Excess Of Iron-What It Does To You?
In the nutrition world, more is not always better. Iron is an essential mineral but it is harmful when consumed in higher amounts. Do you know that iron is so toxic that the absorption of the nutrient from the digestive tract is a tightly controlled mechanism? This helps minimize the harmful effects of too much of iron. When the body’s safety mechanisms fail, health issues rise.
What is iron exactly?
Iron is a vital dietary mineral that is used by red blood cells. Iron is an essential part of hemoglobin, which is a protein found in red blood cells. It is hemoglobin which is responsible for providing oxygen to cells of the body.
Dietary iron is of two types:
Heme iron– It is an iron found in animal foods such as red meat. Absorption of this iron is easier than that of non-heme iron.
Non-Heme iron- Most of the dietary iron is in non-heme form and is present in both animals and plants. Vitamin C enhances its absorption.
People who get very little or almost nil heme iron from their diet are at a risk of iron deficiency. Most people suffer from a deficiency of iron, especially women. It is the world’s most commonly occurring mineral deficiency.
Why iron levels are tightly regulated in the body?
There are two reasons for that:
1) Iron is an vital nutrient that plays a pivotal role in several basic functions of the body, so you need to get a small amount.
2) High levels of the mineral are toxic and this makes it essential not to get too much.
Regulation of iron levels by the body is done by adjusting iron absorption rate from the digestive tract. A hormone Hepcidin, is an iron-regulating hormone and it keeps iron stores in balance. The main function of this hormone is to suppress iron absorption. The hormone functions fine usually but a few disorders can suppress hepcidin production and can lead to an iron overload. On the other hand, certain medical conditions can stimulate hepcidin formation and can cause the deficiency of iron.
Iron balance of the body gets affected by the amount of iron in the diet. Diets that are low in iron can result in a deficiency and on the other hand an overdose of iron supplements can cause iron poisoning in the body.
When you accidentally take overdoses of iron, consume supplements for a long time or have chronic iron overload disorders, you might end up with serious health problems.
Normally very less free iron is there in the blood stream but iron toxicity can -increase its level in the bloodstream. Free iron cause cellular damage.
The conditions that cause this are:
Iron poisoning– Iron poisoning occurs when adults or children take an overdose of iron supplements.
Hereditary hemochromatosis– It is a genetic disorder in which excessive amounts of iron is absorbed from food consumed.
African iron overload- First to be observed in Africa, it is a dietary iron overload caused due to high levels of iron in food or drinks.
Acute iron poisoning occurs when people take an overdose of iron supplements. Even doses as low as 10-20 mg/kg can cause adverse symptoms. Dosage higher than 40 mg/kg needs medical attention. Never take iron supplements without the doctor’s prescription.
The gradual build up of excess iron in the body is referred to as iron overload. It occurs because the body is unable to keep iron within the healthy limits. One common iron overload disorder is hereditary hemochromatosis. It leads to the build up of iron in organs and tissues. When left untreated it can increase the risk of cancer, arthritis, diabetes, liver problems, and heart failure.
The body doesn’t have a way to dispose off excess iron. Blood loss is one way of getting rid of it. Thus, menstruating women are less likely to experience iron overload. Even those who donate blood often are at a lower risk.
If you have chances of iron overload, your risk of health problems can be minimized by
- Reducing the intake of foods rich in iron like red-meat.
- Avoiding consumption of vitamin C with iron-rich foods.
- Donating blood frequently.
Don’t worry such cases are rare and if you are not diagnosed with iron overload, it is not recommended that you reduce your intake of iron.
Iron overload is also linked with an increase in cancer risk. According to studies, heme-iron increases the risk of colon cancer. Iron overload as well as iron deficiency make people susceptible to infection.
The bottom line
Iron can be dangerous when consumed in high quantities. But unless you suffer from an iron overload disorder, you need not worry about the iron you are getting from your usual diet.
Iron supplements are beneficial for those who are deficient but can harm those who are not. Take your doctor’s advice before taking iron supplements.
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