Our bodies work hard to keep a specific balance of iron. We require it to live, but in certain concentrations it will do more harm than good. In fact, iron poisoning is a leading cause of toxicological death in children under six because their small bodies require so little, and consuming adult iron supplements provides so much.
We get a lot of iron from what we eat, and our body takes what it needs, converting it as required. There is, however, a relatively common hereditary disorder, that effects more than 100,000 Canadians — hemochromatosis — this disorder causes the body to absorb too much iron from food. The body stores the excess iron in joints and organs, such as the liver and heart.
This can go on, silently, for some time before symptoms manifest later in life. But by the time that happens, the body’s organs may have sustained considerable damage. Symptoms include joint pain, fatigue, heart failure, liver failure, diabetes, and abdominal pain. Again, by this time the condition may be life threatening.
There are two ways, used in tandem, to deal with hemochromatosis: diet change to remove iron-rich foods, and phlebotomy.
Diet changes are important because they are the only way to reduce the amount of iron coming into the body in the first place. It may be a truism, but long term health depends largely on diet.
Phlebotomy involves drawing and discarding specific amounts of blood every two weeks to reduce overall ferritin (stored iron) levels. Once ferritin levels normalize, phlebotomy becomes a maintenance tool to ensure ongoing health.
It is worth noting here that men are more likely to suffer from hemochromatosis because they neither menstruate nor experience pregnancy and birth, two processes that reduce blood — and iron — levels.
There is also a correlation between the hemochromatosis gene and the genes that govern glutathione — a powerful antioxidant used in detoxification. Some patients may benefit from intravenous glutathione to prevent iron-induced damage to their liver.
Since this condition gets silently worse as times goes by and only becomes noticeable once there is real damage, screening is the most important tool available. Testing ferritin levels is of utmost importance to identify potential problems before organ damage occurs (or, for that matter, to answer why organ damage is occurring). If it turns out that hemochromatosis is an issue, testing organ function is the next priority. This is a case of knowledge being power.
At the Nardella Clinic, our naturopath doctors are committed to working with you and your family to achieve whole health. Genes are a small part of who we are, and do not have the final say over our lives. Prevention and action make a difference.
If you or a loved one have a family history of hemochromatosis, suspect you may be suffering from it, or have a sense that the symptoms listed above describe you, contact our naturopathic clinic for a consultation and a simple blood test.