Health Benefits of Iron

Dr. Eric Lewis, ND

I feel it is important to learn all about the health benefits of iron and about iron metabolism, even in a website dedicated to Hemochromatosis, or iron overload.

Simply stated, the two primary health benefits of iron are to:

  1. Deliver Oxygen and Nutrients to the Cells
  2. Assist the Energy Generating Process of the Cells

As you can see, iron metabolism is critical to good health!

Yet because our main theme is the iron disorder Hemochromatosis, the larger question is:

How do we properly absorb, store, and use this critical, but potentially toxic, nutrient?

Hemoglobin

Typically, with proper iron metabolism, a person has approximately 4 to 5 grams of iron in their bodies.  This amount counts both the iron that is in active use, as well as the iron that is stored away for future needs.

Over half of all iron in the body (roughly 2.5 grams) is present in our bloodstream bound to a protein called hemoglobin that is contained within our Red Blood Cells (RBCs).

Hemoglobin assists with the vital function of oxygen and nutrient delivery to the cells and tissues.

Demonstrating how dynamic (and how thrifty) our metabolism is, the iron contained within hemoglobin gets recycled at the end of a red blood cell’s life cycle.  That very same iron molecule becomes incorporated in a newly formed RBC.

That’s pretty cool.

One thing is certain, though… our bodies are very stingy about holding onto iron– a point illustrated by the reality that we have no major mechanism for excreting iron.

If you have iron overload from hemochromatosis, that’s not cool.

Ferritin Levels

Approximately 2 grams of iron is bound to the protein ferritin.  Following hemoglobin, ferritin levels constitute the second highest amount of iron storage.

Ferritin assists with the vital function of energy generating process of the cells and tissues.

One of the health benefits of iron is directly tied to its ability to help the body’s cells make energy.  As anyone with iron deficiency anemia will tell you, fatigue is a major result from too little iron.

Ironically, one of the most common Hemochromatosis Symptoms is fatigue.  Too much iron disrupts the energy generating process of the cells as does iron deficiency… just by a different mechanism.

While all cells contain ferritin-iron complexes, the vast majority is present within the liver, spleen, and bone marrow.

I often discuss “stored iron” in the body, so it is important to know that the majority of ferritin storage is located in the liver.  As a result, in hemochromatosis, the liver is the internal organ most at risk of damage.

Ferritin plays a very important role in our body, and it is also a good way to measure the total body burden of iron.  As a result, ferritin levels are an essential part of Hemochromatosis Lab Tests.

Hemoglobin and Ferritin

Overall, hemoglobin and ferritin are the largest iron-binding proteins in the body… by far.  Therefore, our emphasis will be upon these two iron proteins.

Providing the health benefits of iron, hemoglobin plays a major role in transporting iron through the bloodstream, and ferritin plays a major role in the intracellular storage of iron.

Think of it this way:

  • Hemoglobin –> Iron Storage in the Bloodstream
  • Ferritin –> Iron Storage in the Cells

The remainder of iron-binding proteins play crucial metabolic roles in the body, even though the amounts of iron stored in these proteins is significantly less than in hemoglobin and ferritin:

  • Myoglobin
  • Transferrin
  • Cytochromes

Bound Iron vs. Free Iron

It is important to distinguish the bound iron stored within hemoglobin, ferritin, myoglobin, transferrin, and the cytochromes from the free iron in the bloodstream, cells, tissues, or organs.

Essentially, iron-binding proteins contain iron so that it cannot chemically react or have a biologic function with the body.

Free iron, on the other hand, is fully capable of chemically reacting.  In excess, free iron is a “pro-oxidant” toxin.

Due to the iron overload of hemochromatosis, it is like we have too much iron compared to iron-binding proteins.

Up to a point, an excess of iron can be contained without major consequence to our health.

If we identify the problem of Hereditary Hemochromatosis soon enough in an individual, we have a better shot of protecting our health.

At a certain threshold, however, iron overload begins to harm us.

The result is increased oxidative stress and possible long-term damage to our cells, tissues, and organs.

This reason is why when we have problems with an iron disorder, the symptoms take years to express themselves– and why it’s so important for getting proper Hemochromatosis Lab Tests done for you and for your family members.

Iron Metabolism

We lose about 1 milligram (or 1/1000th of a gram) of iron daily via metabolism, sweat, and cellular shedding of the skin and digestive system cells.

Women lose additional iron during menstruation– roughly 1.5 to 2 milligrams of iron during the menstrual cycle.

With an undisturbed iron metabolism, we compensate for these losses via dietary iron intake.  The amount of iron absorption is roughly equivalent at about 1 milligram.

If you think about it, that’s not much at all.

Keep in mind these numbers represent an average level of iron-in and iron-out that changes based on our requirements, our environment, and a wide array of inter-related aspects of our overall metabolism.

When we need more to enjoy the health benefits of iron, we absorb more from our diet.  When we need less, we absorb less from our diet.

Ultimately, the primary mechanism we increase or decrease our iron levels is by increasing or decreasing iron absorption

And when we have an iron disorder like Hemochromatosis, this mechanism is broken.

This makes it critical to consider ways to block the absorption of iron:

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About the Author

Dr. Eric is a Naturopathic Doctor who also has a genetic predisposition to hemochromatosis. With his unique perspective of being both a practitioner & patient, he provides a new understanding about the best nutritional strategies to support health with hemochromatosis. He is the author of Holistic Help for Hemochromatosis, a guide to the use of diet and supplements in healing from iron overload.

Dr. Eric Lewis, ND

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