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Definition. Iron toxicity is not as simple as it may appear. For example, excess iron is in a biounavailable form, such as an oxide. In other words, there is not too much available iron. Instead, toxic forms of iron build up in the body.
The condition is often acquired, meaning it is rare at birth. It can be due, at least in part, to genetic susceptibility, or may be due to other factors such as eating too much red meat or eggs, or taking iron pills.
Iron toxicity is common. Iron is a vital mineral in the human body. Iron overload, however, is deadly. Most physicians believe it is rare and mainly hereditary. In fact, it is far more common and more dangerous than many people imagine.
Iron toxicity is serious. Conditions in which iron can be a factor include diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, other inflammatory conditions, oxidant damage, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. Others include chronic infections, hair loss, hypothyroidism, hyperactive behavior, violence, attentions deficit disorder, and other health conditions.
A metabolic or a hereditary condition? Traditionally, iron toxicity was considered mainly a hereditary condition. However, recent articles in the New England Journal of Medicine and elsewhere indicate that a person may have iron overload without having either the hemochromatosis gene or other obvious reasons for the problem such as multiple blood transfusions or other obvious exposure.
In a study of heart disease, 13% of those screened had indicators of iron overload. This cannot be explained by heredity.
Difficult to identify. A problem with iron overload is that standard blood tests will often not reveal it unless it is far advanced. As a result, doctors do not find it, in most cases. A liver biopsy is much better, but this is not a commonly-performed medical procedure.
Difficult to treat medically. Another problem with iron overload is that medical treatment for it is crude – removing blood. This method is also harmful because removing blood causes a loss of many nutrients, worsening malnutrition that is already common in the population.
CAUSES OF IRON TOXICITY
Iron toxicity can result from:
- Too much iron in the diet.
- Other sources, such as iron in supplements, iron in the water, or occupational exposure.
- Excessive absorption of iron from the diet.
- Inability to eliminate enough iron from the body. This can be due to physical factors, or mental factors, as described below.
Iron toxicity can also be due to a combination of these factors. Let us discuss these causes in more detail.
IRON IN FOODS
Some say that the average American diet includes excess iron for men, but perhaps not enough for menstruating women. I firmly disagree with this because many women today have iron toxicity, as revealed on hair mineral analyses.
Oddly, these same women can have anemia and require supplementary iron in a bioavailable form. These are usually women who have heavy menstrual periods.
Foods high in iron. These fall into two main groups:
- Those that contain heme iron.
- Those that contain other forms of iron, including iron added to some foods. This is important because heme iron is better absorbed than other forms of iron.
Heme iron foods. These include organ meats such as liver and kidneys, and all red meats. Dark meat chicken and dark meat turkey also contain some heme iron. Products from the sea may also contain some, such as tunafish, clams, oysters and perhaps other shellfish.
Non-heme iron foods. These include egg yolk, kelp, blackstrap molasses, brewer’s and torula yeast, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, dark green vegetables, and soybeans.
White Flour Products. An important source of excess iron can be refined wheat flour products. (The product is labeled as wheat flour, but it means refined white flour. Only whole wheat flour really is the genuine article.)
In the 1920s, it was found that animals fed a diet of white flour developed serious neurological diseases and then died. Instead of banning this product, the US Food and Drug Administration declared that most white flour products must be “enriched” with iron and a few vitamins to “correct” the problem.
However, the “enrichment” makes for an even worse situation, in many cases, that contributes to diabetes, heart disease and cancer. The reasons are:
- “Enrichment” enhances the iron content far more than was originally in the whole wheat flour. This can increase iron in the diet too much.
- The form of enrichment is either iron sulfate, iron fumarate, or NaFeEDTA. These can easily change into a toxic form of iron such as an oxide.
- The body requires minerals and will absorb whatever is available. White flour is mainly stripped of its trace elements, creating a nutritionally deficient food. The iron is plentiful. Thus the body absorbs more of it than it would if there were a natural balance of minerals in the flour. This also unbalances the body.
- Iron is selectively absorbed by the body, to begin with. This is a survival mechanism because of the great importance of iron for oxygen transport in the blood.
This combination can easily contribute to iron toxicity.
I hope this explains the serious problems with bleached, refined white flour, labeled as “wheat flour” or “enriched flour”.
Iron in water supplies. In certain areas of America and around the world, the ground water is very high in iron. This occurs because the water passes through rocks containing iron, or it could be due to industrial contamination, in a few cases. Wells should always be tested for iron contamination.
OTHER SOURCES OF IRON
- Vitamin Supplements And Tonics With Iron. Doctors and some health food advocates recommend iron and iron-containing potions, even when they are not indicated medically. Some prescription and a number of over-the-counter drugs also contain iron.
Prenatal vitamins may contain lots of iron, and many women are told to just stay on their prenatal vitamin after the birth of a child. This is not good advice.
- Alcohol intake of any amount tends to worsen iron toxicity because alcohol depletes zinc, an important iron antagonist.
- Occupational Exposure. Welders, electrical workers who use solder, iron and pipe workers, steel fabricators and other occupations may expose one to enormous quantities of toxic iron.
- Congenital Iron Toxicity (excessive iron present at birth). Most children today are born with some excess iron. They may still be anemic because their iron is not all bioavailable (see the section on biounavailability).
Large amounts of white flour, red meats and vitamins with iron consumed by young women can contaminate their bodies with iron. Some is passed on through the placenta to their children, causing chronic infections, developmental delays and behavior and learning disorders among other children’s conditions.
- Iron cookware. Iron cookware is a potential source of toxic iron if used to cook tomatoes or other acidic foods. Rarely is this a major problem, however, if the other sources are not in the picture.
- Emotional Iron Sources. Holding on to one’s anger or rage appears to keep iron in the body. While this is not a source of iron toxicity, it still has an extremely damaging effect.
While some anger is normal and even healthy at times, dwelling on one’s anger when it is time to let it go has this effect on our bodies.
- Hemochromatosis and hemosiderosis are genetic causes for iron overload.
DIFFICULTY ELIMINATING IRON
The other cause of iron toxicity, besides taking in too much iron, is difficulty eliminating iron. Everyone has some difficulty eliminating iron.
However, some people have much more difficulty than others. An indicator of this difficulty is found on hair mineral tests as a poor eliminator pattern.
PHYSIOLOGY, PATHOLOGY AND SYMPTOMS OF IRON TOXICITY
In all cases of iron toxicity, iron that accumulates is in a biounavailable form. This is very important to know.
Biounavailable means that iron is present, but cannot be utilized properly. The biounavailable compound of form of iron is iron oxide. Reasons why this occurs are:
- Iron may be absorbed in an oxide form from food or other sources, such as drinking water.
- Iron is converted to the oxide form because it is needed as a support for the adrenal glands or other glands in the body.
Biounavailability and testing for iron. Biounavailability may cause the iron levels on hair tissue mineral tests and even blood tests to appear low when they are really normal or even high.
Biounavailable Iron Effects On The Adrenal Glands or the Nervous System. Biounavailable iron appears to irritate the adrenal glands or perhaps other parts of the nervous system. This appears to have the effect of pushing up the sodium readings on hair tissue mineral analyses when the test is performed without washing the hair at the laboratory.
This seems to be an adaptive mechanism to help boost adrenal activity and maintain the sodium level in the tissues, which is very important. However, it is a toxic mechanism that does not produce health. Manganese, aluminum and perhaps other minerals, especially in a biounavailable and toxic form such as oxides, appear to do the same thing.
These are called the ‘friends’ or ‘amigos’ for this reason, and are often found together in the bodies of slow oxidizers, in particular. Slow oxidizers have exhausted adrenals and are the ones most needing a boost, perhaps.
HOW IRON DAMAGES THE BODY
- Iron Replaces Other Vital Minerals Causing Enzyme Dysfunction. Understanding this requires knowledge of the concept of preferred minerals. It basically states that all enzymes in the body have ideally a certain mineral in each binding site that allows the enzyme to function most efficiently.
If, however, the preferred mineral is not available, the enzyme will accept a less preferred mineral in its place to allow the enzyme to function at all.
Iron replaces other vital minerals such as zinc, copper manganese, and many others in hundreds or even thousands of enzyme binding sites. This cause the enzymes to malfunction and leads to many physical and emotional symptoms.
The problem of mineral replacement is made worse by the fact that all minerals compete for absorption. Iron enjoys a selective advantage. That is, it is selectively absorbed because of its essential role in oxygen transfer. This mechanism of iron absorption definitely works against a person who is eating white flour, lots of red meat, and perhaps smokes or drinks a little alcohol, for example. Adding orange juice at breakfast makes it worse, because vitamin C enhances iron absorption greatly.
The person becomes greatly saturated with iron at the expense of other trace elements that are already deficient in the food supply.
- Inflammation. When iron replaces other elements in the body, in addition to enzyme malfunction, the next most important problem it causes is inflammation.
This occurs because iron attracts oxygen directly to it. Then, when it contacts delicate body tissues, the singlet oxygen molecules, termed free radicals, detach and destroy body tissues. This mechanism is called oxidant damage or free radical damage, a potent cause of inflammation.
Oxidant damage contributes to many other problems as well. These include insufficient repair of the organs and tissues to meet the needs of the body. This, in turn, can cause every disorder imaginable from heart disease to cancer to hyperactive behavior.
Aging is though to be caused by oxidant damage and it may be a direct effect of iron toxicity. This is rarely diagnosed, however, unless one happens to undergo special blood tests or a liver biopsy for iron.
- Toxic Iron Oxide. Iron oxide is formed when iron combines with several atoms of oxygen at once. It is biologically useless and quite toxic as well
- Bacterial Growth Stimulant. Due to its properties as an excellent oxygen transporter, iron tends to stimulate the growth of common bacteria. This is a significant cause for chronic infections in our population.
- Cellular Poison (Cancer). Imbalances related to iron reduce the output of cellular energy in the body. This leads directly to cancer, which is basically a parasite on the human body. It uses an inferior energy generating system based on direct conversion of sugar to energy without the many intermediary steps associated with the Krebs and glycolysis cycles.
Iron Synergists. Certain substances and situations favor iron accumulation and absorption. These invariably make iron poisoning worse.
For example, vitamin C and other acidic substances like tomatoes can increase iron absorption. Copper can be an iron synergist as well, although it is also an iron antagonist in the intestinal tract. This means it competes with iron for absorption in the intestines.
Copper can build up in the body to mask the presence of iron. This often occurs and is revealed on some hair tissue mineral analyses.
Other iron synergists would include white flour products for a variety of reasons other than their iron content. For example, any mineral-deficient food will enhance absorption of iron if iron is present in the diet, as it often is.
Other iron synergists are stress, anger, frustration, resentment, hostility, fear and other such negative emotions.
ORGAN AND TISSUE EFFECTS OF EXCESSIVE OR BIOUNAVAILABLE IRON
We have discussed the major types of damage caused by iron excess. Each of these mechanisms affects all the organs and tissues of the body. Thus the damage done by iron and other toxic metals with similar properties is very complex and comprehensive. However, some organs and tissues are damaged more extensively than others by iron.
For example, all organs and tissues are affected by generalized inflammation. The manifestation will vary, however, depending on the function or functions of the particular organ or tissue and upon its resonance or its generalized response to the presence of excessive iron.
Organs that may be most affected by iron are the pancreas, liver, kidneys, brain, heart, arteries, and joints. This is not so much because the mineral deposits there. In fact, more iron is in the liver than elsewhere, but so are many other minerals deposited there. It is more about the resonance or response of the organ to the energy or structure, more properly, of the iron molecule or combinations that iron forms with oxygen and other elements.
The liver and iron. The liver can be saturated with iron, and in Chinese medicine the liver is the seat of iron. It is associated with an attitude of anger and rage. Iron also accumulates in the amygdala, a part of the brain associated with anger and rage.
However, it can accumulate everywhere in the brain and is certainly one cause of dementia related to aging, since iron accumulates with age, as a general rule. As it does so, it replaces other vital minerals such as chromium, molybdenum, selenium, germanium and others in vital organs, glands and tissues.
SYMPTOMS AND CONDITIONS OF IRON TOXICITY
Physical Ailments Associated With Iron Poisoning.
1) Diabetes. This is known in the medical literature and is sometimes referred to as bronze diabetes. However, we feel that researchers will learn that more than this is due to iron overload, in subtle ways. Iron replaces many minerals that can give rise to symptoms of diabetes.
- Cancer. Many cases of cancer are indirectly caused by or related to iron toxicity from non-hereditary causes.
- Nervous System Diseases. These may include Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and behavioral abnormalities, including violence, anti-social behavior, ADHD, autistic characteristics and other. A bad temper is often related to iron toxicity, as mentioned earlier. People with multiple sclerosis also often have elevated iron in their brains.
- Hypertension And All Cardiac Conditions. Iron has an ability to enhance the hardness of the arteries, as does cadmium. So the blood pressure rises, without any obvious cause. Arrhythmias, congestive heart failure, cardiac stenosis, cardiomyopathy and others are included in the list of cardiac difficulties that are known to occur with hemosiderosis and hemochromatosis and can occur with acquired iron overload as well.
- Kidney Problems of Many Types. Iron can accumulate here, causing hypertension, renal failure and other difficulties.
- Inflammatory Symptoms. These include a wide range of disorders and syndromes, ranging from rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis and Sjogren’s syndrome to lupus, myelination diseases such as multiple sclerosis and others.
- Milder forms of inflammation such as random aches and pains, premenstrual syndrome, headache syndromes and so many other inflammatory conditions that may occur in children and adults.
IDENTIFYING IRON OVERLOAD
BLOOD TESTS AND LIVER BIOPSY
Blood tests are not reliable with early cases. The indicators include:
– Iron greater than 350 mcg/dl
– Glucose greater than 150 mg/dl
– White blood cells greater than 15,000
– Elevated liver enzymes
– Ferritin greater than 1000 mcg/dl
– A low ferritin can mean low iron. However, it can also mean biounavailable iron. In this situation, too much iron is present in the body, but it is unavailable. It is usually a toxicity with iron oxide or other biologically unavailable iron.
A liver biopsy is better, but is not done often because it is somewhat invasive and somewhat dangerous.
THE ROLES OF IRON
Iron has three major roles in the body:
- It helps transport oxygen to the cells from the lungs. Hemoglobin is the main iron-bearing substance in the body. It carries oxygen to all the body cells. Any problems in this system and a person becomes very tired and will die if it is not corrected. This is the single most critical function of iron in our bodies.
- Iron is needed for energy production in every cell. Energy production requires the conversion of sugars, fats and proteins into adenosine triphosphate or ATP, the form that the body uses for all its activities and healing as well. Iron, as well as copper, are required for energy production. Low energy will result in cancer eventually in every person with iron problems.
- Catalase Production. Catalase is an enzyme that travels around the body and picks up free oxygen atoms called free radicals. This protects the body from free radical damage, a very important function.
- Other Roles. Iron is also involved in the sense of direction. Human beings and the animals, especially birds, use the magnetic properties of iron, manganese and other magnetic elements to navigate the globe with amazing accuracy. Small deposits of these ferrous metals in the brain are used like compasses to direct the creature on its way.
Let us say a few words about iron deficiency, a much more well-known problem. This is a severe problem in certain parts of the world, especially Africa where malaria and other parasitic diseases cause blood destruction and other problems.
In America, it is found most often in poor children, those with chronic illnesses or bleeding that can deplete iron rapidly, in some menstruating women and in strict vegetarians.
In many cases of iron deficiency anemia, as it is called, the cause is not really poor iron levels. It is copper toxicity, and or biounavailable iron. This concept was presented earlier in this article. This is a most confusing aspect of “iron deficient anemia”. In fact, many physicians prescribe iron to patients who do not need it, including most menstruating women who have copper toxicity and copper biounavailability causing their anemia. This wastes their time and leads to worsening iron overload problems in these young women.
IRON IMBALANCES ON BLOOD TESTS
Serum Iron deficiency. Most of the time when a blood test reveals iron deficiency, the cause is a copper imbalance. Copper is required to convert the ferric to the ferrous form of iron and it is required for the incorporation of iron into hemoglobin.
- N Eng J Med, 1999, Hereditary Hemochromatosis in Adults without Pathogenic Mutations in the Hemochromatosis Gene, Pietrangelo, A. et al., 341:725, September 2.
- Neurology, 2003, Parkinson’s disease risks associated with dietary iron, manganese, and other nutrient intakes, Powers, KM et al., Jun 10;60(11):1761-6.
- Amer J Clin Nut, 1998, 68:3-4 (calcium used to inhibit iron absorption)
- Life Extension Foundation, 2000, Disease Prevention and Treatment, Third Ed., pp.317-321.
- Casdorph, H.R. and Walker, M., Toxic Metal Syndrome, Avery Publishing, 1995.
- Kutsky, R., Handbook of Vitamins, Minerals and Hormones, 2nded., Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1982.
- J Royal Soc Med. 1988, “Iron added to flour: Is it nutritionally beneficial? Discussion paper”, M J Hall, May; 81(5): 280–283.
- http://ironoverloadtreatment.com/ (the new instrument to measure iron overload)