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High Transferrin Levels and Iron Deficiency

author image Ruben J. Nazario
Ruben J. Nazario has been a medical writer and editor since 2007. His work has appeared in national print and online publications. Nazario is a graduate of the University of Louisville School of Medicine, and is board-certified in pediatrics. He also has a Master of Arts in liberal studies from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
High Transferrin Levels and Iron Deficiency
A doctor is analyzing a blood test. Photo Credit: psphotograph/iStock/Getty Images

Transferrin is the main protein in the blood that carries iron throughout the body. Iron is an element important to many of the body functions, but its main role is as the building block for hemoglobin, the protein that helps red blood cells bind oxygen for delivery to the tissues. When transferrin levels are high, it indicates a deficiency in iron.

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Facts about transferrin

Transferrin is produced in the liver. From there, it goes into the blood stream, where it binds the iron absorbed in the diet. According to Lab Tests Online, the amount of transferrin in the bloodstream is a reflection of the capacity of the blood to transport iron, and therefore it is an indirect measure of the body’s iron stores. The transferrin protein has many sites where iron can bind, and the sum of all those sites is measured as the total iron binding capacity, another iron study. The total iron binding capacity is also elevated when a person suffers from iron deficiency.

Other iron studies

Iron studies are part of the evaluation of anemia, in particular a type of anemia called microcytic anemia that occurs when iron levels are low. In microcytic anemia, the body produces fewer and smaller red blood cells, leading to the symptoms of anemia. Other tests that check for iron deficiency include: serum iron levels, a direct measurement of iron levels in the body; ferritin, which is the main storage form of iron; and unsaturated iron-binding capacity, which measures the sites in the transferrin molecule not saturated with iron.

Causes of iron deficiency

Iron deficiency can occur if you don’t get enough iron in your diet, if you don’t absorb it from the digestive tract, or if you are losing blood or iron on a chronic basis. Bleeding from the gastrointestinal tract, such as with an ulcer or caused by cancer, as well as heavy menstrual periods, can lead to decreased iron stores. Chronic conditions like Crohn’s disease can interfere with the body’s capacity to absorb iron from the intestines. Any of these conditions will lead to an increase in the transferrin level.

Symptoms of iron deficiency anemia

High transferrin indicates iron deficiency, which can lead to anemia. According to PubMed Health, symptoms of anemia include weakness or tiredness, headaches, problems concentration, and feeling grumpy or in a bad mood all the time. If the anemia worsens, or if it remains untreated for a long time, it can lead to cyanosis, or a bluish color in the eyes, around the mouth and on the nail beds; paleness; shortness of breath; and brittle nails. Iron supplementation normalizes transferrin levels and improves the symptoms of anemia over time.

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