Ferritin Test – Everything You Need to Know

What is Ferritin?

Although a ferritin test is used to measure the stored iron levels in the body, ferritin is not the same thing as iron. Ferritin is one of the two proteins that store iron within the body1. As a matter of fact, ferritin is the most common storage location for iron in the body. Ferritin is mainly present in the liver1. It is also present in the bone marrow, spleen and muscles1.

What does a ferritin test measure?

The bloodstream carries a small amount of ferritin. Thus a blood test can be used to calculate the ferritin levels in the body. Low ferritin levels indicate an iron deficiency in the body1. Whereas high ferritin levels are a sign of iron overload.

There is an inherited condition called hemochromatosis where a genetic mutation causes high iron levels2. Ferritin levels are also a way of detecting this as side effects are not present until aged 30 and above2.

Note that the ferritin blood test is different from a test like the serum iron test that directly measures the iron in the blood1. The ferritin blood test is often used to predict any upcoming shortfalls within iron levels. This will be shown in blood work before the serum iron blood test will show the same results1. This is due to the fact that the reduction of iron storage precedes the actual shortage of iron within the body.

The ferritin blood test can also identify an increase in iron levels. If ferritin levels are increased, it generally points to increased iron storage and therefore increased iron levels1.

Why is iron important to our body?

Iron is essential to the body’s core functions. It has several uses including:

  • Being the main part of haemoglobin, the protein that is responsible for oxygenating the blood3.
  • Breaking down carbohydrates3.
  • Being part of the process to create some hormones3.

However, iron is toxic for our bodies and is therefore attached to a protein called transferrin to become safe when travelling through the bloodstream independently1. Roughly 65% of your iron intake is required for haemoglobin production alone4, with the remainder being stored for other smaller tasks5.

What are the symptoms of low iron levels?

There are several symptoms that can occur with low iron levels including:

  • Tiredness – Due to reduced oxygen transport and your heart and body having to work harder to compensate for this3.
  • Paleness – Due to reduced haemoglobin which makes blood red6.
  • Breathlessness – Due to your body having to breathe more to get more oxygen into the body3.
  • Heart rate changes – The lack of iron and therefore haemoglobin reduces the amount of oxygen in the bloodstream. This causes the heart rate to increase to improve oxygen levels. Heart palpitations can also be experienced3.
  • Hair and skin become dry and damaged – Due to the lack of oxygen7.
  • Weakness – Due to the shortage of oxygen in the blood, it’s harder for your muscles to work as they should3.

Do low iron levels cause anaemeia?

Anaemia is the body’s reduced ability to carry oxygen4. This is caused by a reduction of red blood cells or the amount of haemoglobin within the red blood cells1. Because of this reduction, iron levels drop. It takes the body several weeks to show anaemia after iron storage has been depleted1. This type of anaemia is known as iron deficiency anaemia1.

What causes low levels of ferritin?

When the body has low levels of ferritin, it is indicative of a shortage of iron storage1. This could be due to several factors including:

  • Low protein levels – if protein levels are low, this will affect ferritin levels1. To check your protein levels, you can get a total protein test, which is part of the single at-home health test of the ElevateMe program.
  • Malnutrition – can cause low protein levels and reduced iron intake1.
  • Low intake of iron5.
  • Some chronic conditions – such as autoimmune disorders, chronic infections and cancers.5.

What’s iron overload?

It is possible to have elevated levels of iron and this is termed iron overload1. However, this is only an issue when it occurs over long time periods5. Consistently elevated iron levels will lead to iron deposits within several organs and tissues causing significant damage5.

What are the symptoms of high iron levels?

Although the symptoms vary when iron deposits damage organs and tissues, there are some generalised symptoms. These include:

  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Weakness
  • Joint pain
  • Abnormal sexual hormone levels. For instance, irregular or missed periods in females, and erectile dysfunction in men.2

What causes high levels of ferritin?

Ferritin levels closely match iron levels naturally. This causes ferritin levels to increase when there is an increase in the level of iron1. However, there are instances where ferritin levels can increase independently from iron levels. These instances include:

  • Liver disease – If there is liver damage, liver cells are destroyed with their contents entering the bloodstream. This will increase iron within the bloodstream1.
  • Spleen disease – spleen cells become damaged and contents are released into the bloodstream1.
  • Bone marrow disease – bone marrow cells become damaged and contents are released into the bloodstream1.

What are the normal ferritin levels?

The NHS states that normal ferritin ranges that are shown in the first two columns below:

Reference BandReference Value8Optimal BandOptimal Value
LowLess than 15 ug/LLowLess than 30 ug/L
Boderline16-40 ug/LSub-OptimalLess than 40 ug/L
Normal41-400 ug/LOptimal40-200 ug/L
Supra-Optimal201-400 ug/L
HighMore than 400 ug/LHighMore than 401 ug/L

However, at ElevateMe, we use optimal ranges to compare your test results with the averages of the healthiest individuals. You can read more about how optimal ranges are better than reference ranges for blood tests here.

How to improve ferritin levels?

The best way to improve ferritin levels is by increasing your iron intake. This can be achieved by following these adaptions for the foods you eat:

IncreaseDecrease
Dark green leafy vegetables – watercress and curly kale9Tea9
Cereals and bread that are fortified with iron9Coffee9
Dried fruits9Milk and Diary9
Pulses9 Foods with high phytic acid such as wholegrain cereals9
Brown rice10
Nuts and seeds10
Meat, fish and tofu10
Eggs10

However, there are also iron supplements that can be taken if the diet changes do not make the difference needed to return to optimum levels.

Who is more at risk for low iron levels?

There are groups of people who are at a higher risk of developing iron deficiency. These include:

  • Females – Due to regular blood loss through menstrual cycles3.
  • Teenagers – During growth spurts periods the body needs more oxygen and energy3.
  • Young children – Due to the increased need for oxygen for growth and development11.

Conclusion

It is important to monitor iron levels to prevent conditions such as anaemia. This can be done with a regular ferritin blood test. At ElevateMe, with a single finger-prick home blood test, we can help you track 21 of your biomarkers. Additionally, our intelligent health algorithm personalises lifestyle, nutrition, and supplement suggestions according to your test results.

Are you always tired? 

Iron deficiency anaemia affects more than 2 billion people in the world. It causes fatigue, lethargy, and in some cases, shortness of breath.  

Take an ElevateMe blood test today to capture 21 blood test insights and track your iron levels as well as your sleep, fitness, energy, metabolism, cognition, mood, and immunity.

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References

1 Lab Tests Online. (2017). Ferritin Test. Last accessed 18/06/2021.

2 NHS. (2019). Haemochromatosis. Last accessed 18/06/2021.

3 Waugh, A (2018). Anatomy and Physiology in Health and Illness. 13th ed. London: Elsevier.75 & 305

4 Moini, J. (2019). Anatomy and Physiology for Health Professionals. 3rd ed. Burlington, USA: Jones & Barlett

5 Lab Tests Online. (2019). Iron Tests.  Last accessed 18/06/2021.

6 Auerbach, M. & Adamson, J. (2016). How we diagnose and treat iron-deficiency anaemiaAmerican Journal of Haematology. 91 (1), 31-38.

7 Goluch-Koniuszy, Z. (2016). Nutrition of women with hair loss problem during the period of menopause. Przeglad Menopauzalny. 15 (1), 56-61.

8 South Tees NHS. (N.D.) Ferritin. Last accessed 18/06/2021

9 NHS. (2021). Iron deficiency Anaemia. Last accessed 18/06/2021.

10 NHS Inform. (2021). Iron deficiency Anaemia. Last accessed 18/06/2021.

11 Parkin, P., Degroot, J., Maguire, J., Birken, C. & Zlotkin, S. (2016). Severe iron-deficiency anaemia and feeding practices in young childrenPublic Health Nutrition. 19 (49), 716-722.

ferritin test - everything you need to know -elevateme

Written by Louise Taylor

After completing Clinical Technology at the University of Bradford, I am venturing into the NHS as a General Medical Engineer.

22/06/2021

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