The Basics of Hemoglobin and How It Relates to Anemia

Doctor taking blood from patient to test hemoglobin levels

Hemoglobin is a type of protein contained in red blood cells that contain iron. The purpose of hemoglobin is to transport oxygen from the lungs to tissues in the body and then send carbon dioxide back to the lungs in return. Molecules of iron in hemoglobin help red blood cells maintain their shape and level of functioning.

The iron-rich protein known as hemoglobin gives blood its red color as well. Hemoglobin is related to anemia because a low hemoglobin count may lead to this condition.

This article will answer questions about what causes low hemoglobin and high hemoglobin, what happens when hemoglobin is low, what hemoglobin level is considered anemic, and how hemoglobin generally relates to anemia.

Protein Molecules That Make Up Hemoglobin

There are actually four different protein molecules that are connected to each other and make up hemoglobin. In normal adult bodies, there are two alpha-globulin chains and two beta-globulin chains. Each of these chains has a ring-like heme group with an iron atom. Oxygen binds to the atoms and is transported through the blood to facilitate a wide variety of bodily functions. Interestingly, babies are born with two alpha chains and two gamma chains, but the gamma chains are replaced by beta chains as the child grows.

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What Causes Low Hemoglobin & What Happens When Hemoglobin is Low

Many people wonder what happens when hemoglobin is low in the body. If the body has a lower number of red blood cells than normal, a condition of anemia is present. Low hemoglobin levels can be caused by excessive blood loss, a nutritional deficiency, kidney failure, or bone marrow issues. It can also be caused by a genetically abnormal hemoglobin structure or certain chemotherapy drugs.

What Causes High Hemoglobin

It is also possible for hemoglobin levels in the body to become higher than normal, especially for people who smoke, who are dehydrated, or who live in high altitude environments. Other causes of high hemoglobin counts include tumors, a bone marrow disorder called polycythemia rubra vera, and certain drugs used by athletes for blood doping purposes. It is also more common among individuals with COPD, heart failure, irritable bowel syndrome, and emphysema.

What Hemoglobin Level is Anemic

Another common question is what hemoglobin level indicates anemia. Hemoglobin tests are conducted as part of a routine blood test called the CBC, or Complete Blood Count. A hemoglobin test checks the number of hemoglobin molecules in a certain volume of blood. For adult men, a normal volume is between 13.8 and 17.2 grants per deciliter, and then between 12.1 and 15.1 grams per deciliter for healthy adult women. Levels lower than these ranges may suggest that an individual is anemic. In addition to hemoglobin levels, a CBC test will also measure the number of white blood cells, red blood cells, mean corpuscular volume hematocrit, platelet count, mean platelet volume, and red cell distribution width.

Upon reaching a diagnosis of a low hemoglobin level and anemia, iron supplements like Fergon may be needed to correct an iron deficiency. In severe cases, blood transfusions may be required to restore hemoglobin levels to a healthy and functioning level again. Meanwhile, the treatment for a high hemoglobin level is dependent upon the cause and may require a phlebotomy to draw blood and medications to suppress the excess production of red blood cells.

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