Iron is an important nutrient for good health and optimum performance. Iron aids in the production of hemoglobin, a protein found in red blood cells that transports essential oxygenated blood from the lungs to the rest of the body.
Iron is needed for a healthy metabolism and overall well-being. Iron also aids in the absorption of nutrients, hormone balance, critical thinking, and mood management. Physical growth, neurological development, and cellular function all require iron.
Your body has a hard time delivering oxygen to the brain, tissues, muscles, and cells when you don’t have enough iron. You’ll feel exhausted and weak as a result of this. Anemia is a health condition caused by a serious iron deficiency. Weakness, cold hands and feet, shortness of breath, dizziness, sore tongue, brittle or spoon-shaped nails, pica, and poor appetite are all symptoms of anemia.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), iron deficiency is one of the most prevalent nutritional deficiencies in the United States, with about 10% of women being iron deficient. Up to 80% of the world’s population can be iron deficient, with 25% or more suffering from iron deficiency-related anemia.
Iron can be found in a variety of foods and is graded as either heme or non-heme depending on where it comes from. Meat, poultry, and seafood contain heme iron. Whole grains, nuts, beans, legumes, and leafy greens are all good sources of non-heme iron. Heme iron is much more bioavailable and easier for the body to consume and use.
Although we’ve all been taught the importance of getting enough iron in our diets and preventing iron deficiency anemia, the truth is that too much iron can be harmful to your health and even life threatening.
An iron overdose may occur suddenly or gradually, but in any case, it is a medical emergency.
Taking too much iron in the form of supplements can lead to acute iron toxicity, which is potentially fatal. Iron supplement pills can be one of the most dangerous things in your medicine cabinet. Overdosing on iron supplements is particularly dangerous for young children and the elderly.
Supplemental iron in high doses (45 milligrams per day or more) can cause nausea, vomiting, cramps, and constipation. Acute iron poisoning induces toxicity in the gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, metabolic, hepatic, and central nervous systems, leading to liver failure and cardiovascular collapse.
Overloading on iron can occur in a number of ways:
- Iron poisoning can occur when people take too many iron supplements.
- Hereditary hemochromatosis is a genetic disorder characterized by excessive iron absorption from food.
Iron can accumulate in your body over time in either of the scenarios described above, leading to a serious health condition. Excess free iron in your body acts as a pro-oxidant (the polar opposite of an antioxidant) and damages your cells.
Iron builds up in the heart, liver, joints, pancreas, and pituitary gland. If left untreated, it can cause serious and irreversible organ damage, resulting in heart attacks, diabetes, liver cirrhosis, arthritis, depression, and even premature death.
Hemochromatosis is a genetic defect caused by the body’s iron regulatory system malfunctioning, allowing iron to accumulate in the body. Except for blood loss or blood donation, the body has no quick and easy way to get rid of excess iron. Women who are still menstruating can help rid their bodies of excess iron, but postmenopausal women cannot.
The disorder is more prevalent in older men and postmenopausal women. According to one study, elderly people are more likely than younger people to have chronic positive iron balance and elevated total body iron.
While hemochromatosis is a genetic condition, many people are unaware they have it. They are frequently misdiagnosed with arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, liver or gallbladder disease, or digestive problems. Symptoms may not appear until the disease is advanced, and diagnosis can be difficult because routine blood tests may not reveal hemochromatosis.
People of Northern European descent, including those of Scottish, Irish, and English ancestry, are at a higher risk, as is anyone who has a family member who has hemochromatosis.
Among the symptoms are:
- Chronic fatigue-most common
- Joint pain or arthritis
- Loss of libido
- Abdominal pain
- Yellowish, reddish, or grayish skin color
Blood tests can aid in the diagnosis of hemochromatosis by measuring iron and ferritin levels in the blood, as well as total iron binding capacity and transferrin iron saturation. All adults over the age of 40 should be screened for this silent, potentially fatal disease.
Iron overload is treated with chelation therapy (drug therapy) or therapeutic phlebotomy, in which a doctor removes blood–or the patient can choose to donate blood on a regular basis.
While iron from diet is normally safe, if your iron levels are sufficient, iron supplementation can be hazardous. It’s better not to use iron supplements unless your doctor advises you to. Keep iron supplements out of the reach of youngsters at all times. They have the potential to be poisonous.
Iron and Cancer
In humans, too much iron has been linked to cancer. High heme iron intake has also been linked to an increased risk of colon cancer in observational studies. Human clinical trials have shown that heme iron from supplements or red meat can enhance the development of cancer-causing N-nitroso compounds in the digestive tract, but additional research is needed.
Iron and Medication
Iron can interact with a variety of drugs, including:
- Levodopa and Carbidopa—for Parkinson’s disease or restless leg syndrome
- Levothyroxine (Synthroid)—for hypothyroid conditions
- Proton pump inhibitors—for GERD
- Tetracycline, Ciprofloaxin, and Penicillin
While iron is a necessary vitamin for many individuals across the world, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. In summary, consuming too much iron can be problematic, especially if you’re taking it as a supplement. Ask your doctor to test you for hemochromatosis if you have a family member who has it or if you are in a high-risk group.
It’s critical to pay attention to your iron consumption if you’re a postmenopausal woman or an older male. Here are a few strategies to make sure you’re not suffering from the side effects of too much iron in your system.
- Consume foods high in polyphenols, flavanols, phytonutrients, and other antioxidant substances obtained from plants. Consume a wide variety of vividly colored fruits and vegetables to achieve this.
- With your meals, drink coffee or tea. Coffee inhibits the absorption of iron. Tea, both black and green, inhibits iron absorption. This could explain why coffee is consistently linked to lower mortality rates.
- Dairy can be consumed before or after meals. Calcium inhibits iron absorption significantly.
- When eating iron-fortified foods, avoid red meat. Heme iron actively boosts non-heme iron absorption, therefore the two forms of iron tend to magnify each other.
- If you must consume alcohol, stick to red wine and wines with a lower alcohol content. Wine includes polyphenols, which restrict iron absorption, whereas strong liquors such as vodka, tequila, and gin promote it.
- Mineral water should be consumed. Mineral water contains magnesium and calcium, which diminish the cancer-causing effects of heme in the colon and prevent iron absorption.
- As you gain muscle, your iron stores decrease.
- Because the body requires more oxygen in the blood at higher altitudes, iron stores are depleted more quickly.
While iron is a crucial vitamin, as we age, our systems accumulate cumulative stocks of iron, which can pose a major health risk, particularly if we have a hereditary predisposition to hemochromatosis or are taking too much iron in the form of supplements. If you have any of the following symptoms of too much iron, have lab testing done to check for it—or contact a doctor or medical specialist.