Enough iron is tremendously important to human life -- but too much can cause immense problems.
As you’re probably well aware, iron is very important for your body, and without sufficient amounts you can’t enjoy good health. But it’s a double-edged sword, and too much iron can cause severe health problems.
Iron serves many functions in your body, but one of the most important is to bind to the hemoglobin molecule and serve as a carrier of oxygen to your tissues. Without proper oxygenation, your cells quickly start dying.
The Importance of Diagnosing the Underlying Cause of Your Anemia
If you don’t have enough iron in your body, you end up with iron deficiency anemia. This is a common problem for two primary groups: children and menstruating women (typically between 15 and 50 years old). Anemia can also be caused by:
- Acute blood loss
- Other nutritional anemias, such as vitamin B12 or folic acid deficiencies
- Enlarged spleen
- Genetic hemolytic anemias, such as sickle cell anemia, and thalassemia (also known as Mediterranean anemia), which I have. It’s a type of genetic anemia where the hemoglobin is not well formed. As a result your red blood cells become very small, so you have a larger number of them, and a relatively low number of hemoglobin
Anemia is relatively easy to diagnose, but it’s important to diagnose the true cause of your anemia, because if you have one of these conditions and are given iron to compensate, you may actually end up getting much, much worse. It may even cause premature death, so it’s a very serious concern.
Why You Don’t Want Too Much Iron in Your Body
Iron can either heal you or harm you. If you have more iron than what your body needs to satisfy your hemoglobin requirement (for cell oxygenation), the rest becomes a surplus. And because your body has a limited capacity to excrete iron, it can build up in your body.
Processed foods that are fortified with iron and multivitamins with iron can contribute to iron overload over time, especially if you don’t have an increased need for iron like children and women who lose blood through menstruation each month.
The problem with iron is that it’s a very potent oxidant stressor, which can oxidize susceptible tissues in your body.
This oxidation causes dangerous free radicals to form, which can cause significant damage in your cells and increase your risk of heart disease by damaging the inner lining of your blood vessels. It can also lead to diseases like cancer, and can damage your DNA.
Ferritin Screen – One of Your Most Important Health Tests
Checking for iron overload is done through 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, you are iron deficient, and above 80, you have an iron surplus. Ferritin levels can go really high. I’ve seen levels over 1,000, but anything over 80 is likely going to be a problem. The ideal range is 40-60 ng/ml.
As a real-life example of what high iron levels can do to your health, when I first learned about this many years ago, I tested myself and my entire family and my dad had very high ferritin levels – about 500. It caused damage in his pancreas and he developed type 1 diabetes.
Fortunately, we found out early enough to reverse some of the damage. His diabetes was also controlled to a point over a number of years, so he requires only intermittent uses of low dose insulin now.
High ferritin/iron levels are also one of the primary factors I’ve seen in many cases of liver disease, especially hepatitis C. Many patients presenting hepatitis C symptoms improved dramatically once their ferritin levels were lowered.
What Can You Do if Your Iron Levels Are Too High?
Fortunately, the solution to lower your iron level is relatively simple. Just donate your blood!
Most of us can do that, but if you’ve had illness in the past that prevents you from doing so, your physician can write a prescription for therapeutic phlebotomy.
However, rather than removing a pint of blood, you may be better off removing only eight ounces. One pint is a significant percentage of your blood volume so you may be tired and fatigued for a number of days. Many feel better by removing eight ounces more frequently.
Normally, a person would require one to three blood draws per year, up to as many as one per month if your system can tolerate it, until your ferritin levels have been sufficiently lowered.
Beware of Toxic Iron Supplements
For those of you struggling with the opposite issue -- iron deficiency anemia -- the best source of iron is high-quality red meat, preferably grass-fed, organic. If that’s not available, or you simply prefer not to eat red meat, you can take an iron supplement instead.
But a strong word of caution is in order. Ferrous sulfate, a form of iron found in many multivitamins, including children’s multivitamins, is a relatively toxic, inorganic metal that can lead to significant problems. The biggest danger is acute overdose, which can be lethal.
This has been known to happen when a child gets into a bottle of children’s chewable vitamins and munches them down like a tasty snack. A safe form of supplement is carbonyl iron. To the best of our knowledge, there’s never been a reported overdose of carbonyl iron. However you should still keep iron supplements away from children. Remember, you should not take iron supplements, including carbonyl iron, if you have:
- Hemachromatosis (iron overload)
- Hemolytic anemia (as I described in the beginning)
Knowledge Is Power
It’s important to know about iron deficiency and iron overload as many physicians are ignorant about this fact, or simply don’t apply their knowledge by recommending regular ferritin testing.
You can easily share this article by clicking the “Email this article to a friend” button at the top of the page, and I highly recommend you send it on to your friends and family.
Remember, this is one test that is essential to nearly everyone. Your iron levels can have a major impact on your health, whether they’re too high or too low, so it’s really important to check and keep track of your levels over time. And, fortunately, that’s really quite easy and relatively inexpensive to do.