by Dr. Larry Wilson —
Iron is a vital mineral in the human body. Iron overload, however, is deadly. Most physicians believe it is rare and mainly hereditary, but in fact, it is far more common and more dangerous than we thought possible.
The roles of iron
Iron has three major roles in the body. First, oxygen binds well to iron. This allows hemoglobin, an iron-containing molecule, to transport oxygen from the lungs to the body’s cells efficiently. Iron is also required for electron transport to produce energy at the end of the Krebs energy cycle. These are critical body functions.
Lastly, as a component of the catalase enzyme system, iron protects the body from free-radical damage, which is also extremely important.
Sources of iron
A major source of iron for millions of people is refined wheat flour or white flour products. To make it, the millers first remove the fiber (bran) and the germ, the finest parts of the wheat. The remaining product is mostly starch and almost worthless nutritionally.
Problems with iron-enriched products abound. While they actually contain little iron, they have too much iron in relation to other vital minerals. As a result, we absorb far too much of the iron. White flour also usually contains chlorine, bromine, aluminum and other toxins. Many people do not even realize they are consuming white flour because it is legally labeled as “wheat flour.” It may also be labeled “enriched flour.”
Red meats (especially beef), vitamin and mineral supplements, dark-colored foods, shellfish and organ meats are other sources of iron. Prenatal vitamins must contain iron, as it is needed for the proper growth and development of a human fetus.
Iron pollution of the water, food and air is quite common in some areas. It can even cause “food poisoning” from shellfish, and many other problems. All well water should be checked for excess iron, as it can be deadly.
Occupational exposure to iron is very common for welders, pipe makers, iron and steel workers and others. Some children are born with high iron levels, when iron is passed from their mothers through the placenta.
Tobacco, certain dark hair dyes and even some henna products contain excessive iron. Iron cookware is not a problem unless used often. Alcohol intake increases iron problems by depleting zinc.
Acquired or heredity
Recent articles in the New England Journal of Medicine and elsewhere indicate that a person may have iron overload without having either the hemochromatosis gene or other transparent reasons for the problem, such as multiple blood transfusions or other obvious exposure.
In another study of heart disease, 13 percent of those screened had indicators of iron overload. This cannot be explained by heredity. It also correlates with findings in my own practice and that of other researchers and physicians.
Detecting chronic iron toxicity
Most often, serum tests are used to detect iron overload. The tests are not completely reliable and may even return with normal results; a person can be anemic and still have iron toxicity. A serum iron level above 100 is suspect. Transferrin saturation, serum ferritin and total iron binding capacity (TIBC) are considered better tests. A good diagnostic test is a liver biopsy, but it is invasive and painful.
I use hair tissue mineral analysis. The hair must not be washed by the laboratory for best results. Only two laboratories offer this method of treating the hair. Hair tissue iron will usually be low to normal. However, an aluminum level above 0.3 mg% or a manganese level above 0.03 mg% is indicative of iron overload. If both are present, chances are even greater. Hair tissue mineral analysis is cost-effective, noninvasive and sufficient for most initial assessment purposes.
Note that the ideal iron level in the hair ought to be around 1.9 mg% or 19 parts per million in an unwashed hair sample. It is important to actually review the level, not just factor it into the diagnosis, whether a lab reports it as high or normal.
Diseases associated with iron excess
Iron is associated with all the major diseases of our time. These include diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, cardiovascular disease and macular degeneration. It can also contribute to hyperactivity, violence and other behavioral disorders. Here is why.
Excess iron replaces other necessary minerals in critical enzyme-binding sites. This reduces their activity or destroys them outright. Zinc, copper, silicon and selenium are among the vital elements that iron can replace in certain enzymes and tissues. This replacement phenomenon causes countless symptoms.
Severe inflammation is another effect of iron toxicity. Some is due to the replacement of other minerals by iron. However, iron oxide is a compound that is very damaging due to the effects caused by what are called oxidants or free radicals.
Oxidant damage prevents tissues from regenerating adequately. This leads to the breakdown of every organ in the body. In turn, it contributes to every disorder imaginable. Much of what is called aging may be related to this phenomenon.
Encouraging the growth of some bacteria and viruses is another scourge of iron toxicity. This increases a person’s susceptibility to chronic infections.
Reduced cellular energy production is the other major problem associated with iron overload. This occurs because iron is required for energy production. At toxic levels, however, iron can become biologically unavailable and this reduces energy production. Lower energy can manifest as chronic fatigue syndrome, aches and pains, depression, anxiety and, ultimately, cancer.
Reducing excessive iron
Iron is difficult to eliminate by natural means. It is so essential for the blood that the human body conserves it carefully, rather than risk excreting too much. Menstruation in young women is one of the only natural mechanisms for eliminating iron rapidly. Menstruation helps women avoid some of the disasters associated with iron toxicity and assists them in living longer than men.
Here are simple, effective ways to reduce iron toxicity.
Diet is most important. Begin by eliminating or drastically reducing all enriched-flour products and other iron-enriched foods, which include most processed foods. Most wheat products and even some rice products may be enriched. Organic corn chips, however, are not, but should contain sea salt, rather than table salt. Table salt exacerbates iron excess because it is low in most vital trace minerals. As the body becomes more deficient in these elements, it tends to absorb more iron.
Limit red meat intake, except perhaps some lamb once a week. Other foods to avoid or reduce include shellfish, molasses, red beets, spinach and tomatoes, especially when prepared in iron cookware. Also limit, or preferably eliminate, all tobacco and alcohol intake. Tobacco is especially high in iron. Alcohol depletes zinc, which causes the body to absorb more iron.
Other general ways to increase iron removal are to limit all refined sugars and all ascorbic acid-rich foods with meals, since vitamin C enhances iron absorption. Such foods are mainly fruits and fruit juices. These also tend to upset blood sugar and worsen health as a result.
Read labels carefully on your vitamin and mineral products. Many over-the-counter and prescription drugs may contain iron. Beware of fulvic or colloidal minerals, zeiolite, azomite and other earth-based products that may not even require a label listing their ingredients. Get rid of iron cookware and beware of dark- colored hair dyes. Some brands are much better than others. A hair analysis will confirm if the dye is too high in iron or manganese. Also, if your water comes from a well, check it for iron every few years.
More ways to remove iron
Sufficient rest — This is essential for iron removal due to the way iron is used in the body. Rest and stress reduction alone will go a long way to reducing iron absorption. Most people need eight to 10 hours of solid sleep and rest daily.
Stress reduction — Many methods help relax the body and reduce sympathetic or fight-or-flight activity. They range from slow walking, meditation and gentle exercise, to yoga, t’ai chi and other relaxing activities.
The above dietary recommendations can help the nervous system tremendously. In addition, reduce or eliminate harmful chemicals in your diet, especially excitotoxins such as MSG and aspartame, also labeled as Nutrasweet or Equal. Hundreds of other potentially toxic additives are hidden in most prepared and “fast” foods.
Supplements such as calcium, magnesium, zinc, copper, ox bile and pancreatin also have a parasympathetic effect.
Other supplements — Green tea or better, green tea extract, may reduce iron absorption and also remove some iron from the body. Various minerals such as calcium, magnesium, zinc, copper and selenium can interfere with and reduce iron absorption, as well as help remove some iron from the body.
Antioxidants, especially vitamin E, are important. Iron tends to deplete body stores of vitamin E, and white flour products do not provide this nutrient. Avoid vitamin C at mealtime, however, as it can enhance iron absorption if taken with meals. Other antioxidants are often helpful as well, such as selenium, chromium and alpha-lipoic acids. Sulfur-containing amino acids such as L-taurine, L-cysteine and L-methionine are also helpful for general liver and kidney detoxification efforts.
Ways to assist iron elimination through the kidneys, liver and skin — Common methods to accomplish this include herbs such as milk thistle and dandelion for the liver and uva ursi for the kidneys. Another very effective method is daily use of an infrared light sauna. Colon cleansing and enemas are also excellent at times.
Digestive help — When iron is elevated, it is essential for the body to absorb vital minerals that can compete with and replace it. Most people have inadequate digestion, impairing healing.
The digestive aid I use most is pancreatin with ox bile. This product is very effective and also parasympathetic in its effect, due to the pancreas extract it contains. In addition, it protects somewhat against the development of cancer, which is an end result of iron toxicity. Pancreatin can also kill a range of parasites and yeasts in the intestines, which are very common in those with iron toxicity.
Specific iron antagonists and chelators — These can be most helpful, but can also easily unbalance body chemistry by removing other minerals as well as iron. Antagonists, which mostly interfere with iron uptake in the intestines, include zinc, selenium, sulfur, manganese and other trace minerals.
Hair analysis, when interpreted according to Dr. Paul Eck’s method, can carefully guide one so as to use antagonists in amounts that do not worsen the balance of the body chemistry. This is imperative to obtain the best results.
Chelators, while also helpful, are not usually required if the lifestyle and dietary aspects are adhered to. They include synthetic chelators such as EDTA, deferoxamine or IP-6 (a form of phytic acid). These can be dangerous because they have side-effects, often due to removing many vital minerals along with iron. However, some physicians use them.
Natural iron chelators such as vitamins A, C and E, sulfur products and others may be somewhat helpful when used correctly. Once again, one must make sure these do not unbalance the chemistry or confuse the body with too many tablets, as this will slow or even stop progress rather than enhance it.
Other therapies — These may include a wide range of methods to help create a relaxed, balanced and rested body. I like simple methods that can be done at home, such as foot reflexology and acupressure. They are not, however, central to iron removal.
Emotional release — Curiously, there is a link between iron toxicity and emotions. Releasing chronic anger, rage and resentment greatly facilitates iron release in some individuals.
Iron overload is not just a rare hereditary condition. It is, in fact, quite common in the developed nations of the world. It is producing widespread enzyme damage, severe inflammation, lower energy levels and extreme oxidant or free-radical damage.
The toxic effects of iron overload may help explain the major epidemics in our culture.
To see a more complete version of this article visit www.drlwilson.com and click on iron toxicity.
- N Eng J Med, 1999, Hereditary hemochromatosis in adults without pathogenic mutations in the hemochromatosis gene, Pietrangelo, A. et al., 341:725, September 2.
- Neurology, 2003, Parkinson’s disease risks associated with dietary iron, manganese, and other nutrient intakes, Powers, KM et al., Jun 10;60(11):1761-6.
- Amer J Clin Nut, 1998, 68:3-4, Calcium used to inhibit iron absorption.
- Life Extension Foundation, 2000, Disease Prevention and Treatment, Third Ed., pp.317-321.
- J Royal Soc Med. 1988, “Iron added to flour: Is it nutritionally beneficial?,” M J Hall, May; 81(5): 280–283.
Dr. Lawrence Wilson has a medical degree and has been in the health field for more than 25 years. His books include Nutritional Balancing and Hair Mineral Analysis, Legal Guidelines for Unlicensed Practitioners, Healing Ourselves and Manual of Sauna Therapy and The Real Self. He also co-authored Toxic Metals in Human Health and Disease and contributed to The Dangers of Socialized Medicine. www.drlwilson.com or 928-445-7690.
Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 26, Number 5, October/November 2007.