Iron is an essential dietary mineral that is necessary for oxygen and carbon dioxide transport, energy metabolism, and the synthesis of multiple neurotransmitters. Iron deficiency remains the most common nutrient deficiency in the world, with an estimated two billion people being affected, according to the World Health Organization. Ferritin is a protein that functions in the body by being a storage site for iron. Ferritin levels can fluctuate in accordance with systemic iron levels, thus are indicative of iron deficiency or excess. When ferritin levels are low, an individual is said to have a ferritin deficiency; one of numerous indices that point to a condition also known as iron deficiency anemia.
The most common cause of ferritin / iron deficiency is insufficient intake of dietary iron, either alone, or in combination with excess loss of iron from the body. Strict vegetarians that completely avoid “animal” flesh foods such as beef, chicken, turkey and fish are at increased risk of ferritin deficiency. Women of childbearing age are also susceptible to deficiency, due in large part to monthly blood (and thus iron) loss through menstruation.
With the primary function of iron within the body as a carrier of oxygen to fuel energy, insufficient amounts can manifest symptomatically as lethargy, or a lack of energy. Some individuals may also experience poor circulation, easy bruising and cold intolerance.
Health-care practitioners can assess systemic iron status via blood tests such as complete blood counts and iron profiles. Included within these tests will be levels of ferritin, as well as red blood cell levels and size. In addition, a very important parameter called hemoglobin will be measured. Hemoglobin is a different iron containing protein that is found on red blood cells, and carries oxygen to cells. These tests will give health-care providers various measures on which to tailor an ideal treatment approach.
Treatment of ferritin deficiency can often be met by increasing iron rich foods in the diet. Animal sourced “meat” such as beef, chicken, turkey, and fish are not only rich in iron, but contain a well absorb-able form called heme iron. Plant sourced grains, as well as vegetables such as spinach are also a good source of iron. However the form found therein is not as easily absorbed (non-heme). This can be over-come by taking vitamin C along with meals to convert the non-heme to the heme form. Women of childbearing age are advised to consume 18 mg/day of iron, while adult males 8 mg/day, according to the Dietary Reference Intakes set forth by the Institute of Medicine. Health-care practitioners can also advise on a multitude of iron supplement types that are available both by prescription and over the counter. An assessment on whether to concurrently take the b-vitamins, folic acid and vitamin B-12 can also be determined depending on the results of the complete blood count.
- Wood RJ. Iron. In: Shils ME. Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease. 10th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2006.
- Longo W. Iron Deficiency and Other Hypoproliferative Anemias . In: Kasper DL. Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine. 18th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill., 2005
- Institute of Medicine and Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes for iron. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2001.
- World Health Organization: Iron Deficiency Anaemia