What’s a low hemoglobin count?
Hemoglobin is a protein in your red blood cells that carries oxygen to the rest of your body. It also transports carbon dioxide out of your cells and back to your lungs to be exhaled.
The Mayo Clinic defines low hemoglobin counts as anything below 13.5 grams per deciliter in men or 12 grams per deciliter in women.
Many things can cause low hemoglobin levels, such as:
In addition, some people have naturally low hemoglobin counts without any underlying cause. Others have low hemoglobin, but never have any symptoms.
Eat foods high in iron and folate
Iron plays an important role in hemoglobin production. A protein called transferrin binds to iron and transports it throughout the body. This helps your body make red blood cells, which contain hemoglobin.
The first step toward raising your hemoglobin level on your own is to start eating more iron. Foods that are high in iron include:
- liver and organ meats
- green beans
Folate is a B vitamin that your body uses to produce heme, the part of your red blood cells that contains hemoglobin. Without enough folate, your red blood cells can’t mature. This can lead to folate deficiency anemia and low hemoglobin levels.
You can add folate to your diet by eating more:
- black-eyed peas
- kidney beans
Take iron supplements
If you need to raise your hemoglobin level by a lot, you may need to take oral iron supplements. However, too much iron can cause a condition called hemochromatosis. This can lead to liver diseases such as cirrhosis, and other side effects, such as constipation, nausea, and vomiting.
Work with your doctor to figure out a safe dose, and avoid taking more than 25 milligrams (mg) at one time. The National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements recommends that men get up to 8 mg of iron per day, while women should get up to 18 mg per day. If you’re pregnant, you should aim for up to 27 mg a day.
You should start noticing a difference in your iron level after about a week to a month, depending on your underlying condition that’s causing low hemoglobin.
Iron supplements should always be kept carefully out of reach of children. If you child needs an iron supplement, make sure you choose one that’s safe for children. They have a lower blood volume, which makes them much more vulnerable to iron poisoning. If your child accidentally takes an iron supplement, call your doctor immediately.
Maximize iron absorption
Whether you increase your iron intake through food or supplements, it’s also important to make sure your body can easily process the extra iron you put into it. Certain things can either increase or decrease the amount of iron your body absorbs.
Things that increase iron absorption
When you eat something high in iron or take an iron supplement, try eating foods rich in vitamin C or take a supplement at the same time. Vitamin C may help to increase the amount of iron your body absorbs.
Foods high in vitamin C include:
- dark, leafy greens
Vitamin A and beta-carotene, which helps your body produce vitamin A, can also help your body absorb more iron. You can find vitamin A in animal food sources, such as fish and liver. Beta-carotene is usually found in red, yellow, and orange fruits and vegetables, such as:
- winter squash
- sweet potatoes
You can also take vitamin A supplements, but make sure you work closely with your doctor to figure out a safe dose. Too much vitamin A can lead to a potentially serious condition called hypervitaminosis A.
Things that decrease iron absorption
Calcium from both supplements and food sources can make it harder for your body to absorb iron. However, it’s important that you don’t completely eliminate calcium because it’s an essential nutrient. Just avoid calcium supplements and try not to eat calcium-rich foods right before or after taking an iron supplement.
Foods high in calcium include:
- dark, leafy greens
Phytic acid can also reduce your body’s absorption of iron, especially if you don’t eat meat. However, it only affects iron absorption during a single meal, not throughout the day. If you don’t eat meat, try to avoid eating foods high in phytic acid with iron-rich foods.
Foods high in phytic acid include:
- Brazil nuts
- sesame seeds
Keep in mind that, like calcium, phytic acid is an essential nutrient that shouldn’t be completely removed from your diet.
When to see a doctor
Some cases of low hemoglobin can’t be fixed through diet and supplements alone. Contact your doctor if you have any of the following symptoms while trying to raise your hemoglobin level:
- pale skin and gums
- fatigue and muscle weakness
- a fast or irregular heartbeat
- frequent headaches
- frequent or unexplained bruising
The bottom line
There are several things you can do to raise your hemoglobin count through dietary changes and supplements. Make sure you stay in touch with your doctor while you try to raise your hemoglobin count.
You may need additional treatment, such as an iron transfusion, especially if you’re pregnant or have a chronic health condition. Depending on the underlying cause and the changes you make, it can take anywhere from a few weeks to almost a year to raise your hemoglobin count.