Iron Overload – Hemochromatosis

OK, I’m not going to talk about the kind of iron you “pump” but the nutrient kind of iron in your body.

Too little is a serious problem, as is too much! So how do you know which you have, if at all, and what should you do about it?

First, let’s talk about too much in your system. Why? Well, it seems this is a very serious issue called “Hemochromatosis” (he-moe-kroe-muh-TOE-sis), which has two main types – primary and secondary.

Primary Hemochromatosis is inherited (caused by genes), while secondary is due to another disease or condition. If you are affected by hereditary hemochromatosis, your body absorbs too much iron from the food you eat, and it stores it in your organs, especially the heart, liver, and pancreas, and can lead to life-threatening conditions such as liver disease, heart problems and diabetes. This type of hemochromatosis usually occurs in mid-life and only a minority of people with the genes develop serious problems. Some people never develop symptoms, but some early signs and symptoms can overlap with common conditions such as: joint pain; abdominal pain; fatigue; weakness; diabetes; loss of sex drive; impotence; heart failure; liver failure.

Unfortunately, hereditary hemochromatosis is present at birth and most people don’t experience signs or symptoms until later in life – men between 50 and 60, and women after 60 (and likely after menopause or a hysterectomy, due to no longer losing iron during menstruation or pregnancy). If you have an immediate family member who has hemochromatosis, have a genetic test done by your health care team to determine if you have inherited the gene responsible (the HFE gene which has two common mutations – C282Y and H63D). If you have inherited abnormal genes, they could lead to developing hemochromatosis and it can also be passed along to your children. However, not everyone who inherits these genes develops problems linked to the iron overload known as hemochromatosis. If you only have one abnormal gene, you won’t develop hemochromatosis, but you can still pass along the mutation to your children, but they won’t develop disease  unless they inherited another abnormal gene from the other parent.

Secondary hemochromatosis can be the result some kinds of anemia such as chronic liver disease (Hepatitis C infection, alcoholic liver disease, or non-alcoholic steatohepatitis), thalassemia, blood transfusions, rare inherited diseases that affect red blood cells such as atransferrinemia and aceruloplasminaemia, drinking beer brewed in iron containers, taking oral iron pills or iron injections, or long-term kidney dialysis. Symptoms are similar to Primary hemochromatosis, but can also include: abdominal pain; females may stop menstruating; high blood sugar levels; hypothyroidism or low thyroid function; loss of libido, sex drive, or impotence; reduced testicle size; bronzed skin like a suntan; fatigue; weakness; weight loss; arthritis; cirrhosis of the liver; diabetes; enlarged liver; heart disease; or pancreatitis.

Because Hemochromatosis symptoms can be so closely similar to other conditions, it tends to be difficult to diagnose. However, your health care team may refer you to a hepatologist (liver specialist), or a cardiologist (heart specialist). There are two blood tests that can detect iron overload before symptoms appear – serum transferrin saturation (determines the amount of iron bound to transferrin), or serum ferritin (determines how much iron the body has stored). Both tests are needed to diagnose hemochromatosis and need to be repeated to rule out other causes for symptoms, but are not usually done routinely unless there is a family connection, or they have the following symptoms: diabetes; elevated liver enzymes; erectile dysfunction or male impotence; extreme tiredness; heart disease; or joint disease.

Iron Overload Blood Tests

Treatment for hemochromatosis can include: aggressive de-ironing where excess iron is removed via phlebotomy (drawing off a unit of blood) like blood donation, with a higher frequency; monitoring progress using hemoglobin numbers, and ferritin levels to determine if your iron levels have improved or not; become a regular blood donor if you don’t have any other issues to prevent you from donating; diet – by reducing dietary iron from the diet can help sometimes, but not always, but is a good idea to help prevent ingesting too much iron through pills or fortified foods; chelating agents can be used if you cannot tolerate phlebotomies (blood donation or taking at a lab), however they may not be as efficient as the last few options, and are only used as a last resort due to a concern of toxicity.

Be a Blood Doner if possible

If left untreated, hemochromatosis can lead to a number of complications especially in the joints and organs and can lead to: liver problems (cirrhosis which can increase the risk of liver cancer and other life-threatening complications); pancreas problems (can lead to diabetes); heart problems (congestive heart failure or heart arrhythmias); reproductive problems (erectile dysfunction, loss of sex drive or absence of menstrual cycle); skin color changes (iron in skin cells can make the skin look gray or bronze in color).

When dealing with Hemochromatosis, you need to consider your dietary intake of iron and think about these restrictions by avoiding: iron supplements which often contain much higher levels of iron than food and are created for maximum absorption; raw seafood; and/or strictly reduce alcohol intake because it may compromise the health of your liver and because it enhances iron absorption of food.

Here are some foods to include in your diet when faced with hemochromatosis: turmeric; milk thistle; green tea; calcium; polyphenols and tannins (coffee, tea, chocolate – lucky us!); oxylates (eggs); phytates (grains, beans and nuts, and potatoes) which should be limited. Here is a Diet Recommendation for Hemochromatosis you can download if needed. Click the image above or here for a link to to get the Hemochromatosis cookbook. (Always check with your health care team before changing your diet.)

OK, this kind of gives you a quick overview of Iron Overload, next week I’ll cover too little iron!

The information provided is sourced from several sites on-line. Stay tuned for next weeks post about Iron Deficiency.

Have an awesome rest of your day and week to come.



Author: Louise Gagne

I'm a retired senior who has found out that my diet was causing a number of health issues. Since becoming aware of this, I have decided to create this blog to help others in similar circumstances,

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