Iron is a critical nutrient for the proper functioning of our bodies and is found in considerable amounts in red meat, liver, green leafy vegetables, legumes, etc. The body absorbs this dietary nutrient from the iron-rich food we consume. In normal situations, our body actually absorbs 10% iron from the iron-rich foods consumed such as meat, seafood, green leafy vegetables, grains, etc. and allows the excess to be excreted out of the body passively.
However, in some cases, the body may absorb less or more iron from the food ingested. We're all aware of iron deficiency anemia, when the body is low in iron. However, most of us are unaware of a condition called iron toxicity or iron overload. In this condition, the body ends up absorbing almost 30% of iron from the food. With time, the body ends up absorbing about 5-20 times excess iron than required by the body, thereby leading to high iron levels in blood. This excess iron, once absorbed cannot be discarded naturally and is stored in body tissues of the liver, pancreas and heart.
What causes High Iron Levels in the Blood?
The different factors responsible for elevated levels of iron in the blood are as follows:
This is a genetic condition inherited from the parent, in which the body absorbs and stores excess levels of iron in the body. Haemochromatosis is caused by a defect in a gene, HFE gene which is passed down from the parent to the child. The defected gene causes the body to absorb excess iron from the ingested food. Haemochromatosis can conduce to heart attack and cancer risks. Moreover, because the excess iron is stored in the liver, with time the liver can get damaged.
Massive Dietary Doses
People taking iron supplements need to ensure their bodies are not being overdosed. For infants only 10 mg of iron supplement dose is required and the same goes for children between ages 1 - 10. Boys between 11 - 18 need 12 mg per day, while girls between the 11 - 50 need 12 mg per day. Men between the ages of 19 - 50 require 10 mg daily and women above 51 need 10 mg daily. People exceeding these daily requirements are raising the level of iron in the blood. Avoid combining daily-multi-vitamins with iron and high iron supplements, as this is one major cause of high levels of iron in the blood.
Consuming excess amounts of alcohol over long periods of time can conduce to liver damage. Liver damage results in liver disease. Damaged liver is not capable of processing iron correctly and ends up storing excess amounts of iron. Moreover, generally alcohol acts as a catalyst and stimulates excess iron absorption in the body. Repeated blood transfusions, hemolytic anemia and menopause can also result in an iron overdose.
Symptoms of High Iron Levels in the Blood
The symptoms of high iron levels are as follows:
- Muscle impuissance
- Hair loss
- Pain in the abdomen (near the liver)
- Unexplained weight loss
- Shortness of breath
- Low Libido
- Enlarged liver
- Skin pigmentation
- Skin appears bronze in color
- Joint diseases
Diagnosis and Treatment for Elevated Iron Levels
Diagnosis of high levels of iron in the blood is challenging. This is because both iron deficiency (anemia) and iron toxicity have common symptoms of fatigue and lethargy. To make things worse, anemia can be caused by both low and high iron levels in the blood. Thus, the doctor will have to carry out lab tests to confirm whether iron content is actually low or high in the blood.
For treating this high iron level condition, blood has to be taken out of the body by venesection. When some blood with high iron content is removed from the body, the body produces more red blood cells to replace it, thereby using some of the stored iron in the body and thus, reduces the levels of overall stored iron in the body.
If Haemochromatosis is the cause, then this treatment will be lifelong and has to be done on a continuous basis. This is because Haemochromatosis is a genetic condition and there is no permanent treatment for it. Blood has to be removed from the body on a regular basis, thereby inducing slight anemia. The excess absorbed will then normalize the iron levels in the blood. However, after sometime, the iron levels will again escalate and the same procedure has to be repeated.
People diagnosed with high iron levels in blood should refrain from consuming alcohol, shellfish and nutritional supplements containing iron. If left untreated, effects of high iron levels can be deleterious. The high contents of iron get stored in the liver and over time will cause damage to the liver, such as cirrhosis. It can also lead to liver cancer, diabetes and heart problems. Thus, it is important to treat, so as to prevent grave organ damage.