Too Much Iron

Today’s blog is about iron overload. This topic is especially relevant after a news report on the Iowa Women’s Health Study, which showed that multivitamins increased the risk of death.  The Study revealed that it was likely the amount of copper and iron that increased the risk of death. Iron was found to be especially toxic in a dose dependent manner. In other words, the more iron that was supplemented, the higher the risk of death. The average age of women in this study was 60 years.  These women were post-menopausal and should not have been taking iron.

Heavy metal toxicity has long been recognized for mercury, lead and arsenic, but iron toxicity was thought to only occur in those with a genetic condition called hemochromatosis.  New research is suggesting that iron overload is actually very common in the average person.

High iron levels accelerate degeneration of the body. Excessive iron has been linked to diabetes, liver and colon cancer, neurodegenerative disorders including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, heart attack, kidney damage and joint damage. Free, unbound iron causes “rusting” or oxidation of the tissues. High iron levels also feed bacteria which can result in frequent or more severe infections. Researchers at UCLA found that in healthy older adults, those with the highest accumulations of iron in the brain had the poorest performance on memory and information processing.

The body’s defense against high iron is to trap it in cages called “ferritin”. We see ferritin levels rise as iron is accumulating in the body’s tissues. In states of chronic inflammation and infection, we also see the ferritin levels rise as a protective mechanism. Ferritin levels are not routinely measured, but in light of new research on iron accumulation, you should start requesting this test routinely from your doctor.

Women have been thought to be protected from a lifetime of excessive iron build up since menstruation helps to decrease iron levels. But researchers have found that women who have undergone hysterectomies had higher iron levels in the brain than women who went through menopause naturally. The levels of iron build up in the brain in women with hysterectomies matched the levels found in men. The newer generation of birth control pills that only allow four menstrual periods per year may pose a risk for iron build up in young women starting at a younger age.

These are some suggestions for protecting yourself against high iron levels (note if you have low iron or anemia you have low iron, the opposite problem):

  • Have an iron assessment by a clinical nutritionist or registered dietitian trained in functional medicine. We use tighter reference ranges than doctors. For instance, we like ferritin levels to be around 100 ng/mL. Current medical reference ranges consider ferritin levels as high as 400 ng/mL to be normal.
  • Do not cook in cast iron if you have high iron levels. However, cast iron is great for low iron levels.
  • For men, post-menopausal women or women who only have several periods a year, make sure your multivitamin does not contain iron (unless you are anemic).
  • Alternate different forms of protein. Eat less red meat and more fish, poultry, and vegetarian sources of protein.
  • Limit alcohol as it increases the absorption of iron. Red wine is a good source of iron. In fact, it is the largest source of iron in the Italian diet. Steak dinners with red wine should be saved for special occasions.
  • Drink green tea after meals—it decreases the absorption of iron by 70%.
  • Talk to your doctor about giving blood regularly if your iron levels run on the high normal side. This not only helps people in need but will keep you healthier over the long run.
  • If your iron stores are on the high normal side, there are numerous foods and supplements that clinical nutritionists can use to help you naturally “chelate” iron out of the body. There are also changes in diet that can be made to ensure that iron stays in the“bound” form instead of “free” form, helping to prevent oxidative damage or “rusting” of the body.