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December 17, 2010 9:33 AM   Subscribe

What do I eat to increase my red blood cells?

I had surgery December 2nd to resect a small piece of my sigmoid colon and remove tumors from my peritoneum. I was discharged from the hospital three and a half days post-surgery and developed some kind of infection that landed me back in the hospital for another six days. While there, I learned that my red blood cells were quite low and continued to drop. My first day home from my second time at the hospital, and I started hemorrhaging -- the pocket of infection began draining itself. The blood is watery and pink, so it's not a huge concern, but it is steady and expected to last all weekend. My energy (which was already low) has completely nose-dived. I know a lot of this is related to the antibiotics, anti-inflammatory and pain meds I'm on, but there's definitely something different going on since the bleeding started. I suspect it's my blood counts taking another hit.

I've been told to rest at home and go back to the hospital if I develop a fever. But I'd like to do what I can to start feeling better. Sleeping just breeds more sleep without increasing my energy. What can I eat to raise my red blood cells? Keep in mind that my appetite is low, and I'm trying not to challenge my intestines after having them cut apart and pieced back together. A bloody steak would probably be awesome for iron, but hell on my bowels. So what do I need to eat? Is it just iron-rich foods? Something else? I've never in my life had problems with anemia/low red cells, so this is something new to me. I don't even know what foods are most iron-rich, other than beef.

Metafilter, please impart your nutrition expertise.
posted by Felicity Rilke to Food & Drink (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Did you talk to your doc about this concern? I know there's a drug you can take (epo) to increase RBC's but not sure whether it's appropriate for someone in your situation. If not s/he could probably give the best advice regarding what else to do . . .

That said, I doubt anything you eat could actually increase your RBC's directly. It takes time, but I think eating a lot of anything remotely healthy will give you what you need to get the process going again.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 9:39 AM on December 17, 2010

Best answer: Besides red meat, dark leafy greens and legumes- lentils, etc.. You could make a soup with a beef broth base, put it all in the blender once it's cooked. I used to cook for an elderly couple and they loved spinach soup, surreal green!

Your iron count will most likely go back to normal once the bleeding stops. Hope you feel better soon.
posted by mareli at 10:04 AM on December 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Cream of Wheat. Not that I have nutrition expertise, but I was complaining recently about my iron anemia, and someone recommended eating this.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 10:14 AM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ack, wrong link: Cream of Wheat. It's surprisingly high in iron.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 10:16 AM on December 17, 2010

Best answer: My wife was instructed to eat filet mignon when she had surgery and had to bring her RBC count up. Or so I'm told.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 10:19 AM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

IANAD. Eating iron alone is not going to create red bloods cells; the only reason to take iron is if the cell manufacturing and maintenance process requires more available iron than you have. If the problem is elsewhere, you may be given a drug like Aranesp. But you do need to talk you your doctor about this; there's no point in worrying about low red blood cell count unless you know you have it, and then nobody without medical training and a great degree of familiarity with the various factors that affect red blood cell count is going to be able to suggest anything effective.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 10:35 AM on December 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

Talk to your MD before doing it, but Chinese medicine has some good stuff for this. In the SF Bay Area people who've been on chemo take it (I think chemo can clobber spleens and marrow.) My mom's liver doctor feels it's the only thing that's kept my mom reasonably healthy through a never-ending interferon treatment.

But for god's sake, make sure your MD and your Chinese medicine practitioner are coordinating! Chinese medicine will do some serious damage if it's used at the same time as western medicine drugs, if you aren't careful. It can also do serious damage to your already compromised organ systems if you Chinese medicine practioner doesn't really know what s/he's doing.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:39 AM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Talk to your doctor about this. I went through a similar situation last winter after having a gynecological procedure and then major complications and infection. Severe anemia and/or low blood counts can't be remedied with diet. My hemoglobin was low, not dangerously so, but enough that I was experiencing intense fatigue (I was housebound for about 8 weeks).

I researched this topic, and tried to incorporate many of the same things mentioned here. But my appetite was impaired, and I just never felt better. After a repeat hospitalization, my doctor gave me a blood transfusion (2 units). That was what finally helped me turn a corner, and my recovery was very fast after that.
posted by kimdog at 10:41 AM on December 17, 2010

Before adjusting the iron in your diet, talk to your doctor. Dietary iron, supplements in particular, can impair the absorption of some other nutrients and medications. Some sources of vitamin B12 are also very high in saturated fat and cholesterol.

If a deficiency anemia is your problem, you should eat foods rich in iron, vitamin C, folate (folic acid), and vitamin B12. Except for B12, all of these can be found in green leafy vegetables. B12 is typically found in animal products like red meat and liver.
posted by Bongotrance Rabbitfriend at 11:29 AM on December 17, 2010

Response by poster: The low blood counts are a temporary thing and don't require medical intervention like Aranesp or blood transfusion. It's typical low counts to be expected after surgery and hemorrhage. What I'm really looking for are suggestions on dietary things I can do to help my body out as much as possible.

Tooty McTootsalot - thanks for the Cream of Wheat suggestion! I remember being told that was a super food for anemia back when I was going through chemotherapy and the nutritionist was making suggestions of foods to eat in cases like this. I actually like CoW and it's such an easy thing to eat with a low appetite. I'll start having it for breakfast.
posted by Felicity Rilke at 12:35 PM on December 17, 2010

Best answer: Here is a PDF from a blood bank about how to increase your hemoglobin.
posted by radioamy at 1:03 PM on December 17, 2010

Best answer: Using old fashioned molasses as a sweatener is an easy way to get a bunch of trace minerals (and calories, but if you're recovering that helps, too). It does have a strong flavor, which may be an acquired taste.
posted by anaelith at 1:18 PM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd recommend taking a multivitamin if your doctor OKs it. Vitamins B6, B12, and folate are all important for healthy red blood cell production.
posted by pecanpies at 2:34 PM on December 17, 2010

my doctor put me on prescription strength iron pills (who knew they made such a thing?) and it had a lot of stipulations about not eating eggs (the whites in particular) dairy or caffeine within an hour of the pill. It turns out that those things inhibit iron absorption. Vitamin C however really helps iron aborption.

So keep those things in mind when you're trying to up your iron count too. A steak and glass of milk...no. a steak and glass of orange juice...yes.
posted by Caravantea at 3:00 PM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

caravantea is right about iron bonding to calcium. They will effectively cancel each other out.

Steamed but not overcooked leafy greens are good. Molasses has about a fucking TON of the stuff in it. Chick peas are really high in iron, as are other legumes. Beets are amazing, especially when you steam the greens and serve alongside.

They won't help with the production of red blood cells, but it'll make the ones you have function better and carry more oxygen. but don't go near any sort of iron supplement without consulting your doctor -- there are various kinds of iron to take and the wrong one can really fuck you up if your system can't absorb it right. also, overdosing on iron, even if your blood cell count is low, can cause serious health problems.
posted by custard heart at 4:27 PM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

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