Hepcidin is a hormone that regulates how your body uses iron. It controls how much iron is available for essential body functions, like making hemoglobin and red blood cells. It also limits the amount of available iron for your body to use so your cells don’t experience iron overload. Excessive iron in your body is toxic.
Hepcidin is a hormone that controls how your body uses iron, an important mineral your body needs. Iron is an essential building block of a protein called hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the most important component of your red blood cells. Hemoglobin binds to oxygen, enabling your red blood cells to transport oxygen to tissues and organs throughout your body.
Iron is also a building block of myoglobin, a protein that provides oxygen to your muscles and heart.
Hepcidin is sometimes called the “master iron regulator” because it controls how much iron is available for your cells to perform essential processes, like making hemoglobin and red blood cells. Too little iron can lead to conditions like iron-deficiency anemia, where your body doesn’t make enough red blood cells. Too much iron can be toxic (poisonous) and even life-threatening.
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Hepcidin gets made in your liver and secreted into your bloodstream.
As your body’s “master iron regulator,” hepcidin maintains iron homeostasis (balance) by helping control how your body uses its iron supply. You get iron from your diet, from foods like meat, nuts, green vegetables, etc. Unlike with most minerals, your body doesn’t have a standard process for removing unused iron. For example, your body eliminates excess sodium when you pee. In contrast, you lose small amounts of iron incidentally through blood loss and cell shedding.
Instead, your body stores iron until it’s needed. You have iron stores in your bone marrow, spleen and liver. About 70% of your body’s iron is in the hemoglobin that powers your red blood cells.
Hepcidin plays a crucial role in processes that allow your body to store iron, relocate it and reuse it. It regulates your iron so that your body’s cells have iron when needed, but not so much that you experience iron overload.
Hepcidin plays a role in:
Hepcidin doesn’t regulate iron absorption by setting processes into motion. Instead, it prevents the processes that allow your body to absorb iron. Hepcidin acts on a protein called ferroportin. Ferroportin is your body’s iron exporter. Its job is to release iron from storage (from macrophages, hepatocytes and enterocytes) and move iron among your body’s cells. Ferroportin transports iron from your small intestine to your bloodstream so your body can use it.
Hepcidin binds to ferroportin, causing it to break down. When this happens, the iron that ferroportin would’ve moved to your bloodstream remains in storage.
Think of it this way:
Your hepcidin levels depend on the signals your body sends. Various factors prompt your body to make more or less hepcidin.
Factors that control hepcidin levels in your body include:
Too much hepcidin can lead to problems like iron deficiency, where your body doesn’t absorb enough iron. Too little hepcidin can cause iron overload, where your body absorbs too much.
Conditions associated with low hepcidin levels include:
High hepcidin levels are associated with non-iron deficiency anemia. Non-iron deficiency anemia is a genetic condition that results in too much hepcidin. Anemias of inflammation, or anemia of chronic disease (ACD), also cause high hepcidin levels. With ACD, inflammation causes your body to release a protein called cytokine. This protein increases your hepcidin levels.
Conditions associated with ACD include:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Hepcidin plays an essential role in regulating how your body uses iron. By preventing iron export, hepcidin controls your body’s ability to make hemoglobin and red blood cells. In doing so, hepcidin plays an indirect role in determining the availability of oxygen throughout your entire body. Hepcidin prevents your body from absorbing too much iron. Too much iron can cause serious long-term complications.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 07/28/2022.
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