White blood cells are immune cells that help fight infections and diseases. Read on to learn why a high white blood cell count can be bad and ways to increase or decrease it.

What Are White Blood Cells?

White blood cells, or leukocytes, help the body fight infection. The five types of white blood cells are basophils, neutrophils, eosinophils, lymphocytes, and monocytes [1].

There are associations between white blood cell (WBC) count and the proteins in red blood cells, heart rate, weight, cholesterol, uric acid, creatinine, sex, ethnic origin, blood pressure, height, and blood sugar in both men and women [2].

Having a high level of white blood cells is bad, but for some people having too low of a level means that they won’t be able to effectively fight infections. Some people may want to increase their number, while others want to decrease it.

Why Are Low Levels of White Blood Cells Bad?

Having too low of a white blood cell count can be a sign that your immune system that is not capable of handling infections properly.

Also, low white blood cells tend to indicate other issues in the body. For example, in some autoimmune conditions, white blood cells can be lower.

A low white blood cell count can be caused by the following (not an exhaustive list):

  1. Infections, including viral infections (especially HIV/AIDS)
  2. Chronic inflammation, which can use up white blood cells faster than they are produced
  3. Certain disorders present at birth that involve diminished bone marrow function
  4. Cancer or other diseases that damage bone marrow, such as leukemia; also, chemotherapy or radiation therapy
  5. Drugs, such as antibiotics, which destroy white blood cells
  6. Autoimmune disorders such as sarcoidosis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis
  7. Nutrient deficiencies

Why Are High Levels of White Blood Cells Bad?

While low white blood cells are not good, high WBCs can be even worse.

White blood cells are immune cells capable of causing oxidative stress and damage.

Leukocytes participate in the inflammation process, are recruited at the site of endothelial injury, and form foam cells in the plaque [3].

Interleukins and tumor necrosis factor-α are released from activated leukocytes and can cause endothelial dysfunction [3].

White blood cells can get stuck in the arteries and cause hardenings, which causes plaque to build up and can lead to heart attacks. Besides hardening of the arteries, high levels of white blood cells can cause problems with circulation, blood thickening, and increased release of proinflammatory cytokines.

The following is a list of links to conditions or diseases that are exacerbated by high levels of white blood cells:

1) High WBCs Increase the Risk of Dying

Repeatedly, studies have shown that WBC is a clinical marker of inflammation and a strong predictor of the risk of dying (mortality) from all causes [45].

The total WBC count is an independent predictor of mortality in older adults, but the monocyte subtype provides greater predictability [6].

2) High WBCs Cause Heart Disease

WBC counts were almost linearly associated with cardiovascular mortality [4].

WBC counts within 24 hours of hospital admission for a heart attack is a strong and independent predictor of in-hospital and 30-day mortality risk. Relative to those patients in the lowest 20%, patients in the highest 20% of WBC counts were 3 times more likely to die at 30 days [7].

Circulating WBCs amplifies oxidative stress in heart failure [8].

3) High WBCs Contribute to Cancer

A high WBC count was also significantly associated with cancer-related mortality [9].

4) High WBCs and Diabetes

A high WBC value predicted diabetes when adjusted for age, sex, body fat, and other established predictors of diabetes [10].

Also, a high WBC count at baseline was associated with a subsequent worsening of insulin resistance and the development of type 2 diabetes in Pima Indians [10].

These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that chronic activation of the immune system may play a role in causing type 2 diabetes [10].

5) High WBCs Are Bad for Dialysis

An increased neutrophil count and reduced lymphocyte count are independent predictors of increased mortality risk in dialysis patients [11].

How to Increase White Blood Cell Levels

If you have low white blood cell levels, you first want to try to fix the underlying cause(s). If there is no underlying cause, then you can experiment with some healthy habits that may increase your white blood cell count.

Lifestyle Interventions That Increase White Blood Cell Levels

1) Sauna Therapy

Sauna bathing increased three different types of white blood cells (lymphocyte, neutrophil, and basophil) in athletes. The total white blood cell count increased after dehydration caused by passive overheating [12].

Sauna heat exposure has a similar effect to that of physical exercise on the overall WBC profile. Athletes were shown to have a more rapid mobilization of immune cells in comparison to untrained subjects [12].

2) Cold Exposure

Exercising in the cold leads to an increase in the total number of white blood cells including the number of neutrophils, lymphocytes, and monocytes [13].

However, the increase in total WBC number during recovery after exercise is a mild and temporary deviation from regular immune system function. The increase in total WBC was mostly due to an increase in neutrophils [13].

3) Heavy Resistance Exercise

During and after exercise in weight training males, WBC increased. This shows that leukocyte counts can significantly increase in response to heavy-resistance training/exercise [14].

During the recovery phase after submaximal exercise, there was an increase in the numbers of total leukocytes, neutrophils, lymphocytes, and monocytes [13].

Nutritional Factors That Increase WBC Levels

4) Vitamin B12

In rats who consumed a low-protein diet, vitamin B12 helps to increase WBC counts. However, this effect was only seen in rats with protein deficiency; rats who ate a normal level of protein had unchanged WBC counts [15].

5) Fish Oil

Birds fed with 5.5% fish oil had higher total WBC counts. A balance of moderate levels of fish oil and methionine levels might enhance the immune response in broiler chickens [16].

6) Folic Acid

In a randomized clinical trial (RCT), folic acid supplementation increased WBC counts in children receiving the anti-seizure medication carbamazepine [17].

7) Selenium and Vitamin E Injection

Adult male rats were injected with vitamin E, selenium, or a combination of vitamin E and selenium. The number of WBCs in the blood was significantly higher in the vitamin E, selenium, and combination groups in comparison to controls [18].

On the other hand, in a small pilot study, men who had a diet very low in selenium (15 mcg) had increased WBC counts [19].

So, it could be that having increased or decreased levels of selenium can increase WBCs.

8) Garlic

Garlic treatment significantly increased total WBC counts in rats. Garlic-fed rats had significantly higher amounts of neutrophils, lymphocytes, and monocytes in comparison to controls [20].

9) Noni Fruit

In male rats, Tahitian Noni Juice increased WBC counts, as well as other blood and platelet counts [21].

10) Shark Liver Oil

Shark liver oil has a lot of alkylglycerols, which are fats that stimulate the production of WBCs. Shark liver oil supplementation was shown to increase WBC counts in humans [22].

Substances and Pathways That Increase WBC Levels

1) Cortisol/Glucocorticoids

Glucocorticoids/cortisol can increase the number of WBCs in the body [23].

Glucocorticoids (includes cortisol) increase leukocytes/WBCs in blood but decrease the number of lymphocytes, eosinophils, monocytes, and basophils [23].

A single dose of cortisol resulted in a 70% decrease in lymphocytes and a 90% decrease in monocytes, occurring 4 to 6 hours after treatment and persisting for about 24 hours. Cell numbers then rise 24 to 72 hours after treatment [23].

2) Leptin

WBCs are correlated to the amount of body fat in humans.

Leptin stimulates myeloid production, which is a precursor of WBCs [24].

Leptin is a hormone found in fat cells. The amount that circulates in humans is in direct proportion to the percentage of body fat. Leptin and the leptin receptor work together to stimulate blood cell production [25].

In Pima Indians, the WBC count is positively correlated with the percentage of body fat. The more fat the subjects had, the more WBCs they had in their body [25].

Weight loss can reduce the WBC count [26].

After controlling for age and gender, percent body fat accounted for 23% of the variance in the WBC count [25].

3) Adrenaline and Noradrenaline

Adrenaline and noradrenaline were infused into 5 healthy subjects. Total WBC counts increased in response to adrenaline and noradrenaline. Both alpha- and beta-adrenergic receptors are involved in the mobilization of lymphocytes [27].

4) MSH

MSH is capable of increasing WBCs in diabetic rats, who had lower levels [28].

5) Thyroid Hormones

Thyroid hormones may slightly increase WBCs. People who are hypothyroid have slightly lower WBC counts and it increases when they normalize their levels [29].

6) IGF-1

IGF-I stimulates a rapid increase in a number of immune cells, including WBCs, and helps increase the overall effectiveness of the immune system [30].

IGF-1 has an antiapoptotic (inhibits cell death) effect on WBC count and may increase their number [31].

7) Growth Hormone

Growth hormone, like IGF-I, also stimulates a rapid increase in a number of immune cells, including WBCs, and helps increase the overall effectiveness of the immune system [30].

Growth hormone alone (administered via injection to rats) increased WBC count. This was due to an increase in the number of lymphocytes and monocytes [32].

8) Prolactin

Prolactin has a variety of immune stimulating effects [30].

Injection of prolactin in mice increases WBCs [33].

Prolactin goes up after people have a seizure – and so do WBCs (but the authors didn’t connect the two) [34].

9) Insulin

The WBC count is related to blood insulin levels and insulin resistance in healthy individuals of Pima Indian descent. Higher insulin levels correlated to higher WBC counts [35].

However, this could simply be because WBCs increase insulin resistance, and insulin levels are higher in insulin-resistant states [36].

Using liver and fat cells from mice and humans as well as live mouse models, scientists discovered that an enzyme secreted by neutrophils called neutrophil elastase (NE) impaired insulin signaling and boosted resistance. Conversely, deletion of NE in obese mice fed a high-fat diet improved insulin sensitivity [36].

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How to Decrease White Blood Cell Levels

If you have high WBCs, you might want to look into some ways to reduce them. Here are some methods that may decrease WBC counts.

Lifestyle Choices That Lower White Blood Cell Count

1) Reduce Stress

Stress can increase cortisol, adrenaline, and prolactin, all of which can increase WBCs. Reducing stress can decrease these hormones and help normalize high WBC counts.

2) Stop Smoking

WBCs in male smokers was significantly higher than in ex-smokers and non-smokers. In current cigarette smokers, WBCs were related to the number of cigarettes smoked, the amount of inhalation, and the duration of smoking [37].

Obviously, smoking is not recommended as a means to increase WBCs if that’s what you want.

3) Moderate Alcohol Consumption

Alcohol is inversely proportional to WBC counts. In both smokers and non-smokers, alcohol consumption decreased WBCs in a dose-dependent manner [38].

This could be one reason why moderate alcohol intake is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

4) Reduce Carbs in Your Diet

High carb meals are capable of increasing leptin, insulin and IGF-1, more so than by consuming fat.  Reducing carbs in your diet may help bring down elevated WBCs.

5) Reduce Calories

Dietary proteins increase insulin, IGF-1, and growth hormone.

Consuming less food, in general, reduces thyroid hormones, insulin, leptin, IGF-1, and growth hormone, which in turn will decrease WBCs.

The amount of body fat is also correlated with WBCs.

Therefore, consuming less food should help reduce WBCs.

Substances and Pathways That Lower White Blood Cell Count

1) Testosterone and SHBG

Higher sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG) and testosterone levels are associated with lower WBC counts in middle-aged men [39].

2) Zinc

Zinc plays an important role in immune function. Zinc deficiency increased the number of total WBCs, granulocytes (neutrophil, eosinophil, and basophil), and monocytes in mice without changing the number of lymphocytes [40].

Zinc deficiency induces the overall stress response which may result in increased WBCs [41].

Therefore, supplementation with zinc (if you’re deficient) may help decrease high WBCs.

3) High Selenium Diet (300mcg)

WBCs decreased in men who ate a high-selenium diet. The decrease is mostly due to changes in granulocytes [19].

Optimal Reference Range for White Blood Cells

Participants in a prospective cohort study with baseline WBC < 3,500 and WBCs > 6,000 had higher mortality than those in the 3,500 to 6,000 (WBC/mm^3) range [4].

In an additional independent study that covered 7 countries, results concluded that each point increase in WBCs was associated with 21% higher 5-year heart disease mortality (after adjustment for risk factors) [42].

Having a WBC count between 3.5 (3,500) and 6.0 (6,000) is ideal for optimal health.

WBC counts of 9,000 to 10,000 showed a 3.2 fold increase for the risk of cardiovascular disease mortality compared to those with WBC counts of 4,000 to 4,900 [5].

WBCs can vary from person to person based on a multitude of factors.

Irregular WBC Levels?

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