Iron is an important mineral in the diet for cell growth, oxygen transport, DNA synthesis and for overall good health. When iron levels are low the result can be anemia that causes fatigue, shortness of breath, irritability, weight loss, dizziness and headaches. But too much iron in the system can become toxic and cause a myriad of health problems.
What is Iron Overload?
Iron in the body is stored mainly in hemoglobin in red blood cells. Iron is also stored in myoglobin, the protein that supplies oxygen to muscles, and also in enzymes in the body. Some iron is stored in proteins to be used for future needs. Around the age of 18, excess iron begins to accumulate at about 1 milligram per day. Excess iron in the bloodstream is called unbound iron, or free iron. This free iron can build up in the body for years and can become the instigator of health problems as people age. Premature aging, cancer, osteoporosis, arthritis, diabetes, liver damage, heart disease and brain disorders are just some of the diseases that can be accelerated by iron overload in the body.
When inflammation occurs in the body, free iron accumulates there and causes uncontrolled oxidation which accelerates the inflammation. Even though the body has natural defenses against the free iron there are many instances where the defenses do not control the iron properly. As in the case of heart disease, researchers have found that increased iron stimulates free radicals in the body which are associated with chronic diseases. Iron also contributes to affecting LDL (bad) cholesterol and changing it to be more damaging to coronary arteries. Researchers are now finding more and more incidences where too much iron accelerates many diseases.
People at Risk of Iron Overload
For growing children and women in their childbearing years, a build-up of iron in the body isn’t usually a problem. Children need iron for cell growth, and menstruating women lose iron monthly. Those who are at a greater risk are older males and women who are postmenopausal. Unless excess iron is released from the body it continues to accumulate and eventually causes problems.
In the past it was thought that only a select few people had to be concerned with iron overload in their body. These people had a genetic disease called hemochromatosis. People with hemochromatosis absorb iron more efficiently than other people and are at risk of organ damage such as heart failure or cirrhosis of the liver. People who have hemochromatosis must eat a diet low in iron and in severe cases have blood removed from their body weekly or monthly depending upon the severity. However, it has been found that people who do not have hemochromatosis are just as likely to experience iron overload as they age. Men over age 40 and women around age 70 have just as great a risk of suffering from diseases due to iron overload in their system.
Recognizing Iron Overload
The symptoms of iron overload and anemia are very hard to differentiate between. Because of this, many times iron overload goes undiagnosed until it does major damage to the body. Symptoms of iron overload are gastric pain, hair loss, irregular heart beat, joint pain, frequent infections, fatigue, skin discoloration, and elevated liver enzymes. If iron overload or anemia is suspected, a doctor should do a blood test before treatment. People should never take an iron supplement unless it is recommended by a doctor after a blood test has occurred. Serious consequences can occur if iron overload is mistaken for anemia and the person consumes more iron.
Controlling Iron Intake
Males over the age of 18 or females who are postmenopausal should be aware of how much iron they consume in their diet. The body absorbs iron from foods differently depending upon the food source. Some foods accelerate absorption while other foods can inhibit iron absorbance.
Iron from meat absorbs the easiest while iron from plant foods absorbs less. Taking vitamin C can actually increase the absorbance of iron as well as spices such as caraway, cumin, mint, licorice and anise. Orange juice can also increase iron absorbance because of the quantities of vitamin C in it. On the other hand, dairy products such as milk and eggs can decrease the absorption of iron as well as soy, coffee and antacids. Males who consume large amounts of alcohol are more likely to experience iron overload than those who drink moderately.
There are a few ways to decrease the iron in the system. People who take a baby aspirin every day to prevent heart disease are at a lower risk of iron overload because the aspirin causes blood loss through the digestive tract. Exercising regularly can also lower iron because people lose about 1 milligram of iron when they sweat. Limiting meat in the diet or eating a vegetarian diet can greatly limit the amount of iron in the system. The danger with that is a person can quickly go from iron overload to anemia in a matter of months. Those trying to limit iron should have their blood checked on a regular basis.
Iron overload is greatly over-looked by physicians and sometimes diagnosed as anemia by mistake so people should always have blood tests before they are treated for either problem. Iron supplements should never be taken unless advised by a doctor. The good news is by eating a balanced diet and getting enough exercise, people should be able to keep the iron in their system regulated in their aging years.
Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet "Iron"