"It's so bad for your health!"
"It's perfectly healthy."
"It'll damage your veins."
"It has no long-term side effects."
"It's not worth the effort."
"It's the easiest way there is to make some quick cash on the side."
I've heard it all since I started donating two years ago. At the time, I was fresh out of college and just needed some extra money to get used to adult life. I figured it was quick, easy and could work seamlessly around my schedule. Besides, my fear of needles (mostly) went away a long time ago.
Since then, it's become something of a vacation fund for me. I've paid for three separate vacations with it (including RAGBRAI) and am currently using it to save up for another in the undetermined future. It has also paid for a new set of tires, running shoes and the occasional nightlife excursion into downtown Mankato.
If you donate twice a week at the Mankato BioLife clinic, it's good for $180 a month ($20 per donation, plus a $20 bonus for donating at least once a week that month). Not bad for cash on the side. You can also take pride in knowing that the yellow-colored liquid coming out of your blood is being used to help treat several diseases (myasthenia gravis, Lambert-Eaton syndrome, Guillain-Barré syndrome and lupus are the ones most commonly listed on medical websites) for people with deficient immune systems.
However, there are some side effects to be aware of before embracing the needle. These are a few pointers based on my own experience donating:
- Plasma is made up primarily of water and protein, so the process of donating does deprive you of those vital nutrients. Make sure you drink a lot of water leading up to the donation (particularly the day before) and add protein to your diet whenever possible. If your protein levels are low, you won't be able to donate (they check protein and iron levels when you check in at BioLife).
- Like the more destructive activities involving needles (drugs, steroids, etc), donating plasma involves a needle puncturing your vein. There will be needle marks on your arms if you donate frequently enough and scar tissue can develop on your veins over time.
- I've heard people say that donating plasma leaves them exhausted and too tired to do anything afterward. I haven't really experienced that. I wouldn't recommend going for a 10-mile run immediately after donating, but if you drink a bottle of water and grab a small snack, you should be fine.
- There's a notion that the effects of donating (particularly the loss of protein) make it difficult to see any positive gains from exercise. I don't agree with that. If you're making protein a priority in your diet, it's easy to replenish. Plus, since donation scheduling is flexible, you can make it work around your exercise schedule. I've donating more plasma and ran more road races than I care to admit in the last two years, so I can attest that it doesn't have that much of a negative effect health-wise.
- Aside from the aforementioned vein issues, the long-term effects are pretty minimal. Plasma replenishes quickly in your system and most facilities (BioLife included) return your red blood cells to you when the donation cycle is finished.
- Avoid eating fatty foods or drinking pop or alcohol less than a day before donating. Drinking those can dehydrate you and fatty foods can make your plasma more difficult to extract. I made the mistake of going there after eating Pagliai's for lunch. Definitely not doing THAT again.
Of course, I'm hardly a credible health expert on the topic. So I consulted Dr. Pat Ruether, a local nutritionist, about it. Here is what she had to say:
- The risks are relatively low, but do it cautiously. Make sure whatever facility you use has clean equipment and uses new tubes, needles and filters for every donation. There have been cases of donors developing a form of hepatitis at facilities with unsanitized equipment. According to the BioLife website, all facilities use new equipment with every donation.
- The loss of plasma in your system leaves you more susceptible to the flu and other common colds, so Dr. Ruether recommends only doing it a couple times a month.
- Confirming what I mentioned earlier, Dr. Ruether said the donations can cause damage to your veins over time, causing them to harden with scar tissue. Older donors are more susceptible to their veins not healing from the process, making them a greater risk.
- The electrolytes from sport drinks like Gatorade actually help replenish your system faster, so it is recommended to drink something like that after donating.
I'm not saying everybody should donate plasma for extra money. It's definitely not for everyone and has its drawbacks. But the notion that it's damaging to your health is overblown.