Thursday, August 26, 2010

Plasma donation: Is it really bad for your health?

When it comes to differing opinions, there's nothing quite as polarizing as the act of donating/selling plasma.

"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.

23 comments:

  1. Nice article with personal comparison to the effects of donating plasma, exercise and fitness. Plasma is used in so many ways to improve the quality of life in a variety of illness. Thank you for donating!

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  2. I have gotten sick once since donating (about 1 month). It was a cold and I started getting symptoms about 8 hours after donating. I had been around a lot of sick people, so obviously I was at risk of getting sick. However, I fought off that Cold in 2 days. Obviously my immune system is still holding strong. I think it only weakens you immune system for like 24 hours though.

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  3. I have been donating for 6 months, my protein levels is border line low every time, I barely pass, I want to improve my protein level, do you have any suggestions? I eliminate coffee,take protein bars , drink extra water, greek yogurt, and extra chicken. Saw your blog on my search for better health and thought maybe you might have some suggestions. Thank you, KIM

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    1. Buy a thing of protein powder its the cheapest easy way to add extra protein.

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    2. Maybe that is normal for you. If your protein levels are still within a healthy range, you should be fine. If they test your protein and it is too low, take a full 7 days off.

      A healthy range is between 6.0 to 8.3 gm/dL. If you are at 6.0 every time, that is still fine. Be sure to keep eating plenty of protein rich foods (not all processed foods).

      Also, women are at greater risk of low protein.

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    3. sorry didnt have an open account. I have been donating for 3 months and I usually eat Steak, pork or chicken the night before donating and try to eat some eggs/toast in the morning of. Drink lots of water the day before and no coffee in the morning of.

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  4. Kim-

    There might be a few factors for that:

    1. How often are you trying to donate? If you're doing it twice a week, your system might have trouble replenishing the protein. When I was donating regularly, I typically did it twice one week, then once the following week.

    2. How strenuous is your exercise routine? If you're doing tough workouts and not taking protein right after, your body might not be replacing it.

    3. Lack of sleep or an erratic sleep schedule can play a factor as well.

    4. It sounds like you're eating the right kinds of protein, but when are you consuming them in relation to when you're donating? They generally say it takes a couple of days for the foods to affect your protein levels.

    If your protein levels are consistently low, I'd recommend simply taking a couple weeks off from donating. From there, I'd just play it by ear and be ready to take a week off from time to time if your levels start to drop. Good luck!

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  5. what about the non-clotting solution going into your body!?

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  6. Issac-

    I'm not sure if it's the same at all plasma donation places, but I know at BioLife facilities, you're not supposed to take anticoagulants prior to donating. It's one of the medications they ask you about during the initial questioning.

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  7. Reading this while donating... How often do u switch arms. So far, I'm aiming for switching every 6mths to give veins and scarring healing time. Thoughts?

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  8. My husband and I have been thinking about trying plasma donation. So far this is the best article I have found! I was wondering however if you know more about the effect on your veins? I've always been great at whole blood donations, never sick or low levels of anything, and we have a pretty healthy diet. So for me, my only concern are my veins. How quickly does scar tissue form? And what effect does scar tissue have on donations? I'm no friend to needles, lol, so increased pain after time would definitely be a deterrent.
    Thanks for the great article!

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  9. Started donating a few weeks ago. Absolutely love it! I have already bought a new HAM radio with my "earnings." It feels good to do something positive for others while getting a little kickback on the side. I am also an avid runner (several 5Ks, 10Ks, and one 1/2). I have not seen any ill effects in my training regimen. I already take plant protein supplements in my daily smoothies, so I have had no issues with that either. Thank you for the HONEST and fair review of plasma donation (BioLife in particular). I have found BioLife to be a super nice, polite, clean, and ultra-professional company with awesome staff.

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  10. philena....I usually tried to switch arms every week or so when I donated regularly. I suppose giving an arm a 6-month break would help it heal up some, but I couldn't tell you from personal experience. I do know the scarring takes quite some time to heal; I haven't donated in more than a year now and I still have visible marks from it.

    Sammi....Thank you for the compliment! For me, the scar tissue didn't really start to form until about 6 months or so into donating regularly (5-7 times per month). It doesn't affect your donation much, though the plasma technicians will probably recommend you switch donation arms from time to time in order to make the needle stick easier. As far as other effects scar tissue can have on your veins, I've read it can affect blood flow by causing your veins to collapse and possibly lead to infection if the scarring is severe enough, though infections are more common with drug addicts and people who use unsanitized needles for regular injections. Really though, it depends on the person. I donated regularly for 3 1/2 years and have no ill effects to report, though I'm also in my mid-20's and generally heal pretty quickly from most ailments. My advice would be to try it a few times, see how your body feels and go from there.

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  11. It was nice to see the best information about the donating poor people when we r having more then required with us.
    Charity for Poor Children

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  12. Hi ,I am in australia where we dont get money for donating but i still wanna do it as my blood type pretty rare here. After I have donated plasma for first time I got a cold in less then 48 hours ,so obviously I didnt really know all these important dietary infos what Alex described ,and I normally dont eat meat ,just eggs .and next day after donation I had a really exhausting gym class ,so it wasnt probably the best idea .I should donate plasma in two weeks not sure if they will let me ,but i definitely will stack up on lotsa protein few days previous . Thank you so much for this article ,it really helped me not to freak out ,just be more sensible next time .Thank you and good luck for all of you ready to donate :)

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  13. Blumie June 4 2013
    Hi. I'm another Aussie. I'm 60 and have been donating plasma fortnightly for several years now. I'm also new to running and have just run my first marathon (and a bit; 45kms) including 470metres of hills. Lots of training required! As I finished in the middle of a 1000 runner field, I figure plasma donation is most likely doing me less harm than it is doing good for those in need of it. Thanks to all contributors; that is, to the blog and to the cause. Keep on sharing!

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  14. Just signed up for my first appointment at the Mankato BioLife. Great article!

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  15. What do you recommend for exercise before/after donation? Is it okay to do it a few hours after or before donation and will it have a negative effect? Great article by the way!

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  16. Alot or these comments are pre-placed...know what i mean? you can donate plasma occasionally but it is a business..do not do it as often as they tell you..it is never good to take vital fluids out of your body and not expect consiquences...be careful...

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  17. They pay $50 each for your first 5 visits at CSL plasma on Lake st. in Mpls.

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  18. I just donated platelets yesterday at the Red Cross (US). I asked them about people who sell their plasma and was told that when plasma is sold it cannot be used for medical purposes that it's used for cosmetics and other uses. They equated it to it not being legal to sell an organ for medical use.....

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    1. The way they get around that is you are being compensated for your time not your plasma. Technically I "donate" plasma twice a week and I am paid for the time it takes to do so. Therefore, my plasma can still be used for medicine. I honestly can't even think of a cosmetic use that would use so much plasma that they keep 60 beds full at any time for about 14 hours a day 7 days a week.

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