Iron is a mineral that performs many functions in the blood, such as producing hemoglobin. But having too much iron in your blood can be harmful and can lead to a condition known as iron overload.
Iron overload causes a range of symptoms and complications, including joint pain, liver damage, fatigue, and an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes.
In this blog post, we will discuss what causes iron overload, how to recognize it’s symptoms, and what you can do to manage and prevent it through changes in your diet and lifestyle.
What are the causes of iron overload?
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Iron overload, also known as hemochromatosis, can be caused by a variety of factors. Here are some common causes:
- Hereditary hemochromatosis. A genetic disorder that causes the body to absorb too much iron from food.
- Blood transfusions. Repeated blood transfusions can also cause iron overload over time. This is because each unit of blood contains about 250-300 mg of iron, and the body has limited ways to excrete excess iron.
- Excessive iron supplementation. Taking high doses of iron supplements. This is especially true for people who don’t have a clear iron deficiency.
- Alcoholism. Chronic alcoholism can lead to iron overload, as alcohol impairs the liver’s ability to regulate iron levels.
- Thalassemia and sickle cell anemia. This results in increased iron absorption from food and iron overload.
What are the symptoms of iron overload?
Iron overload is caused by a range of symptoms and complications. Here are some common symptoms that occurs:
- Joint pain
- Abdominal pain
- Loss of sex drive
- Skin discoloration
- Irregular heartbeats
Diagnosis of iron overload
The diagnosis of iron overload involves a series of blood tests to measure the levels of iron and other proteins in your blood.
The most common test used to diagnose iron overload is the serum ferritin test, which measures the level of ferritin, a protein that stores iron in your blood. A high level of ferritin can indicate that you have too much iron in your body.
In addition to the serum ferritin test, your doctor may also perform other blood tests to check for liver function and to measure the levels of other proteins that are involved in iron metabolism.
For example, the transferrin saturation test measures the percentage of iron-binding sites on transferrin that are occupied by iron, which can help to confirm a diagnosis of iron overload.
If doctors suspect that you have hereditary hemochromatosis, they may recommend genetic testing to check for specific gene mutations that are linked with the condition.
In some cases, imaging tests may also be recommended to check for signs of organ damage.
For example, a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan can detect scarring in the liver, damage to the pancreas, or other signs of organ damage caused by excess iron.
How do I treat iron overload?
Iron overload, if left untreated can be life-threatening. Luckily, there are treatment options available to manage this condition.
It involves the removal of blood from the body to reduce the amount of iron in the blood. This procedure is usually done on a regular basis until the iron levels in the body return to normal.
2. Iron Chelation Therapy
This treatment uses medications to remove excess iron from the blood. Iron chelation therapy is good for patients who do not respond to phlebotomy. The medication is usually given through an IV infusion.
3. Dietary Changes
Dietary changes can help to reduce the amount of iron in the body. Patients with iron overload should avoid foods that are high in iron, such as red meat, liver, and fortified cereals. They should also avoid taking iron supplements unless prescribed by a doctor.
4. Vitamin C
Vitamin C can help to reduce the amount of iron in the body. It works by making it more difficult for the body to absorb iron. Patients with iron overload can eat foods that are high in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits and leafy greens.
5. Genetic Counseling
Patients with iron overload should consider genetic counseling to determine if their family members are at risk of developing the condition.
How do I prevent iron overload?
Prevention is always better than cure, and this is especially true for iron overload. There are several steps you can take to prevent iron overload.
One of the ways to do this is to follow the recommended daily intake of iron. The following are the RDAs for iron, as per the National Institutes of health:
- Infants 0-6 months: 0.27 mg
- Infants 7-12 months: 11 mg
- Children 1-3 years: 7 mg
- Children 4-8 years: 10 mg
- Children 9-13 years: 8 mg
- Males 14-18 years: 11 mg
- Females 14-18 years: 15 mg
- Males 19-50 years: 8 mg
- Females 19-50 years: 18 mg
Pregnant and lactating moms have higher iron requirements, and their recommended daily intake is 27 mg and 9-10 mg, respectively.
Other general tips to prevent iron overload include:
- Getting tested: If your body is showing symptoms of the condition, get tested. Blood tests can determine whether your body has too much iron.
- Avoid iron supplements: Unless you have been diagnosed with iron deficiency, it is best to avoid taking iron supplements.
- Be cautious with vitamin C supplements: While vitamin C can help to reduce the amount of iron in the body, don’t overdo it. Extreme intake of vitamin C supplement can increase your body’s absorption of iron.
- Watch your diet: Eat a balanced diet that includes foods with moderate levels of iron. If your body begins to show some symptoms, avoid foods that are high in iron, such as red meat, liver, and fortified cereals.
- Limit alcohol intake: Drinking too much alcohol can increase your body’s absorption of iron. You should drink alcohol in moderation, especially if you are at risk for iron overload.
- Regular blood donations: This can help to reduce the amount of iron in the body. If you are not able to donate blood, consider phlebotomy.
- Genetic testing: If you have a family history of iron overload, genetic testing is a good idea. This can determine whether you carry a genetic mutation that increases your risk of developing the condition.
Conclusion: Are you having too much iron in your blood?
To wrap it up, there are several steps you can take to get rid of high levels of iron in your blood.
Iron overload can cause a variety of health problems if is left untreated. However, with the right treatment and prevention strategies, it is possible to manage this condition.
If you suspect that you have iron overload in your blood, consult with a healthcare professional for the right diagnosis and treatment.
Prevention strategies such as getting tested, avoiding unnecessary iron supplements, being cautious with vitamin C, watching your diet, limiting alcohol intake, regular blood donations, and genetic testing can reduce your risk of developing iron overload.
By taking these steps, you can ensure that your body has a healthy balance of iron and prevent the complications that come with iron overload.