Iron - can we have too much of a good thing?


Many of us are aware that low levels of iron in our body is bad news and can lead to anaemia, but the risks of excess iron are less heard of, despite the toxic effects that an iron build-up can cause.


Emily Condon
BSc (Hons) Biological Sciences

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What is the role of iron in our bodies and why is it important?

Iron is an element that we require for a number of different bodily processes such as creating new red blood cells, carrying oxygen around our body and strengthening our immune system. Most of the iron in our bodies is found in haemoglobin, a protein in our red blood cells. Whilst a smaller proportion is stored in a protein called ferritin that is responsible for controlling the release of iron when levels are too low or high. Iron is transported around the body by a protein called transferrin.

Depending on our age and gender, we all require different amounts of iron. But in a world where lots of our food products are fortified with iron, it is important that we are aware of how much iron we are consuming and that a diet high in iron is not necessarily a good thing. 

For men aged between 19-64 years, it is recommended that they have at least 8.7mg of iron a day, 14.8mg a day for women aged between 19-50 years and 8.7mg a day for women aged 50-64 years. Premenopausal women typically need less iron because they are losing blood (and therefore iron) in their monthly cycle. After menopause, their requirements are the same as for a man. 

What are the risks of too little or too much iron?

Low levels of iron can lead to a decrease in the amount of oxygen carried around our bodies, eventually leading to iron deficiency anaemia. Symptoms can include fatigue, dizziness and headaches. Although not life-threatening, iron deficiency anaemia can increase the risk of heart disease as the heart needs to pump more blood around the body to compensate for low oxygen levels.  

Similarly, too much iron in our bodies can cause health problems such as hemochromatosis - also known as iron overload disease. Symptoms include arthritis, diabetes and liver disease. There is also increasing evidence that too much iron can cause the formation of free radicals and increase the risk of certain cancers, like colon cancer.

How does our diet affect our iron levels?

Because we obtain the iron that we need from our food, different diets can have an impact on our iron levels. There are two different forms of dietary iron: heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron is found in meats and fish whilst non-heme iron can be found in plant-based foods such as fruit, vegetables and whole grains. 

The body easily absorbs heme iron and because of this, diets such as the Paleo and Ketogenic diets are often found to increase levels of iron and vitamin B12 as they encourage a high intake of meat and fish. Our bodies find it more difficult to absorb non-heme iron and people who follow plant-based diets are at a greater risk of developing iron deficiency anaemia. Vitamin C has been found to aid the absorption of non-heme iron.

How can we reduce our iron intake?

The best ways to reduce the amount of iron in the blood is by reducing our intake of iron-rich foods such as red meat, avoiding using iron cookware and avoiding consuming vitamin C with foods that are rich in iron, as vitamin C increases iron absorption. Another surprising way to reduce iron intake is to donate blood regularly, as this gets rid of excess iron in the body.

What can we do to monitor our iron levels?

As iron is essential for our health, it is important we measure the levels of iron in our bodies to ensure we are not at risk of a deficiency or overload. Medichecks' new Diet and Lifestyle Check Plus include an iron status check as well as a number of other tests such as cortisol and magnesium to assess how our diet and lifestyle choices are affecting our health. A high level of ferritin and/or transferrin can be an indication of excess iron. This test can be completed at home with our easy to use finger prick test kit.

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