Health column by Dr. Greg Feinsinger. Champion of Whole Food Plant Based Living and righteous person.
The CBC (complete blood count) is one of the most frequently-ordered blood tests. It includes a measure of the number of red blood cells, which carry oxygen to organs and tissues; the number of platelets, which help with clotting; and the number of white blood cells (WBCs), which are an important part of the immune system.
A somewhat low WBC can be caused by certain viral infections such as Colorado tick fever. A very low WBC count can result from bone marrow suppression due to factors such as chemotherapy, radiation, toxic chemicals, certain pharmaceuticals, and autoimmune disorders. Mildly elevated WBC counts are usually associated with bacterial infections such as appendicitis, cellulitis, and pneumonia. Very elevated WBC counts usually indicate leukemia—cancer of the white blood cells.
Most labs report a normal range of 4.5 to 11 for WBCs, which is based on the average, non-sick American. However, on his website nutritionfacts.org, Dr. Michael Greger points out that the average American is not healthy. He presents evidence that suggests that the ideal WBC range should be changed to 3 to 9.
High-normal WBC counts are associated with arterial stiffness and high blood pressure. We have known since the 1970s that WBC counts in the high “normal” range are associated with heart attacks and strokes. Since then, it has become apparent that high-normal WBCs are also associated with cancer, diabetes, obesity, and premature death (all-cause shortening of lifespan). For example, a study followed older women for several years and found that 50 percent of those with WBCs under 5.6 were still alive at age 85; whereas eighty percent with WBCs over 7 were dead before they reached that age.
What’s the explanation for the association of relatively high WBC counts and disease and mortality? Inflammation contributes to many diseases, and inflammation increases WBC counts. Obesity—which is also associated with many diseases—causes inflammation and therefore drives up WBC counts. In one study, removing fat by liposuction reduced WBC counts, but obviously it’s safer and better to remove fat by exercise and diet.
Plant-based, whole food diets are anti-inflammatory, and animal-base diets are pro-inflammatory (cause inflammation). In a recent blog, Dr. Greger reported that “just 21 days of removing meat, eggs, dairy, alcohol, and [processed junk food] affected a significant drop in white count, even in people who started out down at 5.7.”
There may be one other reason that higher WBC counts contribute to disease, although it isn’t yet as evidence-based as the aforementioned reasons. The diameter of white blood cells is slightly larger than the diameter of the smallest capillary blood vessels, so that a white blood cell is deformed as it squeezes through these tight spaces. As Dr. Greger puts it, “if it gets stuck there, it can end up releasing all of its internal weaponry, which Is normally reserved for microbial invaders, and damage our blood vessels.”
Bottom line: The range for normal WBC should probably be 3 to 9. If your WBC count is less than 3, you should talk to your provider to see if you could have bone marrow suppression. If it is over 9, you could have some inflammation going on, the most common cause of this being excess fat. If it’s over 11, you could have some kind of infection.