If you’re anything like me, giving blood is more of a chore than a “feel-good” mid-day break. I started giving blood when I turned sixteen, and ever since, I try to go every time there is a donation day held near me. There’s only one problem—I don’t have enough hemoglobin in my blood. You may have heard of this condition referred to in terms of low iron, hemoglobin or “low blood cell” count. Iron deficiency is something that many young women experience, so it is important to understand how it affects our body. Maybe you’ll get some answers to your burning blood donation questions in the process—it can be interesting to understand how our bodies work and exactly why iron levels are so important.
So what exactly is hemoglobin? Hemoglobin is a protein in our bodies that comes from the food that we eat. It is what makes our blood red and carries oxygen from the lungs to other parts of the body. From just this information alone, we can see why it is so vital to the health of our blood. While iron is also a very important component of our blood, it is not exactly the same thing as hemoglobin. Iron is a component of hemoglobin and helps to make new red blood cells, especially those lost through the process of donating blood. This is the first reason why it is so important. Without hemoglobin levels that are high enough, our body will not replenish its own blood after donation fast enough to keep our body safe and healthy. The second reason is that when the blood is given to someone in need, they want it to replenish in their body as fast as possible as well.
As mentioned earlier, iron deficiency (which can cause low hemoglobin) is more common in females because of blood loss related to menstruation, but can also happen to any gender because of an imbalanced diet or donating too frequently. Average levels for women sit around 12-15.5g/dL, while average levels for men are 13.5-17.5g/dL. In order to donate blood, hemoglobin needs to be at least 12.5g/dL for women and 13g/dL for men. While it is more common for someone to have hemoglobin levels that are too low, Red Cross also stops donations at 20g/dL for everyone, as levels this high could be a sign of a bigger health problem.
The good news for everyone is that you can change your hemoglobin levels at your own will if you are an average healthy person. The Red Cross tests hemoglobin levels (not iron levels) for each individual person before they are able to donate. This is done by a finger prick, which takes a sample of blood that is then inserted into a machine to test hemoglobin levels. If your levels are high enough, you go onto the next step of donating. If not, you are asked to wait until the next donation in a location near you. The steps you take to increase your iron levels can be as natural or artificial as you choose, from taking a pill to changing your diet completely. It is important to keep in mind that age, gender, body type and genetics all play a role in iron levels. For some people, it may be very easy to meet the minimum donation level while others will struggle to donate and recover after.
A healthy diet is always endorsed by The Red Cross, but specific foods can do a better job of preparing you for donation day than others. It is important to know that there are two types of iron: heme iron and nonheme iron. Heme iron is found in meat while nonheme iron is harder to find in animal products. Eggs are one of the exceptions, but more common sources are dried fruit such as raisins and figs, tofu, beans, lentils, etc. A list of these foods can be found online with a quick Google search, as well as a list of heme iron products. Taking iron pills is also an option for people having an especially hard time, but this should always be done after talking to a doctor first.
Along with foods that contain iron, there are also foods that help our body to absorb iron. Vitamin C is one of the simplest to incorporate into your diet. Any containing vitamin C will help your body to absorb iron. In addition to vitamin C, red meat also helps our bodies to absorb nonheme iron. Basically, this means that meat will help you to absorb iron found in vegetarian products. Getting adequate heme iron can be especially hard for vegetarians and vegans, so it is important to have an intentional diet before donating blood, especially if low hemoglobin levels have been a problem in the past. Along with food that helps our bodies absorb iron, there are also foods that do quite the opposite. Coffee, tea, high-fiber foods and others (again, found with a quick Google search) should not be eaten with foods that are high in iron. It is okay to eat these, but try to do so before or after rather than with an iron-dense meal.
If low hemoglobin levels have stopped you from donating before, I hope that this article has helped you to understand why and hopefully how to help change that. Overall health is very important when donating blood, so be sure not to push your intuition to the side when preparing to give blood. If you don’t feel good, wait for the next donation period. If you feel great, maybe try giving platelets rather than the regular full blood donation. All of the information in the article and more can be found on redcrossblood.org, as well as an in depth FAQ page for first time and repeating donors. The next Red Cross blood drive at Hope will be held on March 30th, and I would encourage everyone to try to donate!