The other side of anaemia - when you have too much iron in your blood
We know by now that iron deficiency is the most common cause of anaemia and that it’s quite easy to become iron-deficient, especially if you don’t eat a balanced diet, if you are pregnant, or if your immune system is impaired.
But did you know that there are people who experience quite the opposite?
What causes too much iron in the blood?
Haemochromatosis is a condition where the body absorbs an excessive amount of iron from a normal diet. This leads to abnormally high iron levels in the blood, which can be deadly.
This condition is usually inherited and caused by your genetic makeup. Up to 80% of those who suffer from iron overload have three genetic mutations that predispose them to the disease.
Haemochromatosis can be primary or secondary. Primary haemochromatosis is caused by a genetic predisposition, while secondary haemochromatosis is caused by other conditions, such as thalassemia (a type of anaemia) and liver disease.
Secondary haemochromatosis can also occur when people take too many iron supplements, usually when they suspect they might have an iron deficiency.
What happens when we overload on iron?
When there is iron overload, it gets stored in the organs such as the pancreas, liver and heart. If left untreated, it can lead to organ damage and failure.
A mild iron overdose will usually not present any symptoms, but someone with high levels of iron may experience the following:
- Chronic fatigue
- Arthritis, which may affect all joints, but especially the knuckles of the 1st and 2nd fingers (so-called iron fist)
- Cirrhosis and enlarged liver
- Diabetes, caused by damage to the pancreas due to the iron deposits
- Impotence due to loss of libido and atrophy of the testicles
- Irregular menstruation or lack of periods (amenorrhoea)
- Abdominal pain, especially in the upper-right side of the abdomen
- Frequent diarrhoea
- Mood swings and depression
- Irregular heartbeat or arrhythmias
When iron levels are severely high, a procedure called phlebotomy is done, where iron-rich blood is removed from the body. The procedure is repeated, depending on how quickly the iron levels build up again. This is determined by regular blood tests.
Another treatment is oral iron chelation drugs.
In terms of lifestyle, a patient will be advised to eat less iron-rich food.
How to prevent secondary iron overdose
It’s important to know that you shouldn’t take an iron supplement if there is no specific reason. If you suspect anaemia or low levels of iron, it’s advisable to consult a doctor. Blood tests can determine the exact levels of iron in your body and if you need a supplement.
When you are treated for iron-deficiency anaemia, it's important to take your iron supplement for at least six more months after your iron levels have normalised. Don't stop taking your iron supplement without consulting your doctor.
Read more on what you should know before taking an iron supplement.
Suspect you might be anaemic? Take our quiz.
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