Transferrin is a protein that binds iron and transports it to where it’s needed. When there is enough transferrin, your body can effectively use the iron you get from the diet. Iron availability dictates transferrin production, but transferrin levels are also influenced by inflammation, liver, and kidney disease. Keep reading to learn more about high and low transferrin levels and ways to improve them.
What is Transferrin?
Transferrin is a protein that binds iron and transports it throughout the body. It is the main iron carrier in the blood. When you have enough transferrin, your body can effectively use the iron you get from your diet [R, R].
Transferrin levels increase with iron deficiency. When iron is low, your body will try to compensate by making more transferrin to increase the availability of iron [R]. On the other hand, transferrin will decrease with iron overload [R, R].
This protein is produced in the liver, so its levels are also associated with your liver health and inflammation in general. Transferrin is a negative acute phase protein. This means that with inflammation and as liver increases the production of inflammation-associated proteins (e.g. CRP, ferritin) it decreases the production of transferrin [R, R].
Transferrin levels can be measured directly with a blood test. Alternatively, they can also be measured indirectly using total iron binding capacity (TIBC).
In healthy people, transferrin levels will normally be between 200 – 370 mg/dL (milligrams per deciliter).
High Transferrin Levels
Causes of High Transferrin Levels
1) Iron Deficiency
2) Birth Control Pills
In a study of 117 women, the women who took birth control pills (oral contraceptives) for at least 2 years had higher transferrin levels than the women who never took them [R].
Ways to Decrease Transferrin Levels
Increase Iron In Your Diet
Eating a diet high in iron can help prevent iron deficiency. Foods that contain a lot of iron include red meat, poultry, and fish [R].
Low Transferrin Levels
Causes of Low Transferrin Levels
1) Iron Overload
To produce protein, the liver needs resources. It needs amino acids that you obtain as dietary protein. When there’s a lack of protein in the diet, your liver can’t produce transferrin effectively [R].
As mentioned above, transferrin is a negative acute phase protein. When the liver increases the production of inflammation-associated proteins (e.g. CRP, ferritin) it decreases the production of transferrin [R, R]. A number of conditions such as infection and cancer can decrease transferrin levels [R].
In an observational study of 297 people, patients with active inflammatory bowel disease (IBD: both Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis) had significantly lower transferrin levels. Increased IBD activity and inflammation severity were associated with lower transferrin levels [R].
Similarly, a study compared 20 patients with chronic periodontitis (gum inflammation) and 20 healthy people. It found that those with chronic gum inflammation had lower transferrin levels. Three months after the inflammation was treated blood transferrin levels increased back to the levels seen in healthy subjects [R].
4) Liver Disease
In liver disease, the liver can’t produce transferrin effectively [R].
This can be caused by impaired liver function, inflammation, or alcohol consumption [R].
5) Kidney Disorders
Nephrotic syndrome is a kidney disorder that causes the body to excrete too much protein in the urine. Transferrin is one of the proteins that gets excreted. That’s why nephrotic syndrome patients may have significant transferrin loss [R, R].
Ways to Increase Transferrin Levels
Address Potential Iron Overload
To increase transferrin, you should make sure that you do not have high iron levels.
If your transferrin is low due to iron overload:
- Avoid foods that are high in iron, such as red meat, fish, and poultry [R].
- Eat more foods that reduce iron absorption such as fiber and phytic acid (from whole grains) and chili [R, R, R]
- Drink more coffee, cocoa, green tea and herbal teas, such as chamomile, lime flower, pennyflower, mint, and vervain – all of these decrease iron absorption [R, R, R, R, R, R]
The following supplements may also help reduce iron absorption:
Eat a Well Balanced Diet
Address Any Potential Inflammation
If inflammation is the underlying cause of your low transferrin, it’s important that you work with your doctor on resolving the cause.