Ferritin Out the Truth
My girlfriend is a blood donor. Me? I tried to do it once, almost passed out, and never tried it again. But her? Even though she almost passed out while on public transportation–two separate times!–after giving blood, she goes whenever she can. After the second almost-passing-out incident, I put my foot down and wouldn’t let her donate for a couple of years. But then we brokered a deal where she could donate as long as she was in a place where she wouldn’t have to take a bus or train home and could lie down immediately.
I thought this would end all this donation nonsense, but then we were at a Science Fiction convention recently where they had a donation bus parked outside the hotel and I knew I was licked.
But the funny thing was that when she tried to give blood, they wouldn’t take her.
“They said my iron was too low, but I should take an iron supplement and try again tomorrow.”
She took the supplement, went back the next day and all was well. There was no low iron, no passing out, but my antennae were raised. Low iron? What was that all about?
The word ‘ferritin’ had been popping up a lot in my reading. Janie Bowthorpe talks about it in her book Stop the Thyroid Madness which I reviewed here recently. Ferritin isn’t the active form of iron in your blood, the hemoglobin that moves oxygen around your body. Ferritin is the storage form of iron–the pool of iron that your body draws on for all the other iron-y stuff it’s got to get done. Stuff like making your liver work properly. Oh yeah, and your brain. And that’s just the start of a long, long list.
You thought anemia was the first sign of iron deficiency? It’s actually the last. If you’re low on iron, your body will make sure your hemoglobin gets first dibs–oxygen making it around your body is top priority. After that, it’s catch as catch can for all the enzymes, organs and processes scrambling after the remains. By the time your iron is so low the blood donation bus won’t take you, things have gotten pretty bad.
Since the level of ferritin is the true test of how your iron levels are doing, I wrote the word ‘ferritin’ on a sticky note and gave it to my girlfriend when she was on her way to her next annual doctor’s appointment.
“Ask for this test,” I said.
“Is it a real word? It sounds funny.”
When she got home, I checked to see if the doctor had given her any trouble.
“She was dubious at first,” my girlfriend said. “But then she said, if it created more harmony in my household, she would be happy to order it.”
Along with the alarming number of symptoms low ferritin can cause, you will also read here that a ferritin level below 50 is pretty dodgy.
My girlfriend’s came back at 7.
I was appalled. I gave her a stern talking-to about how there was to be no more blood donations until her ferritin was up to 100, and that it wasn’t a joke, she would have to take her iron supplement every day. And that she shouldn’t be so cavalier about her health–giving away her last precious molecules of iron to strangers without a thought for herself.
I took a little break from my lecture to look up my own ferritin level from my last blood test.
It was 15. Oops.
I had a vague memory of my doctor telling me that I needed to do something about it, but I had thought him to be an annoying pest to bring up such trivia when I had bigger fish to fry. I was mercury toxic! That was my problem! Why was this idiot banging on about some irrelevant iron deficiency?
Okay, so now we both take our iron supplements every day. I had my own annual physical the other day and of course I got my ferritin tested. It was still only 15. Sigh.
Getting iron levels up is a notoriously slow process, but even after these few short weeks of supplementation, I’ve noticed that my physical stamina is very impressive. Spring is the season to work out and I’ve been doing all kinds of long-bike-rides and running-up -hills with no complaints. But even more wonderful is my hair situation.
My hair has been falling out in alarming amounts ever since I was a teenager. I have really thick hair, so it always gets replaced, but I have to keep my hair short if I don’t want big clumps of hair in the drain every time I take a shower. What’s a huge sign of low ferritin? Hair loss. Big clumps of hair in the drain every time you take a shower.
But not these days. More and more hair is staying in my head and less and less is going down the drain. I often used to joke that I’d know I was truly truly healthy the day that my hair stopped falling out. Maybe that day is coming soon…maybe when my ferritin hits 100 🙂