Iron overload most commonly results from having one or two copies of the Hemochromatosis Gene. This HFE Gene causes an excessive accumulation of iron in the cells, tissues, and organs characteristic of the iron storage disorders.
While blood levels of iron can become elevated, our bodies work hard to try and minimize such high levels of free iron in our bloodstream. This system is very tightly regulated because iron can be a “pro-oxidant” toxin.
We produce iron-binding proteins (such as hemoglobin, ferritin, and transferrin) to temporarily “inactivate” the iron.
Additionally, we shuttle the bound/inactive iron into the cells themselves.
Even though these mechanisms minimize the potential oxidative stress of iron temporarily, it ultimately sets the stage for excess accumulation in the tissues.
In fact, the primary problem of excess iron has to do with its damaging effects inside the cells. Ultimately, too much iron promotes oxidation of the tissues and organs. This oxidative damage can lead to serious health problems.
The actual, physical amount of iron overload varies between individuals with hemochromatosis.
How much iron gets accumulated is multi-factorial, based primarily on factors such as a person’s genetics, age, gender, and other health conditions (such as liver disease, diabetes, digestive disorders, immune or hormonal system disorders, and inflammation or infection).
Foods high in iron actually play only a minor role in the grand scheme.
When you have the hemochromatosis gene, your level of iron absorption is maximal– with any food ingested. Dietary iron is found in such a wide variety of foods, it would be unreasonable to eliminate all foods that contain iron for fear of iron overload.
That being said, a key dietary and supplemental therapeutic approach to prevent future storage of too much iron is to try to block the absorption of iron:
Blocking iron absorption is essential because the human body has no major way to excrete iron once it is in our system.
Iron metabolism is especially thrifty–we recycle the iron we already have and we lose a very minimal amount through sweat and skin cell shedding.
Over time, the end result is too much iron accumulating in our body.
Our current understanding of Hemochromatosis DNA has shaped what we know about the iron storage disorders.
Without hemochromatosis, individuals store about 4 to 5 grams of iron in our bodies. On average, we absorb about 1 milligram of iron daily from food… and this number is equaled by a loss of 1 milligram of iron daily via our metabolism, sweat, and skin cell loss.
Women lose approximately 1.5 to 2 milligrams on days of their menstrual cycle (and 1 milligram on non-menstruating days). This is generally compensated by a temporary, slight increase in iron absorption.
Therefore, the net effect is to have a stable level of iron that does not increase over time.
However, with hemochromatosis, our DNA sends a constant message to absorb more iron than it normally would from our digestive system.
Once this increased iron absorption outpaces our ability to use it or bind it with proteins (like hemoglobin, ferrritin, or transferrin), it begins to accumulate in our cells, tissues, and organs.
This is a very slow process that occurs over years and decades.
Hemochromatosis Symptoms often do not begin to manifest themselves until a person has stored upwards of 20 or 25 grams of iron.
That’s 4 or 5 times the average level!
You may have hemochromatosis for decades and have no idea.
In the worst cases of hemochromatosis, a person may store up to 50 grams of iron in their body. There are stories of people setting off the metal detector at airports because of iron overload.
While this dramatic story is far from the normal experience, my main point is that hemochromatosis should be considered a silent disease that may become devastating to our health if we don’t identify it soon enough.
We need to protect our health, and the health of our families.
Dr. Eric is a Naturopathic Physician who also has 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.