What is Erythropoietin?

Red blood cells are an important aspect of life, and erythropoietin is a hormone directly connected to the production and maintenance of these cells. For those wishing to take control over their endocrine health, understanding erythropoietin and its role in the body will help.

Erythropoietin, also known as EPO, is a hormone that the kidneys produce to stimulate production and maintenance of crucial red blood cells. The hormone does this in two ways: First, it stimulates bone marrow cells to produce red blood cells. Then, it works to protect the cells from destruction once they are in the body.

What does erythropoietin?

Erythropoietin stimulates other tissues in the body to produce and protect red blood cells. Doctors do not fully understand how the hormone is produced and controlled. However, when the body is not circulating enough oxygen in the blood, erythropoietin production increases. When oxygen levels are where they should be, it drops. This is commonly seen when someone moves to a higher altitude, where air pressure is lower and the blood absorbs less oxygen. Increased erythropoietin production helps compensate for this. The underlying processes that cause this change are not yet known.

Problems with erythropoietin

Individuals can suffer from having too much erythropoietin in the blood or from having an erythropoietin deficiency. High levels of the hormone often occur when the body experiences chronic low levels of blood oxygen or if tumors produce the hormone. When this occurs, the patient will develop a high red blood cell count, which is called polycythaemia. This can produce few symptoms, but sometimes will produce itching, dizziness, joint pain, and fatigue.

Low levels of erythropoietin occur when someone is suffering from chronic kidney diseases. Low red blood cell counts cause anemia; symptoms include fatigue, shortness of breath, increased heart rate, and dizziness.

Questions to ask your doctor

Diagnosis of problems with erythropoietin is often done through blood tests that measure red blood cell counts. If you are concerned about your red blood cell count, talk to your doctor. You may wish to ask:

  • Could erythropoietin be the source of my blood cell count problems?
  • What treatments are available?
  • What lifestyle changes could I make to help?
  • What underlying conditions could be causing this problem?

If you do not have an endocrinologist, you need to find a qualified one to help you with these questions. Use our effective directory to find an endocrinologist in your area, and get started on learning more about your hormone health.