What White Blood Cell Count Should We Shoot for?

At the start of my video What Does a Low White Blood Cell Count Mean?, you can see what it looks like when you take a drop of blood, smear it between two pieces of glass, and view at it under a microscope: a whole bunch of little, round, red blood cells and a few big, white blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen, while white blood cells are our immune system’s foot soldiers. We may churn out 50 billion new white blood cells a day. In response to inflammation or infection, that number can shoot up to a 100 billion or more. In fact, pus is largely composed of: millions and millions of white blood cells.

Testing to find out how many white blood cells we have at any given time is one of the most common laboratory tests doctors order. It’s ordered it hundreds of millions of times a year. If, for example, you end up in the emergency room with abdominal pain, having a white blood cell count above about 10 billion per quart of blood may be a sign you have appendicitis. Most Americans fall between 4.5 and 10, but most Americans are unhealthy. Just because 4.5 to 10 is typical doesn’t mean it’s ideal. It’s like having a “normal” cholesterol level in a society where it’s normal to die of heart disease, our number-one killer. The average American is overweight, so if your weight is “normal,” that’s actually a bad thing.

In fact, having excess fat itself causes inflammation within the body, so it’s no surprise that those who are obese walk around with two billion more white cells per quart of blood. Given that, perhaps obese individuals should have their own “normal” values. As you can see at 2:06 in my video, if someone with a 47-inch waist walks into the ER with a white blood cell count of 12, 13, or even 14, they may not have appendicitis or an infection. That may just be their normal baseline level, given all the inflammation they have in their body from the excess fat. So, normal levels are not necessarily healthy levels.

It’s like smoking. As you can see at 2:31 in my video, if you test identical twins and one smokes but the other doesn’t, the smoker is going to end up with a significantly higher white cell count. In Japan, for example, as smoking rates have steadily dropped, so has the normal white count range. In fact, it’s dropped such that about 8 percent of men who have never smoked would now be flagged as having abnormally low white counts if you used a cut-off of 4. But, when that cut-off of 4 was set, most people were smoking. So, maybe 3 would be a better lower limit. The inflammation caused by smoking may actually be one of the reasons cigarettes increase the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and other inflammatory diseases. So, do people who have lower white counts have less heart disease, cancer, and overall mortality? Yes, yes, and yes. People with lower white blood cell counts live longer. Even within the normal range, every one point drop may be associated with a 20 percent drop in the risk of premature death.

As you can see at 3:39 in my video, there is an exponential increase in risk in men as white count goes up, even within the so-called normal range, and the same is found for women. The white blood cell count is a “stable, well-standardized, widely available and inexpensive measure of systemic inflammation.” In one study, half of the women around 85 years of age who had started out with white counts under 5.6 were still alive, whereas 80 percent of those who started out over 7 were dead, as you can see at 4:05 in my video—and white blood cell counts of 7, 8, 9, or even 10 would be considered normal. Being at the high end of the normal range may place one at three times the risk of dying from heart disease compared to being at the lower end.

The same link has been found for African-American men and women, found for those in middle age, found at age 75, found at age 85, and found even in our 20s and 30s: a 17 percent increase in coronary artery disease incidence for each single point higher.

As you can see at 5:00 in my video, the higher your white count, the worse your arterial function may be and the stiffer your arteries may be, so it’s no wonder white blood cell count is a useful predictor of high blood pressure and artery disease in your heart, brain, legs, and neck. Even diabetes? Yes, even diabetes, based on a compilation of 20 different studies. In fact, it may be associated with everything from fatty liver disease to having an enlarged prostate. And, having a higher white blood cell count is also associated with an increased risk of dying from cancer. So, what would the ideal range be? I cover that in my video What Is the Ideal White Blood Cell Count?.

A higher white blood cell count may be an important predictor for cardiovascular disease incidence and mortality, decline in lung function, cancer mortality, all-cause mortality, heart attacks, strokes, and premature death in general. This is no surprise, as the number of white blood cells we have circulating in our bloodstreams are a marker of systemic inflammation. Our bodies produce more white blood cells day to day in response to inflammatory insults.

We’ve known about this link between higher white counts and heart attacks since the 1970s, when we found that higher heart attack risk was associated with higher white blood cell counts, higher cholesterol levels, and higher blood pressures, as you can see at 0:53 in my video What Is the Ideal White Blood Cell Count?. This has been found in nearly every study done since then. There are decades of studies involving hundreds of thousands of patients showing dramatically higher mortality rates in those with higher white counts. But why? Why does white blood cell count predict mortality? It may be because it’s a marker of inflammation and oxidation in the body. In fact, it may even be a biomarker for how fast we are aging. It may be more than just an indicator of inflammation—it may also be an active player, contributing directly to disease via a variety of mechanisms, including the actual obstruction of blood flow.

The average diameter of a white blood cell is about seven and a half micrometers, whereas our tiniest vessels are only about five micrometers wide, so the white blood cell has to squish down into a sausage shape in order to squeeze through. When there’s inflammation present, these cells can get sticky. As you can see at 2:20 in my video, a white blood cell may plug up a vessel as it exits a small artery and tries to squeeze into a capillary, slowing down or even momentarily stopping blood flow. And, if it gets stuck there, it can end up releasing all of its internal weaponry, which is normally reserved for microbial invaders, and damage our blood vessels. This may be why in the days leading up to a stroke or heart attack, you may find a spike in the white cell count.

Whether white count is just a marker of inflammation or an active participant, it’s better to be on the low side. How can we reduce the level of inflammation in our body? Staying away from even second-hand smoke can help drop your white count about half of a point. Those who exercise also appear to have an advantage, but you don’t know if it’s cause and effect unless you put it to the test. In one study, two months of Zumba classes—just one or two hours a week—led to about a point and a half drop in white count. In fact, that may be one of the reasons exercise is so protective. But is that just because they lost weight?

Fitness and fatness both appear to play a role. More than half of obese persons with low fitness—51.5 percent—have white counts above 6.6, but those who are more fit or who have less fat are less likely to have counts that high, as you can see at 3:47 in my video. Of course, that could just be because exercisers and leaner individuals are eating healthier, less inflammatory diets. How do we know excess body fat itself increases inflammation, increases the white count? You’d have to find some way to get people to lose weight without changing their diet or exercise habit. How’s that possible? Liposuction. If you suck about a quart of fat out of people, you can significantly drop their white count by about a point. Perhaps this should get us to rethink the so-called normal reference range for white blood cell counts. Indeed, maybe we should revise it downward, like we’ve done for cholesterol and triglycerides.

Until now, we’ve based normal values on people who might be harboring significant background inflammatory disease. But, if we restrict it to those with normal C-reactive protein, another indicator of inflammation, then instead of “normal” being 4.5 to 10, perhaps we should revise it closer to 3 to 9.

Where do the healthiest populations fall, those not suffering from the ravages of chronic inflammatory diseases, like heart disease and common cancers? Populations eating diets centered around whole plant foods average about 5, whereas it was closer to 7 or 8 in the United States at the time. How do we know it isn’t just genetic? As you can see at 5:38 in my video, if you take those living on traditional rural African diets, who have white blood cell counts down around 4 or 5, and move them to Britain, they end up closer to 6, 7, or even 8. Ironically, the researchers thought this was a good thing, referring to the lower white counts on the “uncivilized” diet as neutropenic, meaning having too few white blood cells. They noted that during an infection or pregnancy, when more white cells are needed, the white count came right up to wherever was necessary. So, the bone marrow of those eating traditional plant-based diets had the capacity to create as many white cells as needed but “suffers from understimulation.”

As you can see at 6:26 in my video, similar findings were reported in Western plant eaters, with an apparent stepwise drop in white count as diets got more and more plant based, but could there be non-dietary factors, such as lower smoking rates, in those eating more healthfully? What we need is an interventional trial to put it to the test, and we got one: Just 21 days of removing meat, eggs, dairy, alcohol, and junk affected a significant drop in white count, even in people who started out down at 5.7.

What about patients with rheumatoid arthritis who started out even higher, up around 7? As you can see at 7:03 in my video, there was no change in the control group who didn’t change their diet, but there was a 1.5 point drop within one month on whole food plant-based nutrition. That’s a 20 percent drop. That’s more than the drop-in inflammation one might get quitting a 28-year pack-a-day smoking habit. The most extraordinary drop I’ve seen was in a study of 35 asthmatics. After four months of a whole food plant-based diet, their average white count dropped nearly 60 percent, from around 12 down to 5, though there was no control group nor enough patients to achieve statistical significance.

If white blood cell count is such a clear predictor of mortality and is so inexpensive, reliable, and available, why isn’t it used more often for diagnosis and prognosis? Maybe it’s a little too inexpensive. The industry seems more interested in fancy new risk factors it can bill for.

I touch on the health of the rural Africans I discussed in How Not to Die from Heart Disease.

For more on fighting inflammation, see:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

Armpit Shaving and Breast Cancer

Shaving before applying underarm antiperspirants can increase aluminum absorption. Could this explain the greater number of tumors and the disproportionate incidence of breast cancer in the upper outer quadrant of the breast near the armpit?

A famous case report called “The Mortician’s Mystery,” published in the New England Journal of Medicine back in the 1980s, described a man whose testicles started shrinking and breasts started growing. It turns out the mortician failed to wear gloves as he massaged embalming cream onto corpses. It was concluded there must have been an estrogenic compound in the cream that was absorbed through his skin into his body, one of the first such cases described.

This case was cited as inspiration by a group of researchers who came up with a new theory to explain a breast cancer mystery: Why do most breast cancers occur in the upper outer corner of the breast? The standard explanation was simply because that’s where most of the breast tissue is located, as the so-called tail of the breast extends up to the armpit, but that doesn’t explain the fact that it wasn’t always this way. Indeed, there has been a shift toward the appearance of breast cancer in the upper corner of the breast. And, it also doesn’t explain why “greater genomic instability”––chromosome abnormalities––has been “observed…in outer quadrants of the breast,” which may signal precancerous changes. There definitely seems to be something happening to that outer side of the breast, and it’s something relatively new, occurring in the last 50 years or so.

Is it possible that the increasing use of [underarm] antiperspirant which parallels breast cancer incidence could also be an explanation for the greater number of ductal tumours…and disproportionate incidence of breast cancer in the upper outer quadrant” of the breast near the site where stick, spray, or roll-on is applied? I discuss this possibility in my video Antiperspirants and Breast Cancer, where you can see a graph of U.S. breast cancer incidence and antiperspirant/deodorant sales at 1:38.

There is a free flow of lymph fluid back and forth between the breast and the armpit. If you measure aluminum levels in breasts removed during mastectomies, the “aluminum content of breast tissue in the outer regions [near the armpits]…was significantly higher,” presumably due to the “closer proximity to the underarm” area.

This is a concern because, in a petri dish at least, it has been demonstrated that aluminum is a so-called metalloestrogen, having pro-estrogenic effects on breast cancer cells. Long-term exposure of normal breast tissue cells in a test tube to aluminum concentrations in the range of those found in breasts results in precancerous-type changes. Then, as you can see at 2:41 in my video, once the cells have turned, those same concentrations “can increase the migratory and invasive activity of…human breast cancer cells” in a petri dish. This is important because women don’t die from the tumor in the breast itself, “but from the ability of the cancer cells to spread and grow at distant sites,” like the bones, lungs, liver, or brain. But, we don’t care about petri dishes. We care about people.

In 2002, a paper was published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in which the underarm antiperspirant habits of 800 breast cancer survivors were compared with those of women who had never gotten breast cancer, the first study of its kind. The finding? No indication of a link between the two.

Based on this study, Harvard Women’s Health Watch assured women that antiperspirants do not cause breast cancer and “women who are worried that antiperspirants might cause breast cancer can finally rest easy.” But two months later, another study was published that found that “frequency and earlier onset of antiperspirant/deodorant usage with underarm shaving was associated with an earlier age of breast cancer diagnosis.” As you can see at 3:56 in my video, it’s as much as 20 years earlier in women using antiperspirant and shaving their armpits more than three times a week. And, the earlier they started before versus after age 16 appeared to move up their breast cancer diagnosis by 10 or 20 years. The researchers concluded that “underarm shaving with antiperspirant/deodorant use may play a role in breast cancer” after all.

But what does shaving have to do with it? Shaving removes more than just armpit hair. It also removes armpit skin; you end up shaving off the top skin layer. And, while there is very little aluminum absorption through intact skin, when you strip off the outer layer with a razor and then rub on an antiperspirant, you get a six-fold increase in aluminum absorption through the skin. Though this is good news for women who don’t shave, the high transdermal, or through-the-skin, aluminum uptake on shaved skin “should compel antiperspirant manufacturers to proceed with the utmost caution.”

Both European safety authorities and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) specifically advise against using aluminum antiperspirants on damaged or broken skin. However, shaving before antiperspirant application “can create abrasions in the skin…thereby negating the specific warning by the FDA and EU.” (I’m sure everyone knows about the FDA’s cautionary advice, having read Title 21 Part 350 Subpart C50-5c1 of the Code of Federal Regulations.)

We get so much aluminum in our diet from processed foods—such as anticaking agents in pancake mix, melting agents in American cheese, meat binders, gravy thickeners, baking powder, and candy—that the contribution from underarm antiperspirants would presumably be minimal in comparison. “But everything was turned topsy-turvy in 2004,” when a case was reported of a woman with bone pain and fatigue suffering from aluminum toxicity. Within months of stopping the antiperspirant, which she had been applying daily to her regularly shaved armpits, her aluminum levels came down and her symptoms resolved. Although not everyone absorbs that much aluminum, the case “suggests that caution should be exercised when using aluminum-containing antiperspirants frequently.”

Recently, as you can see at 6:29 in my video, it was shown that women with breast cancer have twice the level of aluminum in their breasts compared with women without breast cancer, though this doesn’t prove cause and effect. Maybe the aluminum contributed to the cancer, or maybe the cancer contributed to the aluminum. Maybe tumors just absorb more aluminum. Subsequent research has suggested this alternative explanation is unlikely. So, where do we stand now?

The latest review on the subject concluded that as a consequence of the new data, given that aluminum can be toxic and we have no need for it, “reducing the concentration of this metal in antiperspirants is a matter of urgency.” Or, at the very least, the label should warn: “Do not use after shaving.” Of course, we could cease usage of aluminum-containing antiperspirants altogether, but then wouldn’t we smell? Ironically, antiperspirants can make us stink worse. They increase the types of bacteria that cause body odor. It’s like the story with antidepressant drugs, which can actually make one more depressed in the long run (as I discuss in my video Do Antidepressant Drugs Really Work?). The more we use antiperspirants, the more we may need them, which is awfully convenient for a billion-dollar industry.

Is there any way to decrease body odor through changes in diet? An early video of mine discusses Body Odor and Diet, and I have some new updated ones coming down the pike!

What else can we do to decrease breast cancer risk? See, for example:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

What Exercise Authorities Don’t Tell You About Optimal Duration

Physical fitness authorities seem to have fallen into the same trap as the nutrition authorities, recommending what they think may be achievable, rather than simply informing us of what the science says and letting us make up our own minds.

Researchers who accept grants from The Coca-Cola Company may call physical inactivity “the biggest public health problem of the 21st century,” but, in actually, physical inactivity ranks down at number five in terms of risk factors for death in the United States and even lower in terms of risk factors for disability, as you can see at 0:17 in my video How Much Should You Exercise? What’s more, inactivity barely makes the top ten globally. As we’ve learned, diet is our greatest killer by far, followed by smoking.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you can just sit on the couch all day. Exercise can help with mental health, cognitive health, sleep quality, cancer prevention, immune function, high blood pressure, and life span extension, topics I cover in some of my other videos. If the U.S. population collectively exercised enough to shave just 1 percent off the national body mass index, 2 million cases of diabetes, one and a half million cases of heart disease and stroke, and 100,000 cases of cancer might be prevented.

Ideally, how much should we exercise? The latest official “Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans” recommends adults get at least 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic exercise, which comes out to be a little more than 20 minutes a day. That is actually down from previous recommendations from the Surgeon General, as well as from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American College of Sports Medicine, which jointly recommend at least 30 minutes each day. The exercise authorities seem to have fallen into the same trap as the nutrition authorities, recommending what they think may be achievable, rather than simply informing us what the science says and letting us make up our own minds. They already emphasize that “some” physical activity “is better than none,” so why not stop patronizing the public and just tell everyone the truth?

As you can see at 2:16 in my video, walking 150 minutes a week is better than walking 60 minutes a week, and following the current recommendations for 150 minutes appears to reduce your overall mortality rate by 7 percent compared with being sedentary. Walking for just 60 minutes a week only drops your mortality rate about 3 percent, but walking 300 minutes weekly lowers overall mortality by 14 percent. So, walking twice as long—40 minutes a day compared with the recommended 20 daily minutes—yields twice the benefit. And, an hour-long walk each day may reduce mortality by 24 percent. I use walking as an example because it’s an exercise nearly everyone can do, but the same applies to other moderate-intensity activities, such as gardening or cycling.

A meta-analysis of physical activity dose and longevity found that the equivalent of about an hour a day of brisk walking at four miles per hour was good, but 90 minutes was even better. What about more than 90 minutes? Unfortunately, so few people exercise that much every day that there weren’t enough studies to compile a higher category. If we know 90 minutes of exercise a day is better than 60 minutes, which is better than 30 minutes, why is the recommendation only 20 minutes? I understand that only about half of Americans even make the recommended 20 daily minutes, so the authorities are just hoping to nudge people in the right direction. It’s like the Dietary Guidelines for Americans advising us to “eat less…candy.” If only they’d just give it to us straight. That’s what I try to do with NutritionFacts.org.

Most of the content in my book How Not to Die came from my video research, but this particular video actually sprung from the book. I wanted to include exercise in my Daily Dozen list, but needed to do this research to see what was the best “serving size.”

I wish someone would start some kind of FitnessFacts.org website to review the exercise literature. I’ve got my brain full with the nutrition stuff—though there’s so much good information I don’t have time to review that there could be ten more sites just covering nutritional science!

For more on all that exercise can do for our bodies and minds, see

Some tips for maximizing the benefits:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations: