25 Apr 2014

What's ferritin, and why should I care?

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 I got some great news a couple weeks ago; my ferritin level is up to 89!  You are probably thinking, "Big deal,” or “Why should I care about ferritin?”  If you are an endurance athlete you should understand the importance of ferritin and also why you should know what a normal ferritin level” is for you.    I have been dealing with low ferritin levels since sometime in the summer of 2011.   Three years ago I had been told by a couple doctors that my ferritin levels were fine because I fell within the “normal” range.  The normal range is 12-150ng/ml for women, I did not feel “normal”. 

 Prior to learning in 2011 that I had iliac artery endfofibrosis I went to see my doctor to have some blood work done.  I could feel that something wasn’t right with my body.  In addition to the leg pain I was having a hard time getting out of bed in the morning, I just didn’t have the energy Ievel that I normally had; I knew something was wrong.  After my last Ironman in Kona 2010 I told my coach and family I was done with racing.  I suffered in that Kona race like never before. My legs were killing me the entire bike ride (aching/weak feeling) and it continued into the run.  I felt like my left leg wouldn’t move on its own, I had to throw it in front of me with the rest of my body.  I developed 4 huge, painful, bleeding blisters under my ankles, I had never in all my racing developed blisters on my feet.  

At that time I didn’t know what was going on with my arteries and I also didn’t understand how the leg/artery problem might be affecting other parts of my body. All I knew was what I was able to do in training was not matching up with what I was doing in races, and I didn’t know why.  T0 me my race in Kona was my best race ever, not because of my finish time but because of how I was able to suffer and not give up throughout that day.  I went to a level of pain in that race that I had never gone to before; way beyond what I ever thought I was capable of.  I kept pushing throughout that day as a matter of personal pride, not because of where I would finish in the race or what my finish time would be. I knew that there was something in my body physically that was failing; I was determined not to let my mind fail me as well.   My hope is that someday I will be able to mentally be in that place of pain again in a race, but with all the physical in my body firing J 

After Kona, at the end of Nov 2010, I went to my general practitioner to have some blood work done.  I was concerned that my iron levels were low because of the way I was feeling.   My iron had come back in the normal range and my ferritin was 57ng/ml again (the number was in the normal range as well).   

A month after going in to have the iron checked I was diagnosed with the vascular issue.    The vascular problem in the legs explained why it was taking so long for the blisters to heal on my feet which was another problem I had been dealing with at that time. It took about 3 months for those blisters from Kona to heal.   What it didn’t explain was why I had this feeling the something else just wasn’t right within my body. Over the next year and a half   I would go through 3 different surgeries to fix the artery problem; the first two had made the problem worse the last surgery finally worked.  After the second surgery in Sept of 2012, I still wasn’t feeling like myself.

I went back to General practitioner to have her check iron and ferritin levels again, I was convinced this was why I felt the way I did.   This time my ferritin was 30ng/ml.  It had dropped from 57ng/ml-30ng/ml.  Again I was told it was still within the “normal range”.  I did not feel “normal” for me. Everything felt difficult; it was hard to focus and get around at this point.  At this time I was also dealing with a child who was dealing with Drug and alcohol addiction. I had shared this with my doctor and she thought this was what was causing me to feel the way I did.  Yes I believed it was part of the reason but my gut was telling me it was something else too.

I started doing more research about iron and ferritin on my own.   I learned that the “normal” range for ferritin was from 12 to 150 ng/ml.  My level at that time 30 which I saw as being toward the bottom of the range, it was also about half the level I had had just a year prior. I learned that in athletes the range was usually 80-100.  It occurred to me that what might be “normal” for me might be at the higher end of the range rather than the lower end.

I decided to go see a hematologist.  After a very thorough discussion of my past medical history and another blood test he who ordered an iron infusion.  After the first infusion my ferritin went up a bit but not that much. I had another infusion and my ferritin again stayed around the same number. My doctor then ordered me to have a sleep study done.  Not knowing about the link to Ferritin and sleep at that time I didn’t understand why he was having me see a sleep doctor.  There is a link between ferritin levels and sleep disturbances. If you’re not sleeping well that will affect your ferritin levels, if your ferritin levels are low you won’t sleep well…. it’s a vicious circle. You may have restless leg syndrome or sleep apnea or something else might be causing the sleep disturbance; it’s a challenge to figure out.    In my case I think it was   the artery problem and the pain that it was causing me to not sleep very well at night.  I also had an incredible amount of family stress at that time which was a factor as well. I had been dealing with all this for so long I was use to waking up many times throughout the night. My sleep patterns at night felt normal to me.   It’s not normal to wake up 3-4 times at night and be doing leg lifts in the bed.  My gut was telling me something else was wrong in my body. 


To be continued….



Jill Fry

Jill Fry

Mother of four, grandmother, triathlete, coach. 

Working hard to be the best I can be. 

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