Your body needs iron to carry oxygen to your red blood cells. Low iron levels can cause fatigue, shortness of breath and difficulty thinking. Very high iron levels can also cause health problems, including liver damage. You can inherit a tendency to absorb more iron than normal from your diet. Alcohol can also affect iron absorption; if you drink large amounts of beer or other alcohol, you may absorb larger-than-normal amounts of iron. If you have high iron levels, talk to your doctor about alcohol consumption.
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Your body doesn't absorb all the iron found in food. Many factors affect iron absorption, including the type of iron you consume. You absorb more "heme" iron, found in meat, than "nonheme" iron, found in grains and vegetables. If you inherit a defect in the HFE gene, you absorb around 30 percent of the iron you consume, compared to 10 percent for people without the defect, the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse states.
The Effects of Alcohol
Alcohol of any type, including beer, enhances iron absorption. While not all heavy drinkers develop iron overload, between 20 and 30 percent absorb twice as much iron as normal, the Iron Disorders Institute explains. A University of Washington Medical Center study published in the May 2004 issue of "Gastroenterology" found that iron overload increased significantly in people who drank more than two alcoholic drinks per day compared to nondrinkers. Drinking fewer than two drinks per day decreased the risk of iron-deficiency anemia by 40 percent. Alcoholics often develop zinc deficiency; zinc helps regulate the amount of iron your body absorbs.
Both iron overload and heavy drinking can lead to liver damage. Your body stores excess iron in tissues such as the liver, heart and pancreas. Over time, damage to the liver cells leads to scarring in the liver, called cirrhosis. You may develop liver failure if a large portion of the liver becomes cirrhotic and can no longer function properly. Scarred liver cells do not regenerate; the only treatment for a cirrhotic liver is liver transplant.
Homemade beers brewed in Africa can contain large amounts of iron leached from the metal cans or drums used for brewing. If you travel outside the United States and have problems with iron overload, avoid homemade beer brewed in metal containers, which can contain not only iron but also other contaminants.