You’re likely familiar with iron, but the term “ferritin” may be new to you. Iron is an essential mineral you take in. Your body stores some of it in the form of ferritin.
Ferritin is a type of protein in your blood. It stores iron that your body can use when it needs it. If you have low ferritin, this means that you also have an iron deficiency.
When you have low ferritin, you may also experience hair loss. Unfortunately, it can be easy to overlook ferritin if you also have an underlying condition that may cause hair loss.
A ferritin test can help your doctor make this determination so that you can correctly treat it.
Some ferritin is stored in hair follicles. It’s presumed that ferritin loss occurs when someone loses their hair. But the process of ferritin loss can occur before a person experiences hair loss problems.
Whenever your body is low in iron, it can essentially “borrow” ferritin from your hair follicles and other sources that are less vital to the body in an illness.
It’s important to get enough iron from foods or supplements so that you also have adequate ferritin in the body. Aside from iron deficiency, low ferritin levels may also be caused by:
- significant blood loss
- celiac disease
- non-celiac gluten intolerance
- vegetarian or vegan diets
- hypothyroidism (low thyroid)
Having low ferritin interferes with your body’s role in making red blood cells. Red blood cells are important for the transfer of oxygen throughout your body. Without enough red blood cells, your organs and major systems don’t work as effectively.
Symptoms of low ferritin are similar to that of an iron deficiency, and hair loss is just one sign. Other symptoms may include:
- extreme fatigue
- pounding in the ears
- brittle nails
- shortness of breath
- difficulty concentrating
- restless legs
Hair loss is often one of the first signs of hypothyroidism, a condition that makes your body produce a lower-than-normal amount of thyroid hormones. Additionally, a lack of thyroid hormone can cause overall sluggishness, dry skin, and cold intolerance. Weight gain is also common.
In some cases of hypothyroidism, hair loss may not be directly linked to a lack of thyroid hormones, but instead to iron deficiency. This, in turn, causes low ferritin and hypothyroidism to occur at the same time.
When there’s not enough ferritin stored in the body, your thyroid isn’t able to make enough thyroid hormone.
Another possible scenario is having “classic” hypothyroidism symptoms but testing in the normal thyroid level range. If this happens to you, ask your doctor about checking out your ferritin levels.
The best way to treat hair loss with ferritin is to increase your iron levels. Your doctor might talk to you about taking supplements if you don’t eat enough iron-rich foods (such as liver and beef).
While meat contains higher levels of iron than plant-based foods, you can still get some iron from eating whole grains, nuts, and legumes. Eating vitamin C-rich and iron-rich foods at the same time can also help your body absorb iron better.
If a food sensitivity is suspected, your doctor may recommend a blood test or an elimination diet.
Gluten intolerance is one of the possible causes of poor iron absorption, which can then lead to low ferritin and hair loss.
Zinc deficiency is also often seen in people experiencing hair loss. You can find zinc in meats, whole grains, and dairy products.
If your hair loss is related to low ferritin, then your hair should grow back once the underlying iron deficiency is treated. Still, it can take several months for hair to regrow, so patience is key.
Avoid using any hair growth treatments unless otherwise directed by your doctor. For large amounts of hair loss, minoxidil (Rogaine) may help.
One study of nonmenopausal women found that 59 percent of those experiencing excessive hair loss also had iron deficiency. In such cases, hair regrowth might be possible by reversing an iron deficiency to promote more ferritin stores in your body.
While the correct amount of iron intake is important to your overall health, too much iron can have the opposite effect.
According to the Mayo Clinic, normal ferritin rates are 20 to 200 nanograms per milliliter for women and 20 to 500 for men.
Even if you do have low ferritin, taking too much iron can be problematic. It’s also possible to have low ferritin but normal iron readings.
Symptoms of an iron overdose (toxicity) may include:
- abdominal pain
- black or bloody stools
- increased heart rate
- decreased blood pressure
A blood test is the only way your doctor can diagnose low ferritin. (Higher-than-normal ferritin levels don’t normally cause hair loss.)
Some conditions can cause your body to store too much iron. Liver disease, hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid), and inflammatory conditions can all cause this to happen.
If you’re experiencing unusual amounts of hair loss despite dietary changes, it may be time to see your doctor for a diagnosis.
Low ferritin may be to blame, but you’ll want to be sure this is the case before taking any supplements or making other significant changes to your lifestyle. Stress management, exercise, and regular sleep can also have positive effects on your hair.
Wait at least three months to give supplements and dietary changes a chance to work.
If you don’t see any improvements in hair loss after this time, ask your doctor if you should get your ferritin and iron levels retested.