What is ferritin?
If your doctor has determined that you may have low iron levels, it's likely that they've ordered a ferritin test.
Ferritin is a protein that naturally occurs in blood. When you have a ferritin test, your doctor is able to use the amount of ferritin in your blood to determine how much iron is stored in your body.
Ferritin in the body
Ferritin plays an important role in keeping your body energized and healthy. Healthy iron levels allow your body to create red blood cells that work to carry oxygen throughout the body.
Iron levels can differ from person to person, and following your doctor's recommendations for lab tests can help your healthcare team keep an eye on your iron levels.
In healthy adults, standard blood ferritin ranges include:
- Female: 12 to 150 nanograms per milliliter
- Male: 12 to 300 nanograms per milliliter
Low ferritin risk factors
While anyone can have low iron levels, some people are more likely to develop low ferritin than others. If you're more likely to have low iron than others, your doctor may recommend regular ferritin testing to provide you with the information you need to adjust and supplement your iron levels.
People who are at risk for low ferritin levels include:
- People who are underweight
- Women who are pregnant
- Women who experience heavy periods
- People who have digestive issues that cause problems with their ability to absorb the nutrients in their food (such as inflammatory bowel disease)
While these conditions can make it more likely that you'll develop low ferritin levels, some people develop low ferritin levels–and subsequently, low iron– without any risk factors.
An important note: if you have a blood test that shows low ferritin, this does not necessarily mean that your body has low iron. Excess iron is stored in ferritin, so anyone who has low iron will also have low ferritin. In other words, Everyone who has low iron will have low ferritin, but not everyone who has low ferritin will develop low iron.
Symptoms of low ferritin
Wondering if you might be living with low ferritin levels? While a blood test is the only way to know for sure, there are some symptoms commonly shown by people who have low levels of iron stored in the ferritin in their red blood cells.
Common signs of low ferritin levels include:
- Skin appears more pale than usual
- Muscle weakness
- Unexplained fatigue
- Rapid heartbeat
- Unusual shortness of breath
If you're experiencing these symptoms, it's important to talk with your doctor to get to the root of your issue. While many of these symptoms can be attributed to low ferritin, they can also be indicative of other health conditions.
Causes of low ferritin
There are many health issues that can cause a low ferritin test result. If your blood test comes back showing that you have low ferritin levels, it's likely that your doctor will order additional tests (such as transferrin saturation, total iron-binding capacity, and serum iron) to determine the severity of your body's low iron levels.
Sometimes, low ferritin levels can be caused by issues including:
- Conditions that stop the body from properly absorbing iron
- Blood loss related to digestive tract issues
- Inadequate levels of red blood cells
- A diet low in iron
- Inflammatory health conditions
Low iron stores vs. iron-deficiency anemia: What's the difference?
If you have a ferritin test that shows that you have low iron stores, you could be anemic. In order to understand the difference between low ferritin and low iron, it's important to understand the role that hemoglobin plays in your health.
Hemoglobin is a component of red blood cells, and works to carry oxygen throughout your body. Iron works to help your bone marrow produce hemoglobin. Without iron, the body struggles to produce hemoglobin. Red blood cells are able to store extra iron in ferritin proteins. When the body doesn't get enough iron from food, it has to resort to using ferritin-stored iron to create hemoglobin.
When your body doesn't have much ferritin-stored iron, it’s possible to develop iron deficiency. Over time, this can make it hard for the body to make enough hemoglobin to support your health. Anemia is a condition that occurs when you have low levels of hemoglobin in your blood, caused by low iron stores.
If you have low ferritin levels, it's important that you carefully follow your doctor's advice to boost your body's iron stores to avoid developing anemia.
Increasing ferritin levels naturally
If you've recently been diagnosed with low ferritin levels, we've got good news: there are plenty of steps you can take to naturally increase your body's iron stores. Here, we'll take a look at how supplementation and diet changes can help to boost your body's ferritin levels.
Your doctor may recommend that you use iron supplements to help boost your ferritin levels. It's important to work closely with your care provider to monitor whether your supplementation routine is working--some people find more success through supplementing iron every other day rather than taking a supplement every day.
Adding iron-rich foods to your diet may help you increase your ferritin levels. There's no need for a total dietary overhaul--simply adding some of the foods below to your nutrition plan can help you boost your energy by increasing your body's iron levels.
Foods high in iron include:
- Dried fruit
Talk to your doctor
If you're concerned that you may have low iron stores in your body, it's key to reach out to your doctor for ferritin testing. Be sure to keep a list of your symptoms, which can allow your doctor to determine whether they should test for health conditions in addition to low ferritin levels. If your doctor finds that your ferritin levels are low, you'll want to talk with them to develop a supplementation and diet plan that will help you get back to feeling like yourself.
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