Low Lymphocyte Count (Lymphocytopenia)

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low lymphocyte count lymphocytopeniaThe condition lymphocytopenia, or lymphopenia, is characterized by abnormally low lymphocyte levels. Lymphocytes are a kind of white blood cell that is part of your immune system.

Low lymphocyte count is a cause for concern because when lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell) are low, the body’s ability to repel infections is weakened.

These cells help prevent infections by bacteria and viruses and also fight off infections already present, and a low count of these cells also increases the chance of certain types of cancer developing, mostly types of leukemia, lymphoma, and Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

There are three types of lymphocytes: B cells, T cells, and natural killer (NK) cells. These white blood cells make up about 20% to 40% of all white blood cells in the body, and the normal range for lymphocytes is a count of 1,000 to 4,800 cells per microliter of blood.

In This Article:

What Does It Mean if You Have Low Lymphocytes?

To have low lymphocytes means to have a low absolute lymphocyte count (ALC). Absolute lymphocyte count is the product of the total white blood cell count and the percentage of lymphocytes (ALC = WBC X % lymphocytes). ALC in peripheral blood may indicate the body’s immune surveillance potential.

The three types of lymphocytes (B, T, NK) are necessary because all three play important roles in how the immune system functions optimally. Having not enough B cells can lead to a decrease in the number of plasma cells, and these cells produce antibodies (a protein in the blood that works with the immune system to fight off bacteria and viruses).

A reduction in the production of antibodies can cause an increase in bacterial infections. A low number of T cells or NK cells can result in problems controlling certain infections, especially if they’re viral, fungal, or parasitic. Severe lymphocyte deficiencies can lead to an increase in uncontrolled infections, which may be fatal. Low lymphocyte count causes are varied and stem from a number of diseases and conditions.

What Causes Low Lymphocytes?

Lymphocytopenia causes may include mild infections or the flu, which are often not serious. That being said, a low lymphocyte count also puts you at risk for a more severe infection such as a HIV (human immunodeficiency virus).

Lymphocytopenia can be inherited or acquired. Acquired causes of low lymphocyte count may include anything from autoimmune diseases like lupus to chemotherapy or radiation therapy and certain blood cancers. Inherited disorders may include DiGeorge syndrome and Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome.

1. General Causes

In general, people have low numbers of lymphocytes in the blood because the body does not make enough white blood cells. Alternatively, it can also be that lymphocytes are destroyed in the blood, and levels of lymphocytes are not properly developed as a result.

Some other causes are:

  • Spleen damage: A low lymphocyte count can also be due to lymphocytes being trapped in the spleen, likely due to a spleen disease. Lymphocytes will pass through your spleen and into your blood.
  • Fasting: Fasting or crash dieting can also produce low lymphocyte levels in your blood. Undernutrition or an inadequate diet can cause B and T lymphocyte cell levels to drop in the body. This can affect your immune system, which puts undernourished people at greater risk for an infection.
  • Intense physical stress: Stress is a well-known trigger of weakened immune systems. Research published in the journal International Immunopharmacology in 2002 found that chronic mild stress can lead the body to alter the number of T cells and B cells that get produced.
  • Other research shows that stressful life events can cause the opposite effect, lymphocytosis, which is a condition characterized by abnormally high levels of white blood cells.
  • Zinc deficiency: A low lymphocyte count could also indicate a zinc deficiency. Zinc is an important antioxidant and mineral needed for immune health. Besides a weak immune system, symptoms of zinc deficiency can include leaky gut syndrome, thinning hair, poor wound healing, and rashes or other skin problems.

2. Acquired Causes

Acquired causes, meaning those that you were not born with but developed at some point in life, are most often connected to underlying medical health conditions or responses to other medical treatments. Some examples of acquired causes are:

  • Infectious diseases, such as pneumonia, mononucleosis, and tuberculosis
  • Steroid therapy
  • Blood cancers and blood diseases, such as such as lymphoma, leukemia or Hodgkin disease, and lymphocytic anemia
  • Radiation/chemotherapy
  • AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome)/HIV (human immunodeficiency virus)
  • Aplastic anemia due to low platelets, white blood cells, and red blood cells
  • Autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus

Certain autoimmune disorders have an effect on B cells and T cells, leading to a decline in lymphocyte levels. Studies show that about three-quarters of people with lupus also have lymphocytopenia. In certain cases, blood tests confirm levels of a low absolute lymphocyte count.

3. Inherited Causes

Inherited causes, which are those passed down to you genetically by your parents, are almost always linked to defects in the genes that are part of lymphocyte development. Some of these diseases include the following:

  • DiGeorge anomaly
  • Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome
  • Severe combined immunodeficiency syndrome
  • Ataxia-telangiectasia

It’s not yet known how these diseases, conditions, or factors affect lymphocyte count; in fact, some people have a low lymphocyte count with no known underlying cause. More research needs to be done to gain a fuller understanding.

What Is the Normal Range of Lymphocytes?

Lymphocyte levels can be determined and analyzed through a blood test.

  • The range value is calculated per milliliter of blood, and the normal range for lymphocytes is typically between 1,300 and 4,000 cells per milliliter.
  • A percentage can also be used, but if it is, the figure tends to include all three types of lymphocytes: T cells, B cells, and NK cells.
  • The percentage range should be between 20% and 40% of the total white blood cell count.

Symptoms of Low Lymphocytes Count

Trying to diagnose a low lymphocyte count is tricky, because on its own, the condition doesn’t present with any signs or symptoms; it’s typically noticed only when blood tests are done for other diseases and conditions. If symptoms do present themselves in mild cases of lymphocytopenia, they would look something like the following, (and as with anything, it can vary from person to person):

  • Enlarged lymph nodes and spleen. This indicates the presence of cancer or an HIV infection. In this case, a low lymphocyte count can mean cancer.
  • Cough, runny nose, and fever, which indicate a respiratory viral infection.
  • Small tonsils or lymph nodes, which indicate a genetic immune system disorder.
  • Swollen, painful joints and a rash. This indicates the presence of rheumatoid arthritis or systemic lupus erythematosus.

As mentioned, when the number of lymphocytes is reduced considerably, it can lead to repeated infections by way of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites.

An abnormal increase in one type of white blood cell can cause a decrease in the number of other types of white blood cells, which means that it’s possible to have, for example, both high neutrophils and low lymphocytes.

A blood differential test will measure the levels of neutrophils and lymphocytes, and it is often used to confirm a high neutrophils-low lymphocytes problem like an infection, anemia, leukemia, and other diseases.

How Are Low Lymphocytes Diagnosed?

Despite whatever symptoms and signs might be presenting themselves, the answers are all in the blood—that is, the only way low lymphocytes can be diagnosed is through a complete blood panel workup done by your doctor. While symptoms may lead your doctor to believe that there is an issue, the only way to confirm the diagnosis is by drawing blood and analyzing it.

When the lymphocyte count is low or reduced, your doctor will test for HIV and other infections with another blood test. In rare cases, a bone marrow sample will be extracted so it can be studied under a microscope.

The blood tests will also determine the types of lymphocytes (T cells, B cells, and NK cells) in the blood. Some disorders, such as AIDS, are determined by a reduction in some kinds of lymphocytes, as are particular disorders related to hereditary immunodeficiency.

Low lymphocyte counts related to lymphoma (a group of blood cancers that develop in the lymphatic system, most notably Hodgkin’s lymphoma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma) are diagnosed through blood tests as well.

How to Treat Low Lymphocytes

How you treat low lymphocytes depends entirely on what’s causing the problem.

1. Drug-Related Causes

If a drug causes lymphocytopenia, then it will usually resolve on its own within time and no other intervention is required.

2. AIDS-Related

If the cause of the lymphocytopenia is AIDS, then the course of treatment is a combination therapy approach where three antiviral drugs are administered (at a minimum) so that T cell counts can be increased and the chance of survival lengthened.

3. Disease- or Illness-Related

If the lymphocytopenia is related to an illness or simple disease, the doctor will treat that underlying condition accordingly, depending on what it is. Over time, the white blood cell count should return to normal. If not, further investigation and testing will need to be done.

4. Mild Cases of Low White Blood Cell Count

In mild lymphocytopenia where there is no underlying cause, no treatment is offered as the situation will likely improve on its own over time.

5. Genetic Aberrations

When a genetic defect is the cause of lymphocytopenia, a blood stem cell transplant or a bone marrow stem cell transplant might be viable options considered by your doctor as a low lymphocyte count treatment.

Dietary Guidelines for a Better Lymphocyte Count

You may want to know how to increase lymphocytes naturally. A healthy, nutrient-rich diet can go a long way toward boosting lymphocyte levels. This will provide your immune system with everything it needs to fight off viruses and bacteria that can potentially lead to low lymphocyte levels.

The following is a dietary guideline to follow to help your body improve its lymphocyte count.

  • Eat lots of lean protein: When the body doesn’t get enough protein, this leads to fewer white blood cells. As a result, you can increase lymphocyte production when you eat protein-rich foods such as grass-fed meats like poultry and beef, organic eggs, wild-caught fish and seafood, and legumes.
  • Avoid foods high in trans and saturated fats: These fats thicken lymphocytes; as such, reducing trans and saturated fat consumption can help improve immune system health. Avoid unhealthy fats such as margarine, fried foods, hydrogenated oils, and processed baked goods.
  • Consume healthy fats: Omega-3 fatty acids, on the other hand, will increase your lymphocyte count. Include omega-3 fatty acid foods such as avocado, ground flaxseed, hemp seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, sardines, albacore tuna, white fish, Alaskan salmon, herring, and Atlantic mackerel in your diet.
  • Eat foods high in beta-carotene: Beta-carotene helps boost lymphocyte production. Foods rich in beta-carotene include carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, romaine lettuce, and spinach.
  • Eat zinc-rich foods: Zinc is needed to make lymphocytes. It also increases levels of NK cells and T cells, which strengthens your immune system. Foods high in zinc include oysters, asparagus, collard greens, spinach, broccoli, sesame seeds, and pumpkin seeds.
  • Consume foods high in vitamin C: Vitamin C is known to increase the production of white blood cells such as lymphocytes. Foods high in vitamin C include bell peppers, parsley, kale, oranges, raspberries, tomatoes, and celery.
  • Eat foods loaded with vitamin D: Not getting enough vitamin D can lower lymphocyte levels and weaken your immune system. Foods rich in vitamin D include organic eggs, raw milk, wild-caught salmon, sardines, mackerel, and tuna.
  • Eat foods high in vitamin E: Vitamin E supports production of NK cells and B cells. Foods rich in vitamin E include sunflower seeds, almonds, kale, spinach, olives, asparagus, and collard greens.
  • Eat selenium-rich foods: Selenium helps the body produce more white blood cells. Foods high in selenium include cod, shiitake mushrooms, salmon, tuna, eggs, oats, and broccoli.
  • Eat more garlic: Garlic is known to boost white blood cell production, which increases the number of NK cells. Purchase fresh, powdered, or dried garlic, and use it in your cooking daily.
  • Drink more green tea: Green tea compounds can boost immunity by fighting viruses that deplete white blood cells.

Lifestyle Remedies to Prevent Lymphocytopenia

There are also a number of lifestyle changes that could help you prevent lymphocytopenia, or low lymphocyte levels. Let’s take a look at some of the better prevention methods below:

  • Get enough sleep: Getting enough sleep supports immunity, while being tired weakens your immune health by decreasing the levels of white blood cells. Make sure you are fully rested. Adults need at least seven to nine hours of sleep per night.
  • Reduce stress: Stress weakens immunity; as a result, you become more susceptible to illness, which reduces white blood count. You can reduce stress with meditation, yoga, qigong, tai chi, deep breathing, and walking in nature.
  • Limit alcohol consumption: Excessive alcohol drinking can wreak havoc on your immune system, which prevents it from making enough white blood cells. Men should drink no more than two drinks daily, while women should not have more than one.
  • Quit smoking: Smoking weakens your immune system, and this includes your white blood cell count. Consequently, your body fails to produce or maintain high amounts of lymphocytes.
  • Maintain a healthy weight: Being overweight or underweight can negatively impact your body’s white blood cell count. As a result, your body will not produce enough white blood cells. That is why it is good idea to get enough exercise and eat a balanced diet. Try exercising for 30 minutes at least five times weekly. Pick activities you enjoy, such as running, walking, biking, swimming, or hiking.
  • Practice good hygiene: Washing your hands is always a good idea. However, it is especially important when you want to increase your lymphocyte levels. Washing your hands reduces your risk of exposure to viruses and bacteria.

Final Thoughts on Low Lymphocyte Count

Lymphocytopenia, or abnormally low lymphocyte levels, can be a sign of spleen damage, zinc deficiency, aplastic anemia, autoimmune diseases, certain blood-related cancers, or AIDS/HIV. It can also be triggered by infectious diseases like tuberculosis, pneumonia, and mononucleosis, and inherited disorders like Wiskott-Aldich syndrome and DiGeorge syndrome.

How can you prevent or treat a low lymphocyte count? Start by eating a healthy diet high in lean protein, zinc, selenium, beta-carotene, vitamin C, vitamin D, and vitamin E. This will include lots of vegetables and fruit, and healthy fats like avocado and wild-caught fish. Also, be sure to get enough sleep, reduce stress, quit smoking, limit alcohol consumption, and maintain a healthy weight.

Also read:

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