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Can Stress Cause High Red Blood Cell Count?

Can Stress Cause High Red Blood Cell Count

Are you suffering from polycythemia and are trying to understand its potential cause to treat it? Or are you having stress and now you have a high RBC count and are wondering if it may be connected? Don’t worry, we will clear up all your doubts.

Yes, stress can cause a high red blood cell count. Whether directly or indirectly, research has proved its link to this condition. It could be caused by other causes as well, which we will check out below. Moreover, we will also learn about treatment options to get rid of this condition. 

This brief guide will enable you to understand the cause of polycythemia and help you get rid of it. Let’s start by understanding what a high RBC count is. 

What Is A High Red Blood Cell Count?

Polycythemia, or high red blood cell count, refers to a condition in which there is an excessive number of red blood cells circulating in the bloodstream. Red blood cells play an essential role in carrying oxygen from your lungs into tissues and organs throughout the body. 

An optimal level of red blood cells must exist in order to remain healthy. Primary polycythemia, also known as polycythemia vera, occurs due to genetic mutations. Secondary polycythemia may be triggered by external factors, which we will study in detail below.

What Is Considered A High Red Blood Cell Count?

Doctors measure red blood cell counts to evaluate overall health. Normal ranges vary by age and gender assigned at birth. It usually falls within 4.7–6.1 million per microliter for males, 4.2–5.4 million for females, and 4.0–5.5 million for children.

Polycythemia may indicate health problems that need further investigation. It is often accidentally discovered during routine blood tests. Once identified, such a condition as heart failure or sleep apnea may require further testing in order to properly manage and treat it.

Symptoms Of A High Red Blood Cell Count

Following are the symptoms of a high red blood cell count: If these sound familiar, then you probably need to see a doctor.

  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Blurred vision
  • Itching
  • Shortness of breath
  • Reddish skin complexion
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Enlarged spleen
  • Increased risk of blood clots

How Does Stress Cause A High Red Blood Cell Count?

Stress has the power to drastically decrease red blood cell production in the body. It can be both physical and psychological. In response to stressors, our bodies release adrenaline and cortisol hormones as natural defense mechanisms. It increases heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen delivery in order to meet the high demands.

Subsequently, bone marrow produces more red blood cells to increase oxygen-carrying capacity. Chronic stress increases inflammation throughout the body and disrupts normal blood cell formation. Hyperventilating during periods of stress may affect blood chemistry. It can also increase your RBC.

Along with it, stress can also cause the following problems: These can also eventually result in polycythemia. 

  • Activation of the Sympathetic Nervous System
  • Increased oxygen demand
  • Chronic Inflammation
  • Hyperventilation
  • Sleep Disruption
  • Impaired immune function

Other Causes Of High Red Blood Cell Count

A high red blood cell count may be indicative of an underlying disease or disorder. It can also be influenced by various health or lifestyle factors. The following are its common causes:. 

Medical Causes:

The medical causes that may lead you to it may include: 

  • Heart Failure and Congenital Heart Disease: Conditions like heart failure and congenital heart defects can cause decreased oxygen levels in the blood. It can also cause the body to produce more red blood cells.
  • Polycythemia vera: This rare blood cancer can also be its cause. It can result in excessive production of red blood cells by the bone marrow.
  • Kidney Tumors and Lung Diseases: Certain tumors in the kidneys and lung diseases like emphysema, COPD, and pulmonary fibrosis can also cause low blood oxygen levels. It can trigger an increase in red blood cell production.
  • Hypoxia and Carbon Monoxide Exposure: Hypoxia is another disease that may lead to this condition. It is characterized by low blood oxygen levels and exposure to carbon monoxide. It is often associated with smoking.
  • Sleep Apnea: The last medical cause on our list is a sleep disorder named sleep apnea. It is characterized by interrupted breathing during sleep. It can cause decreased oxygen levels and potentially increase your red blood cell counts.

Lifestyle Factors Associated With A High Red Blood Cell Count:

Alongside medical reasons, it could also be caused by these lifestyle factors. Some of them are:

  • Smoking Cigarettes: Smoking tobacco reduces the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. It can lead to increased red blood cell production.
  • Living at High Altitudes: Individuals living at high altitudes experience lower oxygen levels. The body produces more red blood cells to compensate for it. It may also lead you to this condition.
  • Use of Performance-Enhancing Drugs: Certain substances, like anabolic steroids or erythropoietin, can also lead you to it. They artificially increase red blood cell production, leading to elevated counts.

Treatment Options

The best way to treat polycythemia is to visit a doctor for a diagnosis and follow his recommended method. Treatment strategies may vary depending on your condition. Here are some common treatment options for this condition:

Phlebotomy (Blood Removal)

Phlebotomy is a primary treatment method for reducing the red blood cell count by removing excess blood from the body. It helps to decrease blood viscosity and lower the risk of complications such as blood clots.


In some cases, medications may also be prescribed to treat this condition. Some of the popular medications are:

  • Hydroxyurea: This medication can help suppress the bone marrow’s ability to produce excess red blood cells.
  • Interferon-alpha: It may be used in certain cases to regulate red blood cell production.
  • Aspirin: Low-dose aspirin may be recommended to prevent blood clots due to a high red blood cell count.

Incorporating lifestyle changes can boost the impact of treatment while suffering from this disease. Quitting smoking and adopting a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables are the most important ones among them. 

Relocating from high altitudes to lower elevations to alleviate the body’s need for extra red blood cells may also be useful. Start regular physical activity to improve circulation and manage stress levels.

Final Words

Yes, research has proven stress can cause a high red blood count, but it could also be due to several other reasons as well. These can be both medical reasons and lifestyle factors. Follow your doctor’s prescribed medicines and instructions for effective treatment of this condition.

Making lifestyle changes can boost the impact of medicines and help you quickly get rid of this condition without any complications. Maintaining an adequate RBC count is essential for a healthy life. A lower or higher RBC can affect your health negatively. 


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