Understanding iron overload
We have all heard of iron deficiency or anaemia. Just as important, but less known, is too much iron or 'iron overload'. This is known as haemochromatosis and can be hereditary.
Understanding iron overload
The symptoms of iron overload can be very similar to anaemia/iron deficiency and other conditions such as CFS, menopause, and depression. The symptoms include:
- extreme tiredness and brain fog
- low libido, erectile dysfunction
- liver failure which may show in blood tests
- painful and uncomfortable joints
- abdominal discomfort
A blood test is a definitive means of assessing iron levels, as well as assessment of symptoms. If elevated iron is detected, repeat blood tests are required to monitor the levels. A liver MRI can also assess whether iron overload is present.
What causes iron overload?
Iron overload can occur for many reasons. Always seek advice from a health professional with regard to diet and supplements.
- Alcohol - overconsumption of alcohol can decrease iron absorption leading to iron overload. Interestingly, moderate alcohol consumption can therefore reduce the risk of anaemia.
Is there a natural way to reduce our iron levels?
- If you are taking a supplement which includes iron and ferritin this could be stopped.
- Avoid cookware made of iron.
- Vitamin C increases iron absorption so it is advisable to avoid foods and supplements which contain vitamin C. If vitamin C is required due to other reasons, to minimise the conflict with iron, it should be taken either in between meals or on an empty stomach.
- Beware fortified packet foods - check the ingredients for iron and vitamin C.
- Red meat - lower the amount of red meat and offal that is consumed.
- Turmeric has been shown in studies to lower iron absorption due to the curcumin component found in it. It also has an anti-inflammatory property. For efficient absorption, add black pepper and a little olive oil.
- Tea – green, black, chai, or coffee all hinder the absorption of dietary iron. However, they can also affect your absorption of calcium and zinc in particular. Therefore, check with a health professional as to whether these should be supplemented.
- Quercetin – this is a plant chemical also known as a flavonoid and can be taken as a supplement. It is found in fruits and vegetables. Raspberries, grapes particularly red, cherries, leafy green vegetables, and citrus fruits are particularly high in quercetin. See above regarding Vitamin C.
Whilst making dietary changes can help reduce the amount of iron which is absorbed, there are digestive issues which may need intervention.
Iron levels are managed via the digestive tract and a hormone called hepcidin. If this balance is challenged, iron levels can rise. Free iron (unabsorbed iron) has the opposite effect of free radicals, in that it becomes toxic to the body. Usually, iron is well managed and it's overload can occur very gradually.
Women's menstrual cycles do clearly help regulate iron overload and blood donors will also lose iron during this process.
There are medications available through prescription for iron overload so seeking professional help is essential as, if left unchecked, this condition can become serious. If you'd like to find out more about how nutrition can help lower iron levels, you can also speak to a professional nutritional therapist.