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:

Updating Our Microbiome Software and Hardware

Good bacteria, those living in symbiosis with us, are nourished by fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans, whereas bad bacteria, those in dysbiosis with us and possibly contributing to disease, are fed by meat, junk food and fast food, seafood, dairy, and eggs, as you can see at 0:12 in my video Microbiome: We Are What They Eat. Typical Western diets can “decimate” our good gut flora.

We live with trillions of symbionts, good bacteria that live in symbiosis with us. We help them, and they help us. A month on a plant-based diet results in an increase in the population of the good guys and a decrease in the bad, the so-called pathobionts, the disease-causing bugs. “Given the disappearance of pathobionts from the intestine, one would expect to observe a reduction in intestinal inflammation in subjects.” So, researchers measured stool concentrations of lipocalin-2, “which is a sensitive biomarker of intestinal inflammation.” As you can see at 1:13 in my video, within a month of eating healthfully, it had “declined significantly…suggesting that promotion of microbial homeostasis”—or balance—“by an SVD [strict vegetarian diet] resulted in reduced intestinal inflammation.” What’s more, this rebalancing may have played a role “in improved metabolic and immunological parameters,” that is, in immune system parameters.

In contrast, on an “animal-based diet,” you get growth of disease-associated species like Bilophila wadsworthia, associated with inflammatory bowel disease, and Alistipes putredinis, found in abscesses and appendicitis, and a decrease in fiber-eating bacteria. When we eat fiber, the fiber-munching bacteria multiply, and we get more anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer short-chain fatty acids. When we eat less fiber, our fiber-eating bacteria starve away.

They are what we eat.

Eat a lot of phytates, and our gut flora get really good at breaking down phytates. We assumed this was just because we were naturally selecting for those populations of bacteria able to do that, but it turns out our diet can teach old bugs new tricks. There’s one type of fiber in nori seaweed that our gut bacteria can’t normally breakdown, but the bacteria in the ocean that eat seaweed have the enzyme to do so. When it was discovered that that enzyme was present in the guts of Japanese people, it presented a mystery. Sure, sushi is eaten raw, so some seaweed bacteria may have made it to their colons, but how could some marine bacteria thrive in the human gut? It didn’t need to. It transferred the nori-eating enzyme to our own gut bacteria.

“Consequently, the consumption of food with associated environmental bacteria is the most likely mechanism that promoted this CAZyme [enzyme] update into the human gut microbe”—almost like a software update. We have the same hardware, the same gut bacteria, but the bacteria just updated their software to enable them to chew on something new.

Hardware can change, too. A study titled “The way to a man’s heart is through his gut microbiota” was so named because the researchers were talking about TMAO, trimethylamine N-oxide. As you can see at 3:33 in my video, certain gut flora can take carnitine from the red meat we eat or the choline concentrated in dairy, seafood, and eggs, and convert it into a toxic compound, which may lead to an increase in our risk of heart attack, stroke, and death.

This explains why those eating more plant-based diets have lower blood concentrations of TMAO. However, they also produce less of the toxin even if you feed them a steak. You don’t see the same “conversion of dietary L-carnitine to TMAO…suggesting an adoptive response of the gut microbiota in omnivores.” They are what we feed them.

As you can see at 4:17 in my video, if you give people cyclamate, a synthetic artificial sweetener, most of their bacteria don’t know what to do with it. But, if you feed it to people for ten days and select for the few bacteria that were hip to the new synthetic chemical, eventually three quarters of the cyclamate consumed is metabolized by the bacteria into another new compound called cyclohexylamine. Stop eating it, however, and those bacteria die back. Unfortunately, cyclohexylamine may be toxic and so was banned by the FDA in 1969. In a vintage Kool-Aid ad from 1969, Pre-Sweetened Kool-Aid was taken “off your grocer’s shelves,” but Regular Kool-Aid “has no cyclamates” and “is completely safe for your entire family.”

But, if you just ate cyclamate once in a while, it wouldn’t turn into cyclohexylamine because you wouldn’t have fed and fostered the gut flora specialized to do so. The same thing happens with TMAO. Those who just eat red meat, eggs, or seafood once in a while would presumably make very little of the toxin because they hadn’t been cultivating the bacteria that produce it.


Here’s the link to my video on TMAO: Carnitine, Choline, Cancer, and Cholesterol: The TMAO Connection. For an update on TMAO, see How Our Gut Bacteria Can Use Eggs to Accelerate Cancer, Egg Industry Response to Choline and TMAO, and How to Reduce Your TMAO Levels.

Interested in more on keeping our gut bugs happy? 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:

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: