The Surprising Health Benefits of Donating Blood

Donating blood saves lives, including yours! 

By Dominique Hodgin, MA, NE, NBC-HWC


It all started with a routine blood test followed by a call from my doctor. “Your hemoglobin and hematocrit are high” the doctor said.  As a healthy woman who eats clean and exercises almost daily, I wondered… what does that mean?  After a little research, I found that when those two things are high, I am at a higher risk for a blood clot (1,2). With a family history of heart disease, this got my attention. I asked my doctor, “What can I do about that?” Her answer was, “donate blood.” My heart sunk.

That may sound dramatic, but my history of donating blood has not been pleasant. I have only donated blood twice in my life, once in high school when I was 18 years old. I passed out, then felt nauseated for several hours.  That was the last time I would ever donate blood, I thought. Then one of my good friend’s daughters got sick and needed several blood transfusions. When I asked my friend what I could do to help, she said “donate blood.”  Okay, I thought, it’s been 20 years since that scary experience in high school, so I confidently drove to the hospital and rolled up my sleeve.  My mind began replaying my last experience of donating blood and I was a little nervous, but that was 20 years ago, surely it wouldn’t happen again… but it did. I passed out, then felt nauseated for several hours. At that moment I decided, my body was not one that could donate blood.

Fast forward to today, about 15 years later… listening to my doctor tell me donating blood was necessary for my health.  Okay, this time I needed to donate blood for me.  I reluctantly started searching the internet for a place to donate.  A friend suggested Vitalant (3). I found a day that worked for me and with some trepidation clicked the button to schedule my appointment.  I chose a Saturday just in case I would be down for the count.  I located the list of things I could do to best prepare my body to donate blood and followed them closely. I got a good night’s sleep, drank a lot of water, and had a good breakfast.  I completed the required questionnaire, printed out my ticket and drove to the center.  My heart quickened as I opened the door and signed in.  Soon, I was called into a room for the check in process and shared my past two blood donation experiences with the tech, fully admitting that I was nervous. He calmly said, “We will take good care of you, and we appreciate you coming in.”  I was led to the donation chair and explained to the phlebotomist that the only two times I had donated blood, I had passed out.  She assured me that she would do everything possible to avoid that this time.  She was great at distracting me during the process and it was over in less than 10 minutes. Surprisingly, I felt okay.  No dizziness, no nausea. Whew!

As the phlebotomist was going over the post donation information, I asked if I could exercise.  She said exercising is not recommended after donating blood, but it would be okay to skip exercise that day because donating blood can burn up to 650 calories.  “What?!” I said, “Is that true?”  She said “Yes, there are many health benefits of donating blood.”  As a Certified Health Coach this peaked my curiosity; so, as I sat there waiting for my allotted 15 minutes of post donation rest to pass, I started doing some research.  What I found was amazing!

Donating blood can boost happiness.

When you know you are saving a life, this triggers what is known as the “helper’s high.”  According to Larry Dossey MD, “It has been confirmed in various studies . . . that positive emotions [follow] selfless service to others, [and that] greater health and increased longevity are associated with this physiological state (4).” Donating blood helps those in need. One in three people will need a blood transfusion in their lifetime (5). According to the American Red Cross, every two seconds someone in the U. S. needs blood and a single car accident victim can require as many as 100 pints of blood (6). Not only are we making a powerful difference in another’s life, it also improves our own health by triggering the helper’s high.

Donating blood burns calories.

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, have found that you can burn up to 650 calories per pint of blood donated (7,8). According to Healthline, “When you donate blood, your body uses energy to synthesize new proteins, red blood cells, and other blood components to replace what has been lost (9).”

Donating blood can lower the risk of cancer.

Donating blood reduces the iron stores in the body which reduces free-radicals and in turn may reduce cancer. A study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (JNCI) followed 1277 men divided in two groups for 4 ½ years. The group that reduced their iron levels through blood donation had a lower risk of cancer and mortality compared to the non-donor group. Another article published in the JNCI says that “for those with iron loss [through blood donation] there was a trend of decreasing risk for cancers of the liver, lung, colon and esophagus which are thought to be promoted by iron overload (10).”

Donating blood helps keep you young.

Reducing free-radicals may delay aging (11). Since donating blood reduces free-radicals, it makes sense that this is another benefit.  Oxidative stress occurs naturally and can lead to cell and tissue damage, which plays a role in the aging process. A study in the Journal of Basic Clinical Physiology and Pharmacology found that donating blood decreases oxidative stress (12).

Donating blood can increase your energy.

According to Clare Collins, a Professor in Nutrition and Dietetics and the University of New Castle, a primary symptom of too much iron in the blood is fatigue (13), so offloading a batch of your blood may increase your energy!

Donating blood can prevent organ damage.

Since the body cannot excrete excess iron, it stores it in the liver, heart, and pancreas, which can lead to organ damage (14). Damage to the pancreas can cause diabetes (15).

Donating blood may reduce blood pressure. 

Research has shown that regular blood donation may help in the management of hypertension (blood pressure) (16).

Donating blood lowers the risk of heart disease.

A study in the American Journal of Epidemiology showed that a sample size of 2,682 men who donated blood once a year had an 88% lower risk of heart attack than men who didn’t donate (17). This was backed by another study in the Journal of Transfusion which concluded that blood donation is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular events (18).  And yet another study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association says that there is strong epidemiological evidence that iron is an important factor in the process of atherosclerosis (19).

Donating blood improves heart health because it lowers the iron stores in the blood and liver as well as diminishes the viscosity of the blood, which reduces the friction on your arteries and blood vessels. The new cells that replace the donated blood are not as sticky. The new blood also doesn’t clot as quickly which lowers the risk of heart attack and stroke (20).

When you choose to donate blood, everyone wins!  Recipients get the life-saving blood they so desperately need, and donors get to burn calories, lower their risk of cancer, and help keep their heart healthy among many, many other benefits.

 

Dominique Hodgin is a Nutrition Educator and National Board-Certified Health and Wellness Coach and has been actively coaching since 2008.

 

Sources:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2817018/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2817030/
  3. https://www.vitalant.org/
  4. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1550830718304178
  5. https://www.mbc.org/donate-blood/about-blood/why-donate-blood/
  6. https://www.redcrossblood.org/donate-blood/how-to-donate/how-blood-donations-help/blood-needs-blood-supply.html
  7. https://www.stmaryskc.com/news/2017/january/health-benefits-of-donating-blood/
  8. https://www.carterbloodcare.org/common-myths-about-blood-donation-pt-2/
  9. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/6-unusual-ways-to-burn-calories#TOC_TITLE_HDR_5
  10. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18398098/
  11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3249911/
  12. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27089416/
  13. https://www.sbs.com.au/language/english/feeling-worn-out-you-could-have-iron-overload
  14. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hemochromatosis/symptoms-causes/syc-20351443
  15. https://www.mecom/articles/166455
  16. https://pubmncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26643612/
  17. https://pubmencbi.nlm.nih.gov/9737556/
  18. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12430669/
  19. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/485095
  20. https://www.twc-ms.com/answers/blood-donation-reduce-the-risk-of-heart-disease