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Most Men Have Iron Levels That Are Killing Them -- Here's the Solution

December 15, 2004 | 66,508 views
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By Dr. Joseph Mercola

(This article can literally save the lives of many men, so please be sure to e-mail it to the men in your lives, so they could benefit from this critical information.)

If I had known what I am about to share with you when I first started my medical training my dad would not have type 1 diabetes. When I was in medical school I was never taught that elevated iron levels can kill you and it wasn't until three years ago that I learned about this.

However, it was too late for my dad. He developed raging, uncontrolled diabetes with blood sugar levels in the 300s that did not respond even to my dietary program. He needed to be placed on insulin as his very high iron levels had destroyed his pancreas' natural ability to make insulin.

Aside from type 1 diabetes, it is far more common for high iron levels to cause cancer and heart attacks, so please, please, please make sure you read this article and share it with the men you love. Save them the grief my dad now has to endure.

For the last few years, I have been checking the iron levels of all the patients that come to see me. It has become quite obvious that nearly half of the men I see have excessive amounts of iron and would benefit from donating their blood at least one to six times per year, depending on their iron overload status.

If you are a man, donating your blood can actually do you more good than anyone else who might receive it. And since nearly all adult men carry excess iron, I believe most all men would benefit from regularly donating their blood.

However, this is not necessarily the case for women. Women who still menstruate have lower iron levels, which is most likely due to the iron lost during their monthly periods. Interestingly, women who have low iron levels are less susceptible to developing heart disease.

The Path of Excess Iron

Iron is nature's rusting agent. Having an excessive level of iron in your body is one of the most potent ways that your body oxidizes, or prematurely ages. Oxidation is what happens to most metals that are exposed, unprotected, to the elements. For example, when you leave metal lawn furniture outside for the summer and the paint is damaged, the metal will rust. This process is called oxidation (and yes, oxidation is also responsible for those unsightly rust spots that can appear on your car.)

Yet, oxygen has an amazing duality. Without the proper levels, we can't sustain life, but with too much oxygen aging is accelerated. This results in a constant tension as our bodies deal with too much or too little oxygen, and struggle to regain balance with the correct amount needed to optimize our health.

Most men have a problem with too much iron because it is not readily excreted through the body's usual methods of elimination such as urine, bile and sweat. It is important to understand the two primary ways men lose iron:

  • Shedding of cells from the skin or gastrointestinal tract
  • Chronic or sudden blood loss

Further Complications From the Food Supply

Unfortunately, the United States began fortifying the food supply with iron in the 1940s to compensate for the increased need that children and menstruating women have for iron. However, Sweden recognized that iron fortification of their food supply was not wise and stopped this practice in 1995. Similarly, they also stopped fluoridating their water supply and stopped using mercury amalgam fillings.

In addition to the problem of accumulating too much iron from our environment, many of us have a genetic predisposition to absorbing too much iron. This condition is called either hemochromatosis or hemosiderosis.

What is Iron Overload (Hemochromatosis or Hemosiderosis)?

Iron overload (genetic hemochromatosis) is one of the most frequent inborn errors of metabolism. This disorder causes an excessive body accumulation of iron. It is believed to affect one out of every 400 individuals of European ancestry. Since your body is limited in the number of ways it can eliminate this excess iron, if you have hemochromatosis or hemosiderosis, the iron eventually begins to accumulate over time in vital organs of your body such as your liver, bone marrow, pancreas, skin and testicles. The result of this dangerous accumulation is the poor functioning of these organs.

Who is at Risk?

There are no warning symptoms of this disorder in the early stages. Because of this, most people are unaware they have this condition and only find out through a routine blood test of iron levels. In some cases with males, symptoms may not surface until they reach 40-50 years of age. Females, on the other hand, who lose iron through their menstrual cycle, are more prone to iron accumulation after they reach menopause, or 15 to 20 years later than men on average.

Negative Impact of Iron Accumulation

  • Iron is the ultimate anti-antioxidant. (No, this is not a typo!) Excess iron produces the exact opposite effect of antioxidants like vitamin C and vitamin E. Also, it will cause the formation of free radicals that can seriously damage your body.

  • Increases your risk of atherosclerosis and heart disease.

  • Increases your risk of cancer -- Most of us, including many physicians, are absolutely unaware that iron is essential for cancer cells to grow.

  • Excess iron can destroy the cells that produce insulin in your pancreas and cause diabetes. While this may seem uncommon, it did happen to my father.

  • Contributes to Alzheimer's disease -- Excess iron accumulation in the brain is a consistent observation in Alzheimer's disease.

  • Increases the risk of inflammatory bowel disease and colon cancer.

Since heart disease is currently the most common cause of death in the United States, it is important to understand why excess iron contributes to it. The following provides you with some compelling evidence related to the potential role of iron in atherosclerosis (the build-up of plaques in the arteries):

  • The role of iron in oxidizing low-density lipoprotein (LDL).

  • Iron chelators prevent endothelial cell damage by oxidized LDL.

  • The ability of iron to cause endothelial cell damage.

  • Iron chelators prevent endothelial cell dysfunction and vascular smooth muscle proliferation.

Diagnosing Iron Overload

The routine screening for iron overload involves testing the iron and ferritin levels in the blood. Ferritin, a blood protein, acts as an effective measuring tool of the amount of iron being stored in the body. This test should be done in the fasting state, as more than 50 percent of people will have transiently elevated serum iron levels after eating.

Since potentially serious complications could be treated with the early detection of iron overload, it's very critical to catch this condition in the early stages. Because it is not a common practice to check iron levels during routine checkups, many cases of iron overload are often overlooked.

Causes of Iron Overload

One of the most common causes of excess iron is the regular consumption of alcohol. Alcohol consumed on a regular basis will increase the absorption of any iron in your diet. If you are a man who consumes alcohol, rest assured that it will increase your ability to absorb iron at your meals.

That said, if you are a man who likes to have some wine with your steak, you will be absorbing more iron than you need.

(There has been some confusion about consuming alcohol as a way to protect against heart disease. Please keep in mind that this effect is related to wine drinking, and the benefit is likely related to the polyphenolic bioflavanoids in the grape seeds and skins, not the alcohol itself. The alcohol content could actually worsen one's health and contribute to the disruption of optimal levels of hormones.)

Other causes of high iron levels would be:

  • Cooking in iron pots or pans. Cooking acidic foods in these types of pots or pans will cause even higher levels of iron absorption.

  • Eating processed food products like cereals and white breads that are "fortified' with iron. The iron they use in these products is inorganic iron not much different than rust and it is far more dangerous than the iron in meat.

  • Drinking well water that is high in iron. The key here is to make sure you have some type of iron precipitator and/or a reverse osmosis water filter.

  • Taking multiple vitamins and mineral supplements, as both of these frequently have iron in them.

Treatment Options

A preferred treatment among the conventional medical community is reducing blood iron by donating your blood. Some people will not be able to donate their blood for a variety of different reasons. For those individuals, they can remove their blood by getting a prescription for therapeutic phlebotomy (withdrawal of blood from arm veins). These treatments continue until the person normalizes their iron levels. Serum ferritin is the most effective measure of storage iron and this number needs to be reduced, ideally, to between 50 and 100.

Donating your blood is an amazingly effective and inexpensive solution for this problem. If, for some reason, the blood donor center is unable to accept your blood for donation you can obtain a prescription for therapeutic phlebotomy.

If your levels are too high -- above 100 -- it is very important that you donate your blood. Below is a table indicating how often I recommend donating your blood based on your iron ferritin level.

Ferritin Level  
<100 Not necessary
100-125 1 -2 times per year
150-200 2-3 times per year
200-250 3-4 times per year
>250 Every two months if possible

Again, please take the time to forward this article on to male friends and family. As I've said, this problem is largely ignored and a bit of awareness could ultimately save a life.

Related Articles:

How to Diagnose Iron Overload

Extra Iron Proven to Cause Diabetes

Most People Get Too Much Not Too Little Iron

High Iron & Manganese Linked to Parkinson's

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