Low ferritin: causes and treatment

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When the doctor recommends a blood test, it is usually because there is a suspicion that some level of all the elements, proteins and cells that make up the blood is not correct. This liquid is able to give us a lot of valuable information about the functioning of our whole organism. It is normal that, if we have not studied medicine or a course related to health, we do not know all the elements that make it up.

I’m sure you know some of the more ‘popular’ ones, so to speak, but in reality blood is a living tissue made up of both liquids and solids. The liquid part, the plasma, contains water, salts and proteins. The solid part contains the famous red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. The protein we want to talk about today may be little known, but it is related to another key component, iron, whose job is to produce healthy red blood cells.

In order for iron to do its job, it needs ‘something’ to store it and release it when needed – that’s our protagonist: ferritin. Without it, iron control would not exist and our body would have serious problems transporting oxygen to all the cells of the body. Hence, their analysis is often requested to rule out problems or diseases. Today we will give some visibility to this protein and explain what to do if your levels are low.

What is ferritin?

As we have already mentioned, this protein, present in the blood, is responsible for retaining and releasing the iron we ingest. It is capable of storing up to 4,500 atoms of iron inside it, which it releases according to our body’s needs. It is, without a doubt, an incredibly important protein, without which we could not live. There is a proportional relationship between it and the element it stores (iron): the higher the level of iron in the blood, the higher the ferritin value and vice versa. Both components work as a team to ensure that the values are never too high or too low, regulating each other.

The great thing about ferritin is that it is able to store iron without causing any toxicity. It should be noted that this trace element can be harmful if it is found in free form in the body. At the same time, however, it is an essential mineral, capable of:

  • Part of haemoglobin, which transports oxygen from the lungs to the tissues.
  • Form part of myoglobin, which stores oxygen in the muscles.
  • Participate in cellular energy production.
  • Contribute to DNA synthesis and cell growth.
  • Involved in the immune system and in the production of immune cells.

 

It is curious how a single mineral can, at the same time, help develop our whole organism or give it ‘problems’ if it is not controlled. That’s what ferritin is for, to balance the iron and make sure there’s not ‘too much of it’. However, there are certain groups of people who are more vulnerable to low ferritin:

  • Women of childbearing age, as they lose blood during menstruation.
  • Pregnant women (more iron is needed for the foetus).
  • People with digestive disorders in which the absorption of nutrients may be impaired.
  • Vegetarians and vegans if they do not replace the intake of iron from animal sources with other sources suitable for their diet.
  • People with chronic diseases that may affect iron absorption or increase the demand for iron.

Low blood ferritin

If the doctor suspects that low levels of ferritin may be present in the blood, the first thing he or she will do is order a blood test. All the results you will need will appear there. The patient will simply need to provide a blood sample to determine their levels of this protein. Normal values are:

  • In women: 18 to 200 ng/ml.
  • In men: 30 to 300 ng/ml.
  • In newborns: 25 to 200 ng/ml.
  • In children aged 6 months to 15 years: 7 to 150 ng/ml.

 

If the analysis gives any result, whatever it is, below the values we have just discussed for each category, it means that the patient has a low ferritin (and therefore iron) value in his or her body.

With this diagnosis in hand and the cause of the problem detected, the doctor will be able to generate an appropriate treatment for the person, always taking into account their medical history. Additional tests may also be needed to find the source of this deficiency.

Symptoms

The ‘positive’ side of having low blood ferritin is that symptoms appear. We realise that saying this is contradictory, but it should be borne in mind that, if bodily changes appear that indicate that something is wrong, it is much quicker to detect and fix. Early detection, in many cases, can save lives. The most common symptoms of low ferritin include:

  • Fatigue and weakness. This symptom is related to anaemia and is characterised by extreme exhaustion that prevents the person from carrying out normal activities. He feels, so to speak, a chronic fatigue.

 

  • Pagophagia. Although not one of the most common symptoms, it is related to iron and ferritin deficiency. It is a disorder characterised by an uncontrollable urge to eat and chew ice.

 

  • Respiratory problems. We need iron for haemoglobin to properly transport oxygen to all tissues. Low ferritin levels can disrupt this process and lead to respiratory disorders.

 

  • Weak hair and nails. It is in the blood that all the nutrients responsible for strengthening the hair follicles in which our body hairs are born are found. A low amount of iron weakens them, causing the hair to lack holding power and fall out. Low ferritin can also affect the nails, causing them to split easily.

 

  • Restless legs. This is one of the symptoms that can easily be mistaken for another condition, so it is worth knowing that low ferritin can cause the need to constantly move your legs.

 

  • Dizziness. If the cause of low ferritin is iron deficiency anaemia, the patient may experience dizziness and weakness.

 

Other symptoms of low ferritin (which also occur in other diseases) are a fast or irregular heart rate, headache, shortness of breath during exercise and intolerance to cold.

Causes of low ferritin

The most likely causes of low iron, even with correct haemoglobin levels, are several. Low ferritin is always associated with anaemia, but although there is a high percentage, this is not always the case and the reason lies elsewhere. That is why we want to talk about the most likely causes of this imbalance, which could be dangerous to health if left untreated:

Anemia. This condition occurs when the blood does not carry enough oxygen throughout the body. The most common cause is a lack of iron, as it is this mineral that transports precious oxygen to all cells. The type of anaemia most closely related to lower ferritin levels is iron deficiency anaemia. It is the most common form of anaemia and occurs when the body does not have enough iron to produce healthy red blood cells.

It can appear if the body, on its own, is not able to properly absorb the iron we provide it with through our diet, if our diet does not have sufficient iron content or if our body needs more iron than normal due to pregnancy or breastfeeding. There are other cases of iron deficiency that can lead to iron deficiency anaemia: coeliac disease, frequent bleeding, bariatric surgery, abnormal intake of antacids, too frequent use of aspirin and repeated heavy menstruation.

Hypothyroidism. This condition hinders the absorption of iron. The thyroid secretes hormones and is an endocrine gland located in the neck. It is fundamental to our body and one of its main components, as it controls body temperature, the rhythm of the heartbeat, the speed of weight loss and many other functions. When it is not working properly, i.e. if it does not secrete the correct number of hormones, the person suffers from hypothyroidism.

This disease affects women more than men and also makes iron absorption more difficult because the body stops producing hydrochloric acid. The patient will have to take synthetic hormone on a daily basis to correct the consequences of this condition.

Kidney disease. Any problems affecting the kidneys can jeopardise the production of erythropoietin, which is coordinated by these organs. This substance, which is involved in the formation of red blood cells, often causes low ferritin levels to be ‘its fault’ and kidney disease. Many patients have to take iron supplements when they appear.

Unbalanced diet. We will never tire of repeating that we are what we eat. The body is not able to create iron on its own, so the amount we have in the body is actually the amount we take in on a daily basis. If we do not eat a balanced diet we compromise our nutrition and the proper functioning of all the ‘gears’ that make up the body, causing, for example, a deficit of iron in the blood.

The best way to avoid low ferritin through diet is not to follow dietary guidelines that you see in non-medical or professional journals, especially if they promise impossible things, such as weight loss in a short time. It is better to eat a little of everything and, if there is a problem, to see your GP.

Medical treatment. Certain treatments that are very aggressive on the body, such as chemotherapy, can cause low ferritin levels. The components used can kill healthy red blood cells before their shelf life is over, which in itself will decrease the amount of iron.

Treatment of low ferritin

As with any treatment, returning to normal ferritin levels will depend on the cause of the drop, the person’s physical condition and medical history. Normally, anaemia patients tend to consume iron-rich foods (watercress, parsley, tomatoes, beetroot, carrots, etc.) to give their body the amount of iron it needs. In more severe cases, the patient may need to take iron supplements.

The aim of any treatment in this respect will always be to normalise the values and prevent the organism from being poorly oxygenated in order to prevent any subsequent ailments. If the low ferritin is a side effect of a disease such as hypothyroidism, as soon as treatment is started the values should gradually normalise.

However, if what happens is that the body is unable to store or use iron properly, most of the time the treatment will consist of iron supplements, which are very useful in preventing chronic anaemia. The dosage is dictated by the doctor and you can never take too much or too little. Following the instructions of the health professional will be essential in order to help the body return to normal values according to the individual.

As you can see, a small, simple blood test can reveal a lot about our health and detect the cause of symptoms that we didn’t understand why they were occurring. Hence, from Ambar Lab, we always recommend a yearly analysis to see if any data or measures have changed and correct them as soon as possible.

In our laboratory we offer more than 3,000 laboratory tests, support in the management of a business and the development of new projects. You can consult our test catalogue or, if you have a specific question, contact our team, who will find a suitable solution for your needs.

 

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