By: Dr. Eric Lewis, ND
One of the primary causes of high iron levels in men is due to the genetic condition Hemochromatosis. Also known as Iron Overload, this hereditary disorder causes too much iron to be absorbed during digestion. Over time, iron levels can build up in the body and result in the development of symptoms and complications with health.
When it comes to Hemochromatosis, there is a stereotype that too much iron in the blood is a symptom that is primarily seen in men. And while this presumption ignores how many women are affected by iron overload, there are quite a number of symptoms of iron overload unique to men.
Hemochromatosis Symptoms in Men
The most common symptoms men experience when they have high iron are:
- Joint pains
- Weight loss
- Stomach pains
Middle age is the most common time of diagnosis for men with hereditary hemochromatosis or iron overload.
Learn more about the most common Hemochromatosis Symptoms.
The problem is that often those non-specific hemochromatosis symptoms in men are blamed on something else. Because hemochromatosis isn’t often discovered until middle age (or at least the symptoms don’t begin until that time…it may be, unfortunately, discovered even later), men are sometimes just told, “You’re just getting older” and perhaps given a painkiller or an anti-depressant or even testosterone replacement therapy and sent on their way.
Even worse (and guys, you know we do this), men with high iron might not ever seek medical care. We often just try to “tough it out” and ignore those aches and pains and tiredness that we didn’t have when we were younger.
So many times a man with hemochromatosis either doesn’t get the proper diagnosis from his doctor or doesn’t seek medical attention in the first place… and all the while, he is starting to experience the symptoms of too much iron in the blood.
Side Effects of Too Much Iron in Men
Over the years, hemochromatosis progresses and the iron overload works its way into the organs—the liver, the heart, the pancreas—and then men present to their doctor with liver disease, or heart disease, or diabetes. The iron has done its damage, and sometimes the damage is irreparable if it’s found too late. Worst of all, the doctor may then say “You’re getting older, you now have diabetes/liver disease/heart disease” and never think to dig further to find an underlying cause to all these conditions—hemochromatosis.
What are Normal Iron Levels for Men?
Without hemochromatosis, normal iron levels for men total roughly four to five grams in the body. However, in iron overload, a man may not have any symptoms until he has stored twenty grams– a major difference! Awareness and early diagnosis is therefore essential to help men find out if they are, in fact, at risk of having too much iron in their bodies.
Doctors will often check a patient’s ferritin level to determine their overall iron burden. In men, normal ferritin levels range from 20 to 300 ng/mL. As iron builds up in a man’s body over time, his ferritin level also rises. The higher the level of ferritin gets, the more doctors become concerned for the long term consequences of iron overload developing. For instance, if ferritin exceeds 1,000 ng/mL the risk of liver damage increases significantly.
Men vs Women with Hemochromatosis
A 1997 study comparing men and women with hemochromatosis showed that men are more likely than women to have the common related conditions of diabetes or liver disease show up before their iron is ever tested and hemochromatosis is discovered. In this study, 25% of the men had developed cirrhosis (permanent damage to their livers) and 16% had diabetes.
Hemochromatosis and Bone Loss in Men
Most people, doctors included, forget that men can get osteoporosis, or loss of bone mineral density. It’s usually thought of as a women’s condition.
However, not only can men get osteoporosis, but men with genetic hemochromatosis are significantly at risk for developing bone loss!
A 2005 study looked at 38 men with hereditary hemochromatosis, with an average age of 47 years old. All of these men had two copies of the HFE gene and they also had otherwise normal markers for things that impact bone loss (like normal Vitamin D and normal parathyroid hormone levels). The study found that 78.9% of these men had Osteopenia (or “pre-Osteoporosis”) and 34.2% had full blown Osteoporosis!
That’s a high percentage of men with bone loss! If you’re a man with iron overload, be sure to ask your doctor to test your bone mineral density. And yes, they may think you’re a bit strange, as often men are not routinely tested, but if it helps, you can take them a copy of this study published in Osteoporosis Int. to back up your request.
Iron Overload and Sexual Dysfunction in Men
A common symptom seen in men with iron overload is a loss of libido, shrinkage of testicles, and erectile dysfunction and impotence. While not as dangerous as cirrhosis or heart disease, these are nonetheless very distressing symptoms for men and something that really impacts quality of life. Some sources say that up to 45% of men with symptomatic hemochromatosis have impotence.
Why does too much iron affect the sex drive and sexual function in men? The most common reason is that the pituitary gland (an important regulator of hormones found in the middle of your skull) suffers the same fate as other organs—it becomes overloaded with iron. The excess iron of hemochromatosis causes the male sex hormones to not operate correctly—leading to hypogonadism, reduction of testosterone, and all those problems that men would rather not have.
Learn more about Hemochromatosis Treatment options.
- Ann Intern Med. 1997;127(2):105-110. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-127-2-199707150-00002
- Osteoporos Int. 2005 Dec;16(12):1809-14. Epub 2005 Jun 1.
- http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15928800: Osteoporos Int. 2005 Dec;16(12):1809-14. Epub 2005 Jun 1. Bone mineral density in men with genetic hemochromatosis and HFE gene mutation.