Ferritin is a protein that stores iron in your body — releasing it when your body needs it. Low ferritin levels can indicate that you have iron-deficiency anaemia. Common symptoms of this include tiredness, dizziness, headaches, and weakness. While high levels can indicate that you're storing too much iron. Common symptoms of this include stomach pain, heart palpitations, and joint pain.

What is ferritin?

Although they're closely related, ferritin and iron in your body are not the same thing.  Ferritin is a protein that stores iron and then releases it when your body needs it. So your ferritin levels are a useful indicator of your body's iron status.

Low levels can indicate that you have iron-deficiency anaemia. High levels can indicate that you're storing too much iron.

What can cause ferritin levels to change?

Low ferritin  

Your ferritin levels can drop if:

  • your diet is low in iron — vegan and vegetarian are sometimes low in iron
  • you suffer from a gastrointestinal disorder — like coeliac disease or Crohn’s disease

In females, heavy periods or blood loss during childbirth can cause low levels.

High ferritin

Certain conditions can cause your ferritin levels to increase, including:

  • haemochromatosis (iron overload) — a condition that causes a build-up of iron
  • hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid)
  • liver disease
  • type 2 diabetes

What are the symptoms of low ferritin levels?

The most common symptoms of low ferritin levels include:

  • extreme tiredness
  • dizziness
  • headaches
  • unexplained weakness
  • ringing in your ears
  • irritability
  • leg pains
  • shortness of breath

What are the symptoms of high ferritin levels?

The most common symptoms of high ferritin levels include:

  • tiredness
  • stomach pain
  • heart palpitations or chest pains
  • unexplained weakness
  • joint pain

How to test your ferritin levels 

The best way to test your ferritin levels is with a blood test. You can either go to your GP or order a home finger-prick blood

To ensure your results are accurate, make sure to take the test on an empty stomach. 

Understanding your ferritin blood test results

The “normal” range for ferritin levels is broad and differs based on your gender:

  • Males: 30-400 ug/L
  • Females: 13-150 ug/L

What can you do to change your ferritin levels?

Low ferritin levels

If your diet is low in iron, try to include more iron-rich foods like:

  • red meat
  • dark green, leafy vegetables
  • nuts
  • raisins and dried fruit
  • iron-fortified cereals

Combining plant-based sources of iron with vitamin C can help increase how much you absorb. Most fruits and vegetables are good sources of vitamin C. Also, try to avoid too much tea, coffee, and milk as this can stop iron absorption.

If you're not able to get enough from your diet, an iron supplement might help. It's a good idea to get advice from a health professional or your GP before taking a supplement.

High ferritin levels 

If your ferritin levels are very high, it’s important to see your doctor — excess iron can sometimes lead to organ damage if left unchecked for a long time.

Lowering your ferritin levels will depend on what's causing them to increase. If you have haemochromatosis (an inherited condition), then phlebotomy (removal of blood) is the most common treatment. If you're taking an iron supplement, make sure you're not taking too much.

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References

National Institue of Health (2018). Office of dietary supplements. Iron: Fact sheet for health professionals. Retrieved 21 May 2019 from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-HealthProfessional/.

National Health Services (2017). Overview: Vitamins and minerals. Retrieved 21 May 2019 from https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals/.

NHS (2018). Iron deficiency anaemia. Retrieved 21 May 2019 from
https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/iron-deficiency-anaemia/

Labs test online (2018). Anaemia. Retrieved 21 May 2019 from https://labtestsonline.org.uk/conditions/anaemia

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