Hemoglobin is generally not a word that you hear on a daily basis. That being said, if you have low hemoglobin levels, you might not even know it.
It’s not something you can see, and the symptoms are difficult to distinguish, as they can be linked to other causes.
But a low hemoglobin count can be detrimental to your health.
What Is Hemoglobin?
Hemoglobin is a protein molecule in red blood cells that’s ultimately responsible for carrying oxygen from your lungs to the various muscles and organs throughout your body. It is very important, because your muscles and organs need oxygen to function.
Think of it this way: if you can’t breathe, you can’t get oxygen—and if you don’t get enough oxygen, you can die.
Along with carrying oxygen molecules to your muscles and organs, hemoglobin also picks up carbon dioxide (waste produced in organs and muscles) so it can be exhaled.
Iron is extremely important for the transporting of hemoglobin, and thus oxygen and carbon dioxide—without it, these molecules can’t do their jobs effectively. When blood iron levels are low, it impacts hemoglobin production and effectiveness, thus creating symptoms like muscular and mental fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, pale skin, and a fast or irregular heartbeat.
What Is Low Hemoglobin?
The symptoms of low blood hemoglobin can be hard to distinguish, because they are easily attributable to other sources. Feelings of fatigue or weakness, for example, can be attributable to stress, being overworked, or even the natural aging process. But if ignored for too long, these seemingly everyday problems can get more and more severe. When hemoglobin levels become severely low, you run the risk of anemia.
As mentioned, it is very difficult to tell if you have low hemoglobin. The only way to tell is through a blood test. But if you’ve been experiencing any of the above symptoms and can’t figure out why, it might be due to low iron intake and low blood hemoglobin.
Keep in mind that low hemoglobin is, for the most part, anemia. Anemia is caused by low dietary intake or health conditions/treatments that reduce the production or amount of red blood cells in your body. Many of these conditions are beyond the scope of this article and require treatment from a medical professional. If, however, you are in relatively good health and have no pre-existing conditions, like cancer, hypothyroidism, cirrhosis, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, chronic kidney disease, and so on, then you can boost blood hemoglobin by finding ways to increase the amount of iron in your diet.
Blood hemoglobin requirements vary based on on your age and gender. An ideal amount of blood hemoglobin for a man is between 13.6 and 17.7 grams per deciliter (g/dl), and it is considered low at 13.5 g/dl or less. For women 18 and over, 12.1-15.1 g/dl is a healthy range, but 12 g/dl and under is low. Symptoms might not be recognizable if your levels are a little low, but the lower they get and the longer they stay there, the more severe the situation can become.
The best way to combat low hemoglobin is to make sure you get enough iron every day. This is extremely important for pre-menopausal, women because iron levels are greatly diminished through menstrual bleeding. Because of this, the daily recommended intake of iron and other B-vitamins, like folic acid and B12, are typically higher for women than men.
As far as iron goes, men 19 and over require 8 mg per day. Women between the ages of 19-50 need more than twice that, at 18 mg per day. At 51 and over, requirements for women drop down to 8 mg per day.
Normal Hemoglobin Levels
The following chart can help you determine if you’ve got adequate blood hemoglobin. Compare it to the results from a blood test to see where you fit. Values for children are also provided.
|Newborn||N/A||13.4 g/dl or less||13.5 – 24 g/dl||16.5 g/dl|
|Less than 1 month||N/A||9.9 g/dl or less||10 – 20 g/dl||13.9 g/dl|
|1-2 months||N/A||9.9 g/dl or less||10 – 18 g/dl||11.2 g/dl|
|3-6 months||N/A||9.4 g/dl or less||9.5 – 14 g/dl||12.6 g/dl|
|7 months – 2 years||N/A||10.4 g/dl or less||10.5 – 13.5 g/dl||12 g/dl|
|3-6 years||N/A||11.4 g/dl or less||11.5 – 13.5 g/dl||12.5 g/dl|
|7-11 years||N/A||11.4 g/dl or less||11.5 – 15.5 g/dl||13.5 g/dl|
|12-18 years||Female||11.9 g/dl or less||12 – 16 g/dl||14 g/dl|
|19 and over||Female||12 g/dl or less||12.1 – 15.1 g/dl||14 g/dl|
|12-18 years||Male||12.9 g/dl or less||13 – 16 g/dl||14.5 g/dl|
|19 and over||Male||13.5 g/dl or less||13.6 – 17.7 g/dl||15.5 g/dl|
Foods to Eat If You Have Low Hemoglobin
If your hemoglobin levels are low and you don’t have any pre-existing health conditions, you can try to bring them back up by eating more food with iron, folic acid, and vitamin B12.
It should be noted that many of the foods containing these vital nutrients come from animals, so vegetarians are urged to supplement with vitamins and dietary supplements to reach adequate levels of these nutrients.
The volume of plant-based foods you’d have to eat to absorb adequate amounts of each would likely greatly exceed your appetite!
1. Iron-Rich Foods
- Red meat
- Dark leafy greens like spinach and kale
- Raisins and dried apricots
2. Vitamin C-Rich foods (necessary for iron absorption)
- Leafy greens
3. Folic Acid-Rich Foods
- Soy beans
- Collard greens
- Peas (chickpeas, black-eyed peas, pinto, mung, navy, black, pink, etc.)
4. Vitamin B12-Rich Foods
- Red meat
Eat Your Way Back to Health
If left unchecked, low hemoglobin (anemia) can lead to some severe and dangerous health problems. Eat a balanced diet to ensure you’re getting the nutrients you need to keep hemoglobin high and spread much-needed oxygen to your muscles and organs.
“Iron,” National Institutes of Health web site; http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-HealthProfessional/, last accessed July 7, 2015.
Gerston, T., “Hemoglobin,” U.S. National Library of Medicine, February 24, 2014; http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003645.htm.
Davis, C.P., “Hemoglobin,” MedicineNet web site; http://www.medicinenet.com/hemoglobin/article.htm, last accessed July 7, 2015.