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Ferritin: Why Do You Want to Ensure You are Getting the Full Picture?

Dana Eshelman, MS, RDN, CSSD, METS I

What is Ferritin?

Ferritin is your bodies primary form of stored iron in your cells. Iron is predominately stored in the cells of your liver, muscles, bone marrow and spleen; however, too much iron storage can cause accumulation in the brain and other organs. Ferritin provides a picture of how much iron is stored in your red blood cells, and, if there is too much, an understanding for if it is accumulating in organs or the brain.

Iron is vital for healthy oxygen transportation throughout the body. Too little iron can cause anemia. Anemia is a condition that your red blood cells cannot carry oxygen to your cells, thus you develop symptoms of oxygen deficiency.

Signs of Anemia:

  • Weakness

  • Headaches

  • Pale Skin

  • Fatigue

  • Dizziness

  • Low body temperature

  • Hair loss

  • Poor brain function

  • Shortness of breath

  • PICA (cravings for things not considered foods -- dirt, clay)

  • Hypothyroidism

Menstruating females do lose a small amount of iron during your monthly cycle. This is normal. This just means you need to be intentional with choosing iron-rich foods (more on this in a moment). Iron deficiency may also be seen in relation to absorption issues such as in celiac or Crohn's Disease or with gut infections.

Postmenopausal women can also have low iron if you did not restore iron levels pre-menopause.

Men, since you do not have a menstrual cycle, you are at a higher risk for developing iron toxicity. Accumulation of iron in the brain and other body tissues can show the following symptoms:

  • Brain fog

  • Fatigue (day to day and after meals - insulin resistance)

  • Low sex drive and erectile dysfunction (ED)

  • Mood swings, especially anger/irritability

  • GI issues

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Joint pain

  • Weight loss

  • Congestive heart failure

  • Hair loss

  • Memory loss

  • Abdominal pain

This is why getting ferritin tested in addition to serum iron is SO important. You want to understand how your body is storing iron.

Other Tests to Provide the Full Picture with Iron

The most accurate picture, you will also want to consider:

  • Serum iron

  • % iron saturation

  • Total iron binding capacity (TIBC)

What to do with LOW Iron?

If your iron and ferritin lab values are low in relation inadequate intake or absorption complication, then you will want to take another look at your diet first, then consider supplementation if indicated by a medical professional. The following steps may be helpful to get started:

  1. Identify any food sensitivities that may cause absorption issues.

  2. Get thyroid hormones check. A low thyroid can inhibit stomach acid production, which negatively impacts your bodies ability to absorb vitamins and minerals.

  3. Increase consumption of iron-rich foods:

    1. Heme foods (animal) -- organ meats (ie beef or chicken liver), beef, mussels, oysters, poultry, sardines

    2. Non- heme foods (plant) -- Be sure to consume these sources with vitamin C to improve bioavailability -- beans (lima, kidney, white); pumpkin, sesame and squash seeds; dried apricots, raisins, and prunes; leafy greens (spinach, kale, broccoli, collard greens); fortified cereals and bread

You may want to LIMIT these foods as these can inhibit absorption of iron (addition of these foods may be useful with high iron):

  1. Eggs

  2. Calcium

  3. Phytates found in nuts, seeds, legumes, cereal and whole grains reduces absorption by ~50%. Soaking these decreases phytate content.

  4. Oxalates found in beets, chocolate, wheat bran, rhubarb, nuts, spinach, kale, herbs (oregano, basil and parsley). Boiling, blanching and steaming decreases oxalates.

  5. Polyphenols such as cocoa, coffee; black, green and herbal teas; berries, walnuts, apples

Too much iron can inhibit absorption of:

  • Zinc

  • Manganese

  • Molybdenum

  • Copper

These five nutrients -- iron, zinc, manganese, molybdenum, and copper -- compete with one another in the body, thus finding the right balance is KEY. This is usually best done through the synergy of food unless medically indicated to supplement.

My motto stands: TEST, DO NOT GUESS.

You want to ensure you are supplementing with reason as over supplementation can end up going more harm than good!

If you are interested in having a complete panel of labs tested and analyzed with a personalized nutrition and supplement protocol, this is exactly what I do! Check it out!!

** It is always useful to take up any concerns regarding gastrointestinal health, food intolerances/allergies, malabsorption, etc. with a qualified medical professional (ie. gastroenterologist) for a more in depth review.

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