Ferritin is a protein that stores iron in our bodies. Iron is an essential nutrient for humans. For example, the hemoglobin molecules inside our red blood cells contain iron atoms, which attach to the oxygen that we inhale. The blood then transports the red blood cells and their oxygenated hemoglobin around the body. The oxygen is released to the cells in the body’s tissues, which use it to produce energy. Without iron, hemoglobin can’t be made, and the cells won’t receive enough oxygen. Ferritin acts a storage site for reserve iron, releasing the iron when the body needs it. In addition, if too much iron is present in the body more ferritin molecules are made to absorb some of the excess iron, which is toxic if it remains free in the body.
Most ferritin is found in the liver, spleen and bone marrow, but the blood contains ferritin too. A low ferritin level in the blood may be a symptom of iron-deficiency anemia. In this condition the red blood cells lack sufficient hemoglobin because there is not enough iron in the body to make the hemoglobin. As the amount of available iron decreases, the number of red blood cells decreases too. If a blood test shows that a person’s blood contains both a low ferritin level and a low red blood cell level, or a low ferritin level and a low hemoglobin level, iron-deficiency anemia is indicated. If the blood ferritin level is low but the hemoglobin or red blood cell level is normal, iron-deficiency anemia may not be diagnosed. However, this situation is a warning sign that an iron deficiency could soon develop. A decreased ferritin level often appears before a reduced hemoglobin level when the amount of iron is decreasing in the body.
The main symptom of iron-deficiency anemia is lack of energy, since without enough red blood cells or enough hemoglobin the tissue cells can’t obtain sufficient oxygen to produce the energy that they need. Other symptoms may include pale skin and mucous membranes, dizziness, headache, shortness of breath, a rapid heart rate, a sore or swollen tongue, brittle nails and sometimes restless legs syndrome or a compulsion to eat ice, soil or other unusual substances, which is known as pica.
Iron-deficiency anemia can develop due to blood loss or an inability to absorb enough iron through the lining of the small intestine because of intestinal damage. It may also develop during a rapid growth period such as adolescence, or during pregnancy. The most common treatments for iron-deficiency anemia include curing any health problems that are contributing to the anemia and giving iron supplements.
Excess ferritin in the blood can also be a problem. It often indicates that there is too much iron in the body, a condition known as hemochromatosis. Iron is toxic at high levels and can damage organs, including the liver, pancreas and heart. The body has only a limited ability to remove excess iron by making extra ferritin molecules. High iron levels can be caused by taking too many iron supplements, having several blood transfusions in a short period of time, liver disease, certain blood diseases and genetic problems. A high ferritin level may also develop due to other health problems besides hemochromatosis, such as increased inflammation in the body, a chronic infection, some autoimmune disorders and some types of cancer.
Symptoms of hemochromatosis include joint pain, arthritis, an irregular heartbeat, congestive heart failure, liver disease, pancreas problems, which may include diabetes, adrenal gland damage, an underactive thyroid gland, impotence in males, early menopause in females and a bronze or grey color to the skin. The most common treatments for hemochromatosis are treating any problems that may be contributing to the disorder and the removal of blood from a vein (phlebotomy) at regular intervals, which removes excess iron from the body.