Friday, January 15, 2010

Low White Blood Count - Really Low?

I recently got a blood test and I have a low white blood count. Here's the line from the test:

WBC . . . . . . . 3.2 L (3.6-10.6)

So, apparently the healthy range is 3.6-10.6, but I only have a 3.2. The doctor noted that this would leave me "susceptible to infection and colds". Well, since I haven't had a random infection or cold in... almost two years, this connection does not seem to be accurate. Yes, admittedly I've been mildly sick a couple times in the past couple years, but I know exactly why it happened. And even so, it wasn't anything like how I used to get sick, which was more often and much worse. Things just don't add up to doc's observation.

So, I'm not an expert on what tests like these mean, but here's my thinking. This "normal" range of 3.6-10.6 is based an averages collected from the general population. Not the healthy population only (people who live a long time and don't get sick), but everyone. So, what if the general population is not healthy? What if the general population actually gets sick a lot and depends on many drugs, stimulants, and fortified "foods" to keep them feeling ok? (Hint: this is the case)

Let's compare an athlete to a lethargic person. An athletic person who works out and trains consistently has a stronger body, and thus a stronger heart. Because of the heart's additional strength, it is much easier for it to pump blood during rest, and consequently it has a lower heart rate. In other words, the heart is able to move more blood on each pump, and so it doesn't need to pump as often. Also, the blood cells are able to carry more oxygen and so on. So this lower heart rate is actually a good thing. It means that the athlete's heart doesn't have to work as hard during rest time.

So, consider a hypothetical population entirely of lethargic and lazy people only. Their high heart rate would be considered "normal". And if one of these lethargic people had a lower heart rate than that standard, it would not be a good thing like in the case of an athlete. Indeed, for a sloth that lower heart rate would probably mean that something was wrong.

Then, lets say one tiny percentage of this previously lethargic population becomes active. The active people would become healthier and develop a lower heart rate, and the doctor would probably tell them that it is dangerously low! So what should they do? Either 1) take some drugs, or 2) go back to being lethargic. Both of these actions would get their numbers back to "normal", but neither of which is a necessary or correct solution!!

That's how I feel about my low WBC. I'm being compared to Joe Shmoe who eats a Standard American Diet (SAD), stressing his body on a regular basis and forcing it to react with in a defensive manner. However my body is clean, what does it need a bunch of extra white blood cells for? That's why I'm not getting sick, contrary to doc's prediction.

I could very well be wrong in this logic, since I don't really know much about human biology other than the simple cause-and-effect relationships of my actions and how those actions make me feel. But I do know that I'm not getting sick and I feel great. If you know something that I don't, leave a comment.


  1. Well Jon, I can't say I know for sure, but I will certainly ask my immunology teacher about this. I will say this though...Normal lab values are based on what is physiologically safe. For some lab values, deviations from them aren't that big a deal. Or even if they are, we don't worry about them if they can be explained (ie, an elevated blood pressure and heart rate after someone's just had a smoke/run up a flight of stairs). For others (say, the pH of your body), tiny deviations cause big effects. Also, I feel there is often some "buffer room". Meaning, even if your WBC is low, that doesn't necessarily mean you're immediately in trouble, but rather, we're going to worry a little bit more and watch your health because you're now at a higher risk of possibly getting sick. And even if that's not the case, there are many pathologies that affect WBC count and your doctor is really more concerned that you may have something bad (ie, leukemia).

    So, I think you could be right in that your WBC is lower because you have less stuff in your body and you don't need them around as often as others. But it could be for other reasons too. The anorexic has a low heart rate too; as does the person who's heart has simply given it's always good to make sure there's not a problem.

    And I don't know what kind of medication your doctor would put you on, but I think a good doctor is going to figure out why your WBC is low, specifically, and treat you accordingly. Mostly because we can't treat unless we know what's wrong. Pharmacology is a big field and it's not always the case that we can treat a million different diseases with one drug. And if we're not specific, it could actually hurt you.

    So, I your particular case, maybe the low WBC can be explained by your raw lifestyle. On the other hand, it could be something bad. And maybe your not sick now, but with my limited knowledge, I'd be a little concerned about how sick you could get if you did get sick. Just because I'm not sure how you can make your bone marrow stronger, and if you're body isn't used to getting your WBCs ready to fight off an infection...your immune system might actually be weaker when it gets challenged. Read up on the Hygiene Hypothesis. It's interesting stuff. And I know you haven't gotten sick lately, but who knows how long you've had a low WBC for. Maybe it's recent and that's why it hasn't been a problem before. I don't know; it's just a thought.

    I'll run it by my professor though and get back to you.

  2. what causes someone to have low white cell count? can cancer make causes this. is it Hygiene?