As part of your annual physical, your doctor may order a complete blood count (CBC) to evaluate your overall health. This is a very important test that measures your white blood cells. Your white blood cells play a critical role in your fight against the flu and other viruses and infections. Think of your white blood cells as being “immune system cells.” You want to have the optimal number of these cells to ensure you are in the best position to combat viruses and infections.
There are generally five types of white blood cells:
- Monocytes. They help to break down bacteria.
- Lymphocytes. They create antibodies to defend against bacteria, viruses and other potentially harmful invaders.
- Neutrophils. They kill and digest bacteria and fungi.
- Basophils. They reportedly sound an alarm when infectious agents invade your blood. They secrete chemicals such as histamine, a marker of allergic disease, that help control the body’s immune response.
- Eosinophils. They attack and kill parasites, destroy cancer cells and help with allergic responses.
So your white blood cells are continually at war with viruses, infections and other foreign invaders that threaten your health. According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, “when your body is in distress and a particular area is under attack, white blood cells rush in to help destroy the harmful substance and prevent illness.”
Acceptable range for the level of white blood cells in adults is generally between 3,500 and 10,500 white blood cells per microliter of blood (mcL). White blood cell numbers are generally higher in infants and gradually even out as they age.
If your white blood cell count is low, you will be extremely vulnerable to viruses and infections. And if the count is too high, it may indicate that you already have some type of disease or adverse medical condition.
A number of diseases, conditions and lifestyle choices may influence white blood cell levels. These include extreme exercising, emotional stress, inflammation, smoking, the end of a pregnancy and taking certain medications.
With the intense flu season we are experiencing this year in the U.S., it is even now more important that we identify actions we can take nutritionally to be proactive about the health of our immune system. And one way to do that is to ensure that we consume those nutrients that are necessary to build and protect our white blood cells.
So how can you be proactive about your white blood cells?
Get the right amount of those nutrients from the foods you eat that are necessary to build or protect white blood cells. Some of the nutrients necessary to build and protect your white blood cells reportedly include a good source of protein as well as certain vitamins and minerals.
Let’s take a closer look at some of these critical nutrients and the foods that you can get them from.
- Vitamin C. “Vitamin C, through its antioxidant functions, has been shown to protect leukocytes [white blood cells] from self-inflicted oxidative damage,” according to the Linus Pauling Institute. Foods rich in vitamin C include citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruit. Bell peppers are also a great source of this vitamin.
- Vitamin B9 (also called Folate). Folate is one of the eight B vitamins. B vitamins help your bodies properly use the food you eat as fuel. They are involved in building DNA that the body uses for cell growth. Folate also helps form both red and white blood cells. Dietary sources of this vitamin include tomatoes, kiwi, avocados, beets and leafy greens.
- Vitamin B12 (also called Cobalamin). B12 plays a role in building white blood cells. It works with folate to produce S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe), a compound involved in immune function and mood. Main sources of this vitamin are found in animal products, like meat and eggs. If you are vegan or vegetarian, you may want to look into adding nori in your diet.
- Vitamin E. There is some evidence that vitamin E may reduce the DNA damage of white blood cells. Vitamin E also also aids in the production of white blood cells. You can eat sunflower seeds, almonds, spinach and broccoli to get more of this vitamin in your daily diet.
- Zinc. This mineral plays an important role regarding many bodily functions, including immune function. It also plays a crucial role in helping wounds heal quickly and properly. The body requires zinc to develop and activate T-lymphocytes, which are subtypes of white blood cells. Read here to see how zinc is particularly important for immune system function in the elderly. Oysters are the highest source of zinc. You can also get zinc from red meat, poultry, crabs, shrimp, lobster, oatmeal, whole grains, cheeses, yogurt, beans and nuts.
- Selenium. This trace mineral may help boost the production of white blood cells and, in general, is needed overall for your immune system to function properly. Brazil nuts are very rich in selenium. Oysters, whole grains and meats also contain selenium.
- Water. Water is an essential nutrient we can only live a few days without, and it is also extremely important for immune function. Water helps carry oxygen to cells in the body, and oxygenated cells are necessary for systems in the body, like the immune system, to function properly. Water also helps flush toxins out of the body that can cause infections.
How can you be proactive about making sure you get all of these nutrients?
Being proactive involves some preparation and planning. Visit your local grocery store or farmers market and stock up on plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Incorporate herbs and spices, like ginger and cumin, in your cooking. They are not only flavorful but also help support immune function.
And finally, it is also extremely important to avoid nutritional deficiencies. One of the ways you can do this, in addition to eating a variety of healthy foods, is to get a comprehensive nutrient test to determine whether you have any nutrient deficiencies or imbalances. If you do, you may have to tweak your diet, take good quality supplements or even consider the use of liposomal technology. It is also important that you are aware of any medications you are taking (both prescription and over-the-counter), as these may deplete vital nutrients from your body as well.