By Dr. Mercola
It seems like everywhere you look on food shelves today, from the baby food aisle to the dairy case, just about everything is fortified with iron.
But is that really a good thing?
When most people think about dietary iron, they wonder if they're getting enough. This is an important consideration, but research shows you're more likely to have too much iron than not enough – and this can pose serious risks to your health.
Excess Iron Far More Common Than Iron Deficiency
Iron is essential for virtually every life form, including humans, where it is a key part of various proteins and enzymes, involved in the transport of oxygen and the regulation of cell growth and differentiation, among many other uses.
One of the most important roles of iron is to provide hemoglobin (the protein in red blood cells) a mechanism through which it can bind to oxygen and carry it throughout your tissues, as without proper oxygenation your cells quickly start dying.
If you have too little iron, you may experience fatigue, decreased immunity or iron-deficiency anemia, which can be serious if left untreated.
However, if you have more iron than your body needs to satisfy your hemoglobin requirement (for cell oxygenation), the excess becomes a dangerous surplus. This is an issue that deserves attention, as research examining iron levels in Americans shows that more people have iron levels that are considered too high, than levels that are deficient. In one study of more than 1,000 people, only 3 percent were iron deficient, but 13 percent had iron overload.1
What are the Health Risks of Too Much Iron?
Your body has a limited capacity to excrete iron, which means it can easily build up in organs like your liver, heart and pancreas. This is dangerous because iron is a potent oxidizer and can damage your body tissues contributing to serious health issues, including:
- Liver cancer
- Cardiac arrhythmias
- Alzheimer's disease
- Bacterial and viral infections
Regarding Alzheimer's, high iron levels in your blood can lead to the production of free radicals that can damage neurons in your brain. It's also believed that iron accumulates at high levels, and is extremely reactive, in the beta-amyloid plaques found in the brains of Alzheimer's patients.
Iron is also known to accumulate specifically in brain regions associated with memory and thought processes, which are gradually lost as Alzheimer's progresses. Research has shown that reducing excess iron in your brain can alleviate Alzheimer's-like symptoms in mice,2 while measuring brain iron has been suggested as a way to detect Alzheimer's disease in its early stages.3
How Iron Levels and a Faulty Gene Can Cause Bowel Cancer
Cancer researchers have also found new evidence that bowel cancers are two to three times more likely to develop when dietary iron is too high in your body.4 The research was done with mice, but the study's authors said it can potentially help them find effective ways of reducing the odds of developing bowel cancer in those who are at high risk.
The role of the APC gene is this: when it's faulty or deleted, two proteins that trigger iron build-up in bowel cells get switched on. As the iron builds up, it activates a cell-to-cell signaling pathway that malfunctions in cancer called Wnt, which stimulates cancer cells grow uncontrollably. Dr. Julie Sharp, senior science information manager at Cancer Research UK said:5
"Finding ways of 'mopping up' the iron that is in the bowel could have a real impact on the number of people who develop the disease."
In the featured study, mice with a faulty APC gene that were fed a high-iron diet had a significantly greater risk of developing bowel cancer compared to mice with a working APC gene. Mice with a faulty APC fed a low-iron diet did not have an increased risk.
Who is at Risk of Iron Excess?
One of the best ways you can get rid of excess iron is by bleeding. As a result, most premenopausal women who are menstruating regularly rarely suffer from iron overload. However, most adult men and postmenopausal women tend to be at a high risk for iron overload and all of its toxicity, as they don't have this monthly blood loss.
Some people also have a genetic predisposition to absorbing too much iron, which is called either hemochromatosis or hemosiderosis. Interestingly, 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. For instance, if you drink some wine with your steak, you will likely be absorbing more iron than you need. Other potential causes of high iron levels include:
- 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.
Fortunately, checking your iron levels is easy and can be done with a simple blood test called a serum ferritin test. I believe this is one of the most important tests that everyone should have done on a regular basis as part of a preventive, proactive health screen. The test measures the carrier molecule of iron, a protein found inside cells called ferritin, which stores the iron. If your ferritin levels are low it means your iron levels are also low.
The healthy range of serum ferritin lies between 20 and 80 ng/ml. Below 20 is a strong indicator that you are iron deficient, and above 80 suggests you have an iron surplus. The ideal range is between 40-60 ng/ml. The higher the number over 100 the worse the iron overload, with levels over 300 being particularly toxic and will eventually cause serious damage in nearly everyone that sustains those levels long term.
Tips for Getting Rid of Excess Iron
If your iron levels turn out to be high, what can you do?
Some people advise using iron chelators like phytic acid or IP6, but I don't think that is a wise approach, as donating your blood is a far safer, more effective and inexpensive approach for this problem. If, for some reason, a blood donor center is unable to accept your blood for donation you can obtain a prescription for therapeutic phlebotomy. At the same time, you will want to be sure to avoid consuming excess iron in the form of supplements, in your drinking water (well water), from iron cookware, or in fortified processed foods.
- Certain phenolic-rich herbs and spices, such as green tea and rosemary,5 can reduce iron absorption6
- Curcumin actually acts as an iron chelator, and in mice studies, diets supplemented with this spice extract exhibited a decline in levels of ferritin in the liver7
- Astaxanthin, which has been researched to have over 100 potential health benefits, has been shown to reduce iron-induced oxidative damage8