Donate Blood: The Life You Save May Be Your Own

Here's one of the most important steps you can take to dramatically reduce your risk of heart attack and other types of heart disease: Donate blood!

That's the advice that can be drawn by two noteworthy studies published in 1998. Yet, today - ten years later - most doctors still fail to tell their patients about the studies' findings. So I'm telling you myself.

The two studies I am referring to were published in the American Journal of Epidemiology and Clinical Hemorheology and Microcirculation, respectively. Both of these publications are prestigious medical journals, yet the studies' findings continue to be almost entirely ignored. Here's what the studies found:

The first study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, involved 2,862 men between the ages of 42 and 60. In conducting their research, the study authors took into consideration and adjusted for the men's ages and all other predictive risk factors for heart disease. Each of the men was followed over an average period of nine years. At the end of the study it was conclusively shown that the men who donated blood on a regular basis reduced their risk of sudden heart attack (also known as acute mycocardial infarction) by a whopping 88 percent!

The second study, published in Clinical Hemorheology and Microcirculation, explained why regular blood donation reduces heart attack risk. This second study involved 12 men and 18 women, each of whom donated one unit of blood every four days for a total of four donation sessions. The study showed that people who regularly donate blood reduce their blood viscosity by as much as 32 percent.

Blood Viscosity And Why It Can Be Bad For Your Heart?

Blood viscosity is simply another name for blood thickness. The above studies, as well as other research, have definitively shown that the thicker a person's blood is, the more likely it is that he or she is at risk for a heart attack or some other type of heart disease.

The reason for this becomes obvious if you consider what happens when you turn over a bottle of ketchup. If the ketchup is thick, it only comes out after you put pressure on the ketchup bottle, such as shaking or squeezing it. But if the ketchup is thin, it comes out easily, without the need for pressure to make it flow.

Your blood acts in much the same way. If your blood is thin, it flows easily through your body's arteries. Therefore, little pressure needs to be applied by the pumping of your heart to keep your blood flowing. But when your blood becomes too thick, its flow becomes sluggish. This, in turn, means that your heart needs to pump harder to create more pressure to keep your blood flowing.

And the increased effort by your heart is not the only problem!

As your blood thickens, its increased thickness, as well as the increased pressure needed to keep it flowing, results in greater levels of friction as it moves through your arteries. This friction causes more problems because sandpaper-like effects on the inner lining of the arteries (known as the endothelium). Continued friction caused by the pressure needed to make thick blood flow erodes the endothelium. To counteract this erosion, your arteries will form calluses on the affected areas of the endothelium, in much the same way that your skin forms calluses to protect itself from repeated abrasion.

Calluses formed along the endothelium cause arteries to narrow. This makes it even more difficult for blood to flow properly, forcing the heart to work even harder and apply even more pressure. The end result is a vicious cycle of thick blood, increased pressure, erosion of the endothelium, formation of calluses, and further narrowing of the arteries.

As if that is not bad enough, this vicious cycle increases your risk of heart attack because it also causes the arteries to become inflamed, chronic inflammation is one of the most serious risk factors for heart disease, as well as many other disease conditions.

The reason inflammation occurs as a result of the vicious cycle described above is because inflammation is the mechanism your body uses to help repair damage to itself. In this case, the damage is to areas of the arterial lining. But since the damage is ongoing, due to the nature of the cycle I described above, inflammation becomes chronic, setting up a host of other problems. These include the migration of toxic debris, known as plaque, into the damaged areas of the endothelium, causing them to thicken, thereby further narrowing the arteries and restricting blood flow.

As this toxic plaque continues to buildup, there is an increased risk that some of it can become dislodged from the arterial lining. There is also a risk of even greater erosion of the endothelium. Should either of these events occur they, can cause dangerous blood clotting, which in turn can trigger a heart attack or stroke.

All because of blood that was too thick to flow easily and naturally to begin with!

The Heart-Protecting Benefits of Blood Donation

By donating blood on a regular basis, you can prevent your blood from becoming too thick. That's because when you donate blood, your blood that remains in your body goes through a process known as hemodilution, which simply means that your blood becomes diluted or thinner. Interestingly, this same process also occurs when women menstruate, which may explain why pre-menopausal women have traditionally had lower rates of heart disease than men in their same age group. Some health experts, such as Dr. Garry Gordon, a leading integrative physician, speculate that the blood-healthy benefits of menstruation may also play a role in the fact that women also tend to live longer than men do.

There is also another important benefit that occurs when blood is donated the formation of new red blood cells. (The fancy name for this process is known as erythropoiesis.) New red blood cells are important for a number of reasons. First, compared to older red blood cells, they are far less rigid (30 percent less rigid than older red blood cells). In addition, new red blood cells are far less likely to clump together (a process known as aggregation). In fact, research has shown that new red blood cells aggregate 80 percent less frequently than older red blood cells do.

These two reasons mean that the more new red blood cells there are in your blood, the better able your blood will be to circulate easily. This, in turn, means that your blood will be far less likely to damage the lining of your arteries and that you are at a much lower risk of developing dangerous plaque buildup and plaque rupture.

Conclusion

As the above makes clear, by donating blood you will not only be helping others, but also yourself. The key point to remember, however, is that you need to donate blood on a regular basis to gain the benefits I've described. Occasional donations of blood will not provide the same degree of benefits.

To find out how and where you can donate blood in your area, contact the local chapter of the Red Cross.

Sources:

J. Solonen, et al. Donation of blood is associated with reduced risk of myocardial infarction. American Journal of Epidemiology, 148 (1998) 445-451.

X. Cliville, et al. Hemorheological, coagulative and fibrinolytic changes during autologous blood donation. Clinical Hemorheology and Microcirculation, 18 (1998) 265-272.

A.V. Muravyov, et al. The microrheological behavior of young and old red blood cells in athletes. Clinical Hemorheology and Microcirculation, 26 (2002) 183-188.

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