Most people donate blood because they want to help others, and, indeed, donating blood a single time may help save the lives of up to three people.1Still, less than 10 percent of the US population eligible to donate blood actually does so every year.
Why don’t more people donate blood on a regular basis? According to the American Red Cross, the most common reasons given by people who don’t give blood are because they “never thought about it” or “don’t like needles.”
It may be time to start thinking about it today, or muster up the courage to overcome your fear of needles, as giving blood doesn’t only help others… it helps you too.
Four Benefits of Giving Blood
Someone in the US needs blood every two seconds,2 so if you’re up for doing a good deed, donating blood is a phenomenal choice. More than 41,000 blood donations are needed each day, and because blood cannot be manufactured, the only way to supply this need is via generous blood donors. It’s certainly an altruistic act… but it’s also one that offers important yet little-discussed benefits.
1. Balance Iron Levels in Your Blood
In my view, this is clearly the most important reason. For each unit of blood donated, you lose about one-quarter of a gram of iron.
You may at first think this is a bad thing, since too little iron may lead to fatigue, decreased immunity, or iron-deficiency anemia, which can be serious if left untreated. This is common in children and premenopausal women.
But what many people fail to realize is that too much iron can be worse, and is actually far more common than iron deficiency (especially in men and postmenopausal women).
So for many, the fact that donating blood helps to rid your body of excess iron is one of the greatest benefits it offers. It has been long known that menstruating women have fewer heart attacks. This was previously thought to be due to hormones but is now thought to be due to lower iron levels.
Similar to premenopausal women, blood donors have been found to be 88 percent less likely to suffer from a heart attack,3 and this is thought to be due to its effects on iron levels. Researchers explained:
“Because high body iron stores have been suggested as a risk factor for acute myocardial infarction, donation of blood could theoretically reduce the risk by lowering body iron stores.”
Interestingly, in a study published in the April 2013 issue of American Journal of Public Health,4 researchers found that statin cholesterol-lowering drugs improved cardiovascular outcomes at least partially by countering the pro-inflammatory effects of excess iron stores.
In this study, the improved outcomes were associated with lower ferritin (iron) levels but not with “improved” lipid status. Researchers concluded iron reduction might be a safe and low-cost alternative to statins, and according to logic this means that donating your blood, which reduces iron, could potentially help too.
2. Better Blood Flow
Do you know what a high-sugar diet, smoking, radio frequencies, and other toxic electromagnetic forces, emotional stress, anxiety, high cholesterol, and high uric acid levels do to your blood?
All of these make your blood hypercoagulable, meaning it makes it thick and slow moving, which increases your risk of having a blood clot or stroke. Hypercoagulable blood contributes to inflammation, because when your blood does not flow well, oxygen can’t get to your tissues.
For example, early (and some current) birth control pills were notorious for causing heart attacks in women. One of the mechanisms that cause this increased risk is that synthetic estrogens and progesterones increase blood viscosity.
Repeated blood donations may help your blood to flow better, possibly helping to limit damage to the lining of your blood vessels, which should result in fewer arterial blockages. (Grounding can also help to thin dangerously thick blood.) Phillip DeChristopher, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Loyola University Health System blood bank, told TIME:5
“What is clear is that blood donors seem to not be hospitalized so often and if they are, they have shorter lengths of stay… And they’re less likely to get heart attacks, strokes, and cancers.”
3. You Get a Mini Physical
Every blood donor gets a “mini physical” prior to donation. Your temperature will be checked along with your blood pressure, pulse, and hemoglobin. Your blood will also be tested for 13 infectious diseases like HIV, hepatitis B and C, West Nile Virus, and syphilis.
Donating blood is certainly not a replacement for medical care, but it does give you a (free) glimpse into your health (as well as notice if you’ve been exposed to an infectious disease without knowing).
4. A Longer Life
People who volunteer for altruistic reasons, i.e. to help others rather than themselves, appear to live longer than those who volunteer for more self-centered reasons. Altruistic volunteers enjoyed a significantly reduced risk of mortality four years later according to one study,6 with the study’s lead author noting:7
“This could mean that people who volunteer with other people as their main motivation may be buffered from potential stressors associated with volunteering, such as time constraints and lack of pay.”
What You Should Know About Excess Iron Levels
Iron is essential for life, as it is a key part of various proteins and enzymes, involved in the transport of oxygen and the regulation of cell growth and differentiation, among many other uses.
One of the most important roles of iron is to provide hemoglobin (the protein in red blood cells that contains iron at its core), a mechanism through which it can bind to oxygen and carry it throughout your tissues, as without proper oxygenation, your cells quickly start dying.
However, because your body has a limited capacity to excrete iron, it can easily build up in organs like your liver, heart, and pancreas. This is dangerous because iron is a potent oxidizer and can damage your body tissues contributing to serious health issues. Cancer researchers have found evidence that bowel cancers are two to three times more likely to develop when dietary iron is too high in your body.8 High iron levels have also been linked to:
Cirrhosis Liver cancer Cardiac arrhythmias Type one diabetes Alzheimer’s disease Bacterial and viral infections
This is a personal issue for me, as getting my dad’s iron levels checked saved his life 20 years ago. I discovered he had a ferritin level close to 1,000. It was because he has beta-thalassemia. With regular phlebotomies, his iron levels normalized and now the only side effect he has is type 1 diabetes. His high iron levels damaged his pancreatic islet cells triggering what is called “bronze” diabetes, and so he requires the use of insulin.
I also inherited beta-thalassemia from him but thankfully, I am able to keep my iron levels normal by removing about a pint of blood a year. This is removed not all at once but over a few dozen deposits. I screen myself with ferritin levels several times a year. I also screened my patients with ferritin levels and noticed nearly one-fourth of them had elevated levels. So I would strongly encourage you and your family to be screened annually for this, as it is SO MUCH easier to prevent iron overload than it is to treat it.
Hemochromatosis is one of the most prevalent genetic diseases in the US. The C282Y gene mutation is thought to be responsible for the majority of hemochromatosis cases. It takes two inherited copies of the mutation (one from your mother and one from your father) to cause the disease (and even then only some people will actually get sick). If you have just one mutation, you won’t become ill but you will absorb slightly more iron than the rest of the population, a trait that may have given people an advantage when dietary sources of iron were scarce.
Have You Had a Ferritin Screen?
Checking your iron levels is easy and can be done with a simple blood test called a serum ferritin test. I believe this is one of the most important tests that everyone should have done on a regular basis as part of a preventive, proactive health screen. The test measures the carrier molecule of iron, a protein found inside cells called ferritin, which stores the iron. If your ferritin levels are low, it means your iron levels are also low.
The healthy range of serum ferritin lies between 20 and 80 ng/ml. Below 20 is a strong indicator that you are iron deficient, and above 80 suggests you have an iron surplus. The ideal range is between 40-60 ng/ml. The higher the number over 100 the worse the iron overload, with levels over 300 being particularly toxic. Levels this high will eventually cause serious damage in nearly everyone that sustains those levels long term.
Four Common Factors That Increase Your Risk of Iron Overload
People with hemochromatosis are not the only ones who may accumulate more iron than is healthy. While premenopausal women who are menstruating regularly rarely suffer from iron overload due to the monthly loss of blood, most adult men and postmenopausal women tend to be at a high risk, as they don’t have a monthly blood loss (one of the best ways you can get rid of excess iron is by bleeding). Another common cause of excess iron is the regular consumption of alcohol, which will increase the absorption of any iron in your diet. For instance, if you drink wine with your steak, you will likely be absorbing more iron than you need. Other potential causes of high iron levels include:
- Cooking in iron pots or pans. Cooking acidic foods in these types of pots or pans will cause even higher levels of iron absorption.
- Eating processed food products like cereals and white breads that are “fortified’ with iron. The iron they use in these products is inorganic iron, not much different than rust, and it is far more dangerous than the iron in meat.
- Drinking well water that is high in iron. The key here is to make sure you have some type of iron precipitator and/or a reverse osmosis water filter.
- Taking multiple vitamins and mineral supplements, as both of these frequently have iron in them.
If you find out that your iron levels are elevated or you have hemochromatosis, donating your blood is the safest, most effective, and most inexpensive approach to remedy this problem. If, for some reason, a blood donor center is unable to accept your blood for donation, you can obtain a prescription for therapeutic phlebotomy. At the same time, you will want to be sure to avoid consuming excess iron in the form of supplements, in your drinking water (well water), from iron cookware, or in fortified processed foods.