Red blood cells are those cellular structures in blood that, along with plasma and other antibodies and cellular units, comprise whole blood. Problems with red blood cell production can mean a reduced number of these cells in the body. Low red blood count causes are usually related to diet or disease. Genetic disorders may also play a factor. However, a vitamin deficiency – leading to anemia – can also be an underlying culprit.
Red blood cells (also called erythrocytes) are single cells of a rust color. They are roughly donut-shaped with a “closed” hole in the center (biconcave). Red blood cells get their characteristic rust-red color from the hemoglobin carried in each cell. It is the red blood cells’ job to transport oxygen to the body’s organs. Within the tissues and organs, the red blood cells exchange their oxygen for carbon dioxide; once depleted of oxygen they circulate back through the lungs, dumping their carbon dioxide load and picking up a fresh cargo of oxygen before continuing on.
In a healthy body, the red blood cells and other constituents are in relatively consistent ratios by volume. Many blood conditions, however, can upset that balance. Red cells are manufactured in the bone marrow of the ends of the long bones, vertebrae, breastbone, and pelvis. Cases of the bone marrow’s overproducing red blood cells are categorized as polycythemia.
More common, though, is underproduction of red blood cells, resulting in a low red blood cell count. This condition is called anemia, and can be caused by genetics, defect, disease, or diet. Two causes of abnormally formed red blood cells are thalassemia and sickle-cell anemia. In both cases, the body may produce adequate numbers of these cells, but because of their irregular shape they are unable to pass through smaller capillaries resulting in parts of the body that are oxygen deprived. Hence, these genetic disorders qualify as causes of anemia. Another cause is diseases that suppress the immune system. People generally think of white blood cell suppression in such disease, but red blood cell production can be affected as well.
The most common cause of low red blood count, though, is also perhaps the easiest to remedy: diet. There is a substance needed in the body for continual, healthy production of red blood cells, and it is known as erythrocyte maturing factor. Despite its intimidating-sounding name this antianemia is better known as Vitamin B12. When B12 is consumed, it travels to the stomach where it reacts with another substance in the stomach’s lining. This substance is called the intrinsic factor, and it is what enables the bone marrow to make use of the B12 for red blood cell production. Shortages of B12 in the body from improper diet or starvation will cause anemia. People with anorexia, because of their inadequate food intake and retention are particularly prone to anemia, often fatally. Another of the B vitamins, folic acid, if it is in short supply can also be one of the low red blood count causes.