Some of those which push it too low include:
- Lead Poisoning - Lead poisoning is a condition that affects the metabolism and inhibition of many biological systems. The body's natural defense against lead poisoning is chelation therapy, which uses chemical agents to pull lead out of the bloodstream and eliminate it from the body.
- Kidney Disease - In kidney disease, hemoglobin levels may drop because of excess fluid retention caused by sodium and water retention. Fluid build-up can put pressure on the blood vessels, causing them to spasm and constrict, reducing blood flow. This means that less oxygen is transported to organs such as the heart and brain.
- Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies - Vitamin and mineral deficiencies can cause hemoglobin to drop. Vitamins A, B12, and E are necessary for a healthy red blood cell count; lower levels of these vitamins can lead to anemia.
- Hemolytic Anemia - This form of anemia is an inflammatory condition that causes red blood cells to break down, leading to decreased levels of the oxygen-carrying protein hemoglobin in the body.
- Thalassemia - Thalassemia is an inherited blood disorder that results in either having too few hemoglobin in the red blood cells (thalassemia minor) or weakening the red blood cells so they cannot transport enough oxygen (thalassemia major).
Methods to Help Increase Low Hemoglobin Levels or Prevent Them from Dropping
Prevention is obviously the best hope for hemoglobin levels. It’s good to keep everything in line. However, if hemoglobin drops, then some treatment is necessary. Some options for each and good hemoglobin health include:
- Increasing fluid intake - The body's red blood cells are rich in hemoglobin. When these cells break down, their hemoglobin is returned to the bloodstream. Increasing fluid intake will help restore this broken-down hemoglobin to healthy levels and replenish the supply of red blood cells. Drinking at least 8 ounces of water or other healthy beverages every hour while awake is advisable.
- Increasing intake of iron-rich foods - One of the most effective ways to prevent and treat anemia is to increase the intake of iron-rich foods. These include red meat, seafood and poultry, eggs, dried beans, peas in the form of tofu, nuts, lentils, and leafy green vegetables.
- Blood transfusions - Blood transfusions are an important part of the treatment process for some patients with hemoglobin levels that have dropped too low. The goal of a blood transfusion is to increase the hemoglobin levels back to a safe level.
- Taking iron supplements - In the case of iron deficiency anemia, the treatment also involves taking iron supplements. These supplements usually come in pill form and are taken once a day. In order to maximize absorption and efficacy, taking iron supplements on an empty stomach with a large glass of water is recommended.