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High hemoglobin levels are a sign of disease. High iron levels are a cause of disease. Here are three natural interventions that can help you get both under control.

When 23-year-old Kay Aull's father was diagnosed with the iron overload disease hereditary hemochromatosis, she did the natural thing, at least for an MIT graduate in bioengineering. She bought a used thermal cycler. Then she bought several DNA sequences of known genes for hemochromatosis. Then she saved what would then (this was is 2010) have cost several thousand dollars, tests to determine whether she carried the genes for the condition.

I have previously written how high hemoglobin levels are a symptom of many different diseases. But now I'd like to turn your attention to how high iron levels, or hemochromatosis, are a cause of many different diseases.

Iron Overload, Hereditary and Acquired

The iron overload disease hemochromatosis can be a matter of genetics, or a complication of treating other diseases. Researchers used to think that hemochromatosis was caused by a combination of mutations in two genes. Since we have two copies of every gene (one on each of the double helix) of DNA, up to four mutant genes could cause the disease. The thinking was that you had to have all four of the possible mutant genes to have symptoms, but now it's known that heterozygotes, people who have one mutant gene and one normal gene, can also have serious problems from iron overload. Doctors also now test for a third gene associated with the condition. The excess iron in hereditary hemochromatosis comes from excess iron absorption from food and excess iron deposits in the body.

Iron overload can also be acquired from having multiple blood transfusions. People who have sickle cell disease or beta-thalassemia have to have lots of blood transfusions. As red blood cells break down, their bodies don't have the means of eliminating the iron. The excess iron in acquired hemochromatosis usually comes from blood transfusions.

What Does Hemochromatosis Do To Your Body?

The symptoms of acquired hemochromatosis show up after a few years of blood transfusions. The symptoms of hereditary hemochromatosis aren't usually obvious until age 40 and usually aren't severe until after age 50. However, as excess iron begins to "rust" tissues throughout the body, it may cause:

  • Severe fatigue (affecting 74 percent of people who have the condition).
  • Arthritis (affecting 44 percent of people who have the condition).
  • In men, erectile dysfunction (affecting 45 percent of men who have the disease).
  • Mottling of the skin with grey or rust colored spots.
  • Diabetes, as oxidation from iron destroys insulin-making beta cells.
  • Coronary artery disease, even with "good" levels of cholesterol.
  • Hypogonadism (shrinking of the sex organs), as iron infiltrates the "master gland," the hypothalamus in the brain.
  • Liver enlargement (in 13 percent) that sometimes progresses to live cancer, as the toxic effects of oxidating iron accumulate. [1]

Hereditary hemochromatosis is the most common cause of iron overload [2]. It is relatively common in white people. About one-half of one percent of all people of northern European descent have been diagnosed with the disease [3]. However,, about four percent of the entire population of the United States (and presumably a higher percentage in northern Europe) have combinations of genes that suggest that they will develop the disease eventually [4]. They may, however, succumb to heart disease, complications of diabetes, or liver cancer before the condition is caught.

Doctors are on the lookout for hemochromatosis in their patients who have to receive multiple blood transfusions for chronic diseases. Even without blood transfusions, people who carry the genes for beta-thalassemia tend to carry the genes for hemochromatosis [5]. Over 10,000 people every year receive toxic doses of iron from nutritional supplements, most of them children, but hemochromatosis as a result of iron poisoning is very rare, only about one case a year [6].

How Do You Know You Have Hemochromatosis?

Many doctors erroneously assume that hemochromatosis causes high hematocrit (percentage of red blood cells, by volume, in the blood) and high hemoglobin levels. It doesn't. Iron overload disease causes something a lot more basic: High iron levels. As the body tries to keep the iron from causing damage to tissues, it makes an iron transporter protein. There will also be high levels of this protein, ferritin. The iron-binding capacity of the blood will also be severely limited. All three numbers will be high.

However, it's possible to have both hemochromatosis and anemia, too much iron and too few blood cells. That makes the usual treatment for hemochromatosis, phlebotomy, impossible. There are chelation therapy drugs like ExJade (deferoxamine) that can get rid of the excess accumulated iron in either hereditary hemochromatosis or beta-thalassemia. (The effective dosage of ExJade tend to be lower for hereditary hemochromatosis (7). This is important to know to prevent side effects of the drug. ExJade removes more iron than EDTA, and because it's FDA-approved, insurance will pay for it.) But there are also natural ways to remedy high iron like there are natural ways to remedy high hemoglobin levels.

Treating Too Much Iron in the Blood Naturally

The first thing to keep in mind about hereditary hemochromatosis is that as long as your iron levels are high, there is never, ever any reason to take iron supplements. It's not necessary to avoid all iron rich foods, however. Just keep in mind that the kind of iron your body can absorb readily is heme- iron, iron from the hemoglobin in the blood of animals used for meat. Either eat meat that has been prepared in ways to eliminate the blood (kosher, hallal), or at least avoid eating meat at the same time you consume a high-vitamin C food, which increases your body's absorption of heme-iron [8].

It can also help to take lipoic acid. For this purpose, the product doesn't have to be R-lipoic acid. "Alpha-lipoic" acid will work just as well, because it does not have to be absorbed into cells to do its work. [9] Curcumin, the antioxidant extracted from turmeric (although not turmeric itself), will also bind to iron [10]. These three considerations will often keep hemochromatosis from getting worse.

Medical treatment, however, is needed for helping hemochromatosis get better. Whether it is phlebotomy once a week, or a newer, now much less expensive medication like ExJade, your best results will come from a combination of the best medical treatment and simply changes in diet and supplementation. And you don't need to be an inventor like Kay. Take these simple measures and high iron will respond. Just avail yourself of the medical care that is available to you.

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