Some vitamins and minerals won't hurt you if you take too much of them, but that's not the case with iron. When you see symptoms of too much iron in the blood, it's time to seek treatment. For some people, excess iron accumulation can be a serious medical problem they need to address.
How Does Iron Accumulate?
A mineral necessary for the formation of red blood cells, iron can be found in the human diet through beef, poultry, beans and fortified grain products. The average healthy person consuming iron through their diet does not need to worry too much. But people who are taking iron supplements, receiving regular blood transfusions or are prone to certain medical conditions are at risk of having too much iron accumulate in their body.
It's important to note that excess iron accumulation is different from iron poisoning, which happens when too much iron, usually from supplements, is consumed at one time.
When you take too much iron, side effects sometimes might not show up for 60 minutes, but you should not hesitate in seeking medical treatment. Too much iron has side effects that start with diarrhea, fever, nausea, stomach pain and vomiting. Later, you could develop bluish lips, have seizures and suffer from shallow breathing.
This is one of the reasons the Food and Drug Administration requires supplements with more than 30 milligrams of elemental iron to carry warning labels, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission requires products with more than 250 milligrams to have child safety caps.
To avoid too much iron and the side effects that accompany it, the Mayo Clinic emphasizes that it's important not to exceed the recommended dosage of iron supplements, not to take oral iron supplements in conjunction with iron injections and not to take iron for longer than six months without doctor approval.
Excess iron accumulation is different. This is when a person has too much iron being absorbed and stored in their body. It's most commonly seen in people who have a condition called hemochromatosis.
The National Institutes of Health explains that this condition causes people to naturally absorb more dietary iron than they need. This still poses medical risk because the excess iron can build up in the liver, heart and pancreas and damage these vital organs.
There are two types of hemochromatosis. The primary kind is a genetic defect, causing those with it to absorb too much iron from the food they eat. Secondary hemochromatosis results from either another condition that causes iron overload or from oral iron pills or iron injections. It can also be caused by long-term kidney dialysis and blood transfusions.
People with conditions that require them to get regular blood transfusions are at risk of having iron accumulate in their body because each transfusion brings new iron, and the body has no way of ridding itself of the excess iron. The iron then builds up in their organs.
What Symptoms Do You See?
Symptoms of too much iron in the blood can vary from person to person, according to the Aplastic Anemia and MDS International Foundation, and will sometimes take years of accumulation before they manifest. These symptoms could include tiredness or weakness, loss of sex drive, weight loss, abdominal pain and joint aches or pain — all symptoms that are very nonspecific.
As the iron builds up in certain organs, it can cause serious damage to them. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute explains that too much iron in the liver can lead to an enlarged liver, liver failure, liver cancer and cirrhosis; too much iron in the heart can cause irregular heartbeats; and too much iron in the pancreas can cause diabetes. These symptoms of too much iron in the blood aren't seen by all patients; however, even with very high levels of iron in their body.
Read more: Which Digestive Organ Absorbs Nutrients?
When you see symptoms of too much iron in the blood, talk to your doctor to determine whether you have iron overload. If you do, you should take preventive measures to stop it from getting worse. You should avoid taking iron supplements or multivitamins with iron, and you should also avoid vitamin C, which increases your body's ability to absorb iron. It's also wise to avoid alcohol, as alcohol can hurt your liver even further.
What Are Iron Overload Treatments?
If you do indeed have excess iron in your body, it can sometimes not be enough to avoid iron supplementation. You might need some kind of iron overload treatment. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute lists such treatment options as therapeutic phlebotomy, iron chelation therapy, dietary changes and treatment of any complications that may have come from the excess iron.
The first iron overload treatment, therapeutic phlebotomy, is similar to donating blood. This procedure requires a patient to have blood removed via a needle, which will lower the iron levels in their body. A July 2016 review published in the Journal of Blood Medicine determined that therapeutic phlebotomy is efficient and inexpensive, but more research is needed to determine proper treatment guidelines.
For those who can't undergo blood removal on a routine basis, iron chelation therapy is a good option. Iron chelators are a type of medicine that removes excess iron from the body.
Two types of iron chelators are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The first is deferoxamine, which is administered by infusion, and the second is deferasirox, which is administered in tablet form.
Although chelation is an effective iron overload treatment, it does have side effects, including nausea, dizziness, rashes, vomiting, and vision and hearing problems. An October 2016 review published in the International Journal of Hematology-Oncology and Stem Cell Research emphasized that choosing the right iron chelator will depend on how bad a patient's iron overload is, how long they plan to take iron chelators and overall cost.
Finally, anyone who is undergoing iron overload treatment should take dietary measures to avoid worsening the problem. Patients should not only avoid iron pills and limit intake of vitamin C but also not eat uncooked fish and shellfish, such as sushi, as these can cause infections in people with hemochromatosis.
With these measures, people who suffer from high iron absorption or who need to get regular transfusions can still live a normal, healthy life and not have to worry about damaging their vital organs from an excessive buildup of this powerful nutrition mineral.
- National Institutes of Health: “Iron”
- National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: “Hemochromatosis”
- Aplastic Anemia and MDS International Foundation: “Iron Chelation”
- Mayo Clinic: “Iron Supplements”
- Journal of Blood Medicine: "Clinical Applications of Therapeutic Phlebotomy"
- International Journal of Hematology-Oncology and Stem Cell Research: "A Review on Iron Chelators in Treatment of Iron Overload Syndromes"