Iron: The Hidden Cancer and Heart Disease Risk

Adequate levels of iron are essential for everyone, especially for those who are physically active because iron is the mineral responsible for carrying oxygen from the lungs to the skeletal and cardiac muscles. If your muscles do not have enough oxygen, your energy and endurance will be significantly reduced.

cellsIf pregnant women don’t get it, they can’t deliver oxygen and nutrients to their growing babies. If kids don’t get it, they shortchange their mental and physical development. If adults don’t get it, their basic day-to-day physiological function falls apart. Without adequate iron, our antioxidant defenses, our immunity, and our metabolic function all suffer.

Iron deficiency is present in over 40% of woman and 20% of men making it one of the most common and easily remedied deficiency.

But ironically, iron has a dark side. If you have more iron than what your body needs to satisfy your hemoglobin requirement (for cell oxygenation), the rest becomes a surplus. And because your body has a limited capacity to excrete iron, its build-up in your body can become toxic. Excess iron levels can lead to inflammation and increased risk of autoimmune disease, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, liver disease, high blood pressure and more. High iron levels can also advance aging and are link to insulin resistance, atherosclerosis, and shortened telomere length.

How does this happen?

Just as iron can rust when exposed to moisture and oxygen, this same process of electron exchange that makes iron so integral in biochemical reactions that address stress and support health means it can create free radicals damage DNA, cells, blood lipids and harm health.

Why does this happen?

In the modern world, we are seeing a much higher rater of high iron levels, which are being caused by a combination of genetics and lifestyle issues.

It’s in your genes.

Hereditary hemochromatosis is a genetic condition increasing a person’s absorption and retention of dietary iron. While this has had certain benefits in the past (carriers of the gene have a natural resistance to the bubonic plague, as one effect of hemochromatosis is to render white immune cells iron-deficient and thus resistant to the plague which feeds on iron) it’s mostly negative in today’s relatively plague-free world.

If you remember genetics from high school, you can carry either one or two copies of a gene. And while the serious issues of iron overload such as cirrhosis, liver fibrosis, liver cancer, elevated liver enzymes occur with both copies, we are learning that those with two copies are also much more likely to have diabetes, arthritis, fatigue, muscle loss. They’re more likely to experience neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. In addition, those with one copy also are more likely to higher levels of iron and greater risk of disease.

Modern Influences on Iron Levels

Fortified Foods

iron rich foodsIn order to avoid the common issue of iron deficiency, most processed foods and multivitamins are fortified with iron which while beneficial if you are deficient but harmful for those susceptible to iron overload.

Less Bleeding

Both men and women with hereditary hemochromatosis have elevated risks of iron overload-related diseases, but they are much higher for men as premenopausal women have a handy built-in mechanism for shedding excess iron—menstruation. Modern men and older women, with our absence of intestinal parasites and our lower tendency to engage in bloody hand-to-hand fighting, have few opportunities to shed iron.

Less Intense Activity

We are much less active in the modern world. Iron is used to generate energy and the more physical activity we are the more iron we utilize. While intense training and running are more likely to deplete iron, in reality everything that increases energy expenditure—walking, gardening, hiking—will at least subtly reduce iron stores. More activity, less iron sitting around idle getting into trouble.

Too Much Omega 6 Seed Oils

In the modern world we consume 5 to 10 times more omega 6 polyunsaturated oils which are highly susceptible or already damaged have become incorporated into our body fat and cellular membranes. When these fats are exposed to the oxidations from elevated iron, they cause damage to the cells and disease occurs. For example, it has been shown in animal studies that you can’t get the colon cancer to “take” unless you feed the animal large amounts of omega 6 oils along with their heme iron. In fact, in one study, feeding heme iron to rats promoted colon cancer only when fed alongside omega 6 safflower oil. On the other hand, when feeding monounsaturated fats which are far more oxidatively-stable olive oil alongside the heme prevented the colon carcinogenesis.

What You Need To Do.

Just like we all know our cholesterol, blood pressure and glucose levels, knowing your iron stores is arguably just or even more important.

So why isn’t it tested more frequently? There is no oral medication to treat it.

Two simple and important steps.

1. Know your hemochromatosis status. Order genetic testing and look for positive hits on C282Y and H63D.

2. Check your iron levels. Even if you’re negative for hereditary hemochromatosis, you can still have iron overload. You want to assess both your serum ferritin as well as serum iron and total iron binding capacity (called FE/TIBC).

An ideal ferritin level is around 50mg/ml (<100mg/ml is ok) with anything over 150 ng/ml consider elevated and over 300ng/ml at very high risk! FE/TIBC levels should be around 40% . Check this sooner than later. The longer you are exposed to high iron the greater your risks! What Should You Do About High Iron Levels?

Donate Blood

The quickest, safest way that also does the most social good (if you care about that sort of thing) and removes the risk is to literally remove iron from the body by draining blood via blood donation. When you donate blood, your body must upregulate hemoglobin production to replace the lost blood. It’s the most effective way to reduce iron stores and studies in those who have lowered iron stores show it increases insulin sensitivity and reduces cancer and heart disease!

Each blood donation will lower your ferritin level approximately 30mg/ml. I recommend donating blood every 2 to 3 months and rechecking iron status one month after your third donation to confirm your new iron storage status. Once you hit your ideal levels between 50 to 100mg/ml, you can reduce the frequency to every 4 to 6 months. But make sure you check levels again in a year to make sure the frequency of donation is keeping you in the safe zone.

Some physicians even have used blood donation to induce “near iron deficiency”—the lowest body iron store that allows normal red blood cell production—with very good success when treating gout and for those at high risk of heart disease, he achieved increased HDL and lower blood pressure, even if they started with normal ferritin.

Follow a Healthy Whole Foods Eating Plan

Avoiding Seed Oils and Excess Omega-6 Fats. Seed oils almost certainly make the “iron overload problem” worse and may even be responsible for its negative effects and link to various diseases.

Including Phytonutrient-rich Fruits, Vegetables, Herbs, Teas, and Coffee. Polyphenols both inhibit iron absorption and reduce the oxidative interaction between iron and lipids.

Moderate Iron-Rich Foods. For most people there is no reason to give up eating nutritionally dense foods such as red meat, oysters and liver. If you make dietary iron the focal point, you’ll miss out on all the incredible nutrients these foods offer.

High iron is nothing to mess around with. But the first step to take is determine how much of a risk it is for you. I have uncovered many people with high-iron over the years and after a year or so of donating blood have removed the oxidation risk caused by the excess levels and done a number of people a service by providing blood.