Do the physical demands of everyday life like your new workout routine have you succumbing to bouts of fatigue? Do you feel driven to—along with your energy shake, protein powder, and multiple vitamins—supplement your diet with a little extra iron to keep up?
You are not alone. Many people bring supplemental iron into their daily nutrition equation after adding a workout plan. It makes sense. After all, iron is the mineral supplement that builds red blood cells and boosts energy.
However, the assumption that lack of energy, lingering fatigue, and late-day sluggishness after normal activity always points toward an iron deficiency is not accurate—and sometimes leads to bigger problems. Self-treatment with iron supplements at the first sign of fatigue risks triggering the sometimes life-threatening danger of iron overload. Health journalist and author Bill Sardi believes iron can build up to the point of toxicity and disrupt the body’s delicate metabolic machinery.
More Isn’t Always Better
While iron is absolutely necessary to sustain life, biochemical disturbances can occur when the system becomes overwhelmed with more iron than it can handle. For example, iron overload has been implicated as a causative factor in the development of Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, liver malfunction, cirrhosis of the liver, diabetes, epilepsy, heart attack or failure, hyperthyroidism, hypogonadism (dysfunction of ovaries in women and testes in men), multiple sclerosis, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, Parkinson’s disease, and premature death. Why? Iron overload upsets normal metabolic function, making any excess iron perfect food for bacteria, fungi, tumor cells, and viruses.
How Does Iron Overload Happen?
Iron’s main fuction is to work with the mineral copper to make hemoglobin. It is involved with the entire respiratory process that produces biological energy—without which, life couldn’t sustain itself. Usually bound to certain proteins, iron sits at the center of each hemoglobin molecule, which carries life-giving oxygen to cells. A second, related molecule, myoglobin, is an oxidative enzyme that protects cells from toxic metabolic byproducts.
As all aerobic-based life relies on iron to survive, the body has evolved a system to keep iron safely isolated until it is needed. The protective intestinal mucosal lining initiates regulation of iron levels by decreasing or increasing iron absorption according to the body’s need or immune status. However, when the body loses its ability to bind properly with iron, this essential mineral can’t be transported to the cells or body tissues for proper use. This results in iron accumulating in the blood and body tissues with no effective or safe way to be sequestered or excreted (except for menstruation).
Iron overload may be caused by numerous blood transfusions, iron shots or injections, and consuming high levels of iron via supplements. Individuals most susceptible to iron toxicity can be exposed to high levels of iron from their food choices, the type of water they drink, and their occupation, and are typically men. Electrical workers, iron pipe handlers, steel workers, and welders are exposed to high concentrations of iron daily.
Why Haven’t I Heard about This Before?
The mystery of iron overload lies in the body itself. Researchers know that the protective mucosal lining will decrease or increase iron absorption depending on the amounts in the body, but they don’t fully understand how this mechanism works.
Health professionals are aware of this gap in knowledge, and some seek to change that. For example, medical officials once believed that this overload only occurred in individuals with an inherent genetic defect—hemochromatosis—which allows unchallenged iron absorption to occur. This disorder was thought to cause more than one million deaths per year. But according to the estimates of H. Ralph Schumacher Jr., MD, a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, the prevalence of inherited hemochromatosis—once thought to be 1 in 20,000—is actually as high as 120 in 20,000. He also states that cases of acquired iron toxicity continue to escalate.
Meanwhile, Virgil Fairbanks, MD, of the Mayo Clinic is an advocate for testing the opposite ends of the spectrum. He focuses not only on anemia, or the iron-deficiency aspects of iron, but also on its possible accumulation. According to Dr. Fairbanks in his article Hemochromatosis or Iron Overload-The Neglected Diagnosis, the unrecognized prevalence of iron overload is an epidemic, due to missed opportunities to test for the iron overload spectrum of fatigue by health officials.
Harvard physician Kenneth Bridges, MD, a hematologist (study of blood and blood diseases) and board member of The American Hemochromatosis Society, maintains that iron overload is the most unrecognized problem in American medicine.
Diet Is the Best Medicine
It is essential that people understand the sources of iron in their diets. Liver contains more iron than just about any other food. Six ounces of liver can contain 37 milligrams of iron—substantially more than a day’s supply. Three quarters of a cup of a fortified cereal can contain up to 18 grams of iron. Other foods with high iron content are blackstrap molasses, carrots, chicken, clams, fish, kidney beans, olive oil, pumpkin seeds, oysters, raisins, red meat, spinach, most seafood, turkey, turnip greens, white flour, and whole-wheat bread.
From the above examples, it is easy to see that a balanced diet would supply a good amount of iron.
If you eat red meat, levels of a type of iron called heme are boosted. The body is less able to regulate the absorption of heme. Alternatively, vegetarian and vegan diets have an obvious advantage to controlling iron levels because many plant foods contain a type of iron called non-heme iron, which the body can easily regulate.
Current data also indicates that individuals engaged in moderate to heavy consumption of alcoholic beverages cause the body to increase its uptake of dietary iron almost twice as much as light drinkers. This is a direct result of alcohol’s depleting effects of zinc, an iron antagonist, according to Bradley, Wertheim, MD, at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
Since the body has no reliable way to excrete iron except for menstruation, acute iron overload is treated via phlebotomy (bloodletting or withdrawal), drugs to lower iron levels, or a combination of both. However, there are many natural ways to limit iron absorption as well. Exercise is one of the most effective, and eggs can also help. Eggs contain a protein called phosvitin which can inhibit iron absorption by 28 percent. Additionally, compounds called phytates have been shown to decrease iron absorption by 50 to 65 percent. Phytates can be found in unprocessed cereals, fibers, sesame, soy, wholewheat flour, lentils, peas, whole grains, almonds, and walnuts.
Iron overload doesn’t just occur as a result of a genetic disorder. Natural selection and how the body’s physiology is able to utilize, store, and discard iron are the biggest culprits. So how should we be fueling our exercise? We know now that iron is involved with producing inborn energy to fuel our body systems—not just our workouts.
It is much healthier and safer to focus on pre– and post–workout formulas that are packed with energy-generating complex carbohydrates that are used quickly as fuel for your hard-working muscles. Make sure your iron intake satisfies the body’s physiological need for it, and not your need to sustain everyday energy or survive workouts.
Health officials have established a very moderate dietary intake of supplemental iron because a healthy, balanced diet should take care of the suggested dose. However, iron absorption and retention rates vary from person to person, and it is therefore recommended that you consult a healthcare professional before adding supplemental iron to your diet.
>> Warning Signs of Iron Overload
Some general signs of iron overload are abdominal pain, black stools, chronic fatigue, diminished sex drive, fluid retention in the lungs, joint pain, impotency, loss of period, and a metallic taste in the mouth.
>> Iron and Vitamin C
Studies indicate that a diet with large amounts of citrus fruits and vegetables can increase iron absorption from a meal by 4.14 times per 100mg of vitamin C. This is because vitamin C plays a key role in making sure iron is absorbed properly. In people with iron deficiency anemia, the tag team of iron and vitamin C is crucial to the iron absorption that is necessary for body health and wellness.
>> How Much Is Too Much?
Data indicates that iron overload affects both genders. The suggested daily dose of iron is 18 mg for women, 10 mg for men. Researchers at the FDA state that the safe upper limit of daily oral doses of iron is 45 mg, unless otherwise directed by your physician, but others recommend not exceeding 27 mg a day.
By George L. Redmon, PhD, ND