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Are Your Ferritin Levels Optimal? The Link Between This Nutrient and Your Health

You’ve probably heard a lot about iron and how important this mineral is to your health. Iron helps your body make red blood cells and transport oxygen. It’s important for your energy levels, immune system and brain. 

Iron has an important partner called ferritin that might not be on your nutrition radar.

Ferritin is a protein in your body that stores iron and releases it when your body needs it. When your ferritin levels are optimal, your body has the right amount of iron to help keep you healthy. It’s especially important for runners and athletes to have the right ferritin levels.

Jacquelin Danielle Fryer, a registered dietitian specializing in sports nutrition with Banner Sports Medicine Scottsdale, explained more about this nutrient. “Ferritin is found in the liver, spleen and bone marrow and is checked to diagnose certain conditions. It is also being studied for its possible role in cancer and neurodegenerative diseases,” she said. “Along with its role in iron metabolism, ferritin has been linked to various health benefits. It may help wounds heal and protect against some types of stress.”

How to check your ferritin levels

Your health care provider can check your ferritin levels with a routine blood test. “Measuring ferritin is a great way to see how much iron your body is storing,” Fryer said. Normal levels vary based on your age, sex and health. Generally, men should have 24 to 336 nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL) and women should have 11 to 307 ng/mL.

Ask your provider if you should have your ferritin levels checked. Be sure to let your provider know if you’re a runner, athlete or vigorous exerciser since your activity level may make you more likely to have low ferritin levels. 

By finding any issues with your ferritin levels early, you can change your diet or lifestyle or consider supplements and act before your condition worsens. Getting low ferritin levels back to normal can take up to three months. 

What low or high readings could mean

If your ferritin levels are low, you might feel tired and weak and have trouble concentrating. You could have iron-deficiency anemia, a condition where there’s not enough iron in your blood, so your blood can’t carry oxygen well. Anemia is defined as a hemoglobin level of under 12 grams per deciliter (g/dL) for women and under 13 g/dL for men.

If your ferritin levels are high, you might have inflammation, liver disease, cancer or hemochromatosis, a condition where you absorb too much iron. If you have high ferritin levels without a cause, your health care provider will want to look for health issues that could be behind them.

Why ferritin is important for runners and athletes

When you’re physically active, you need more oxygen. Iron, which is stored in ferritin, is important for transporting oxygen. You need ferritin for endurance, stamina and athletic performance. 

When ferritin levels are low, your muscles can’t get the oxygen they need. So you’ll feel tired, have less endurance and take longer to recover. You may feel breathless when you exercise. You won’t be able to perform at your peak, and you might be more likely to get injured. 

How to optimize your ferritin levels

Including iron-rich foods in your diet can help keep your ferritin levels healthy. “If you want more ferritin, you need to eat more iron. Your provider may recommend consulting with a registered dietitian for dietary changes,” Fryer said.

Good sources of iron are:

  • Lean meats like beef, poultry, liver and seafood, especially oysters
  • Eggs
  • Legumes, tofu, spinach, kale, broccoli, oats, lentils, beans, leafy green vegetables and fortified grains and cereals
  • Dried fruits
  • Nuts and seeds like almonds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and cashews

Some foods and compounds can make it easier or harder for your body to absorb iron:

  • Vitamin C helps you absorb the iron in plants, so add citrus fruits, berries and vegetables to your meals.
  • Calcium and coffee can slow or stop iron absorption, so it’s better to have them apart from iron-rich meals.
  • Phytates and tannins, found in some plant foods and beverages like tea, can slow iron absorption. They may not have as much of an impact on iron if you soak, ferment or cook them.
  • Drinking plenty of fluids helps your circulation, so it’s easier for your blood to transport iron. Limit alcohol, though, since that can make it harder for your body to get the iron it needs.

Lifestyle factors can affect your ferritin levels:

  • If you’re menstruating, you can lose iron during your monthly cycle.
  • Regular, intense exercise can mean you may need more iron. It’s important to balance intensity and recovery.
  • Some medical conditions, like celiac disease or gastrointestinal disorders, can affect your ability to absorb iron.

If your ferritin levels are low, your health care provider may recommend iron supplements. Don’t take iron supplements without guidance since that could lead to imbalances and health risks. “If you are taking iron supplements, take them with vitamin C on an empty stomach for best results,” Fryer said.

When to see a health care provider

Contact a provider if you have any of these signs of a ferritin imbalance:

  • Fatigue and weakness that doesn’t go away
  • Shortness of breath during routine activities
  • Unexplained changes in athletic performance
  • Trouble concentrating or thinking
  • Pale skin
  • Dizziness

Be sure to share your lifestyle habits, activity level and concerns about your performance with your provider. They can evaluate your health, review your blood test results and recommend ways to get your ferritin levels back to normal. 

The bottom line

Ferritin is a protein that helps your body store iron and release it when you need it. Runners, athletes and people who exercise strenuously may need to make sure they have enough ferritin, since they need more iron than less-active people.

Your doctor can check your ferritin levels with a blood test and recommend diet and lifestyle changes and possibly supplements if you need to get your ferritin levels in the right range.

A Banner Health provider can help you understand more about what your body needs and how you can optimize your health and athletic performance.

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