Iron is an essential mineral we all need for normal functioning of our body But how many of us are aware that excess of iron in a person’s body can prove fatal? Yes, too much iron in your body can prove toxic, as it can accumulate in the body organs leading to failure of the organ. Read on for a quick understanding about a condition called as hemochromatosis seen in certain individuals due to iron overload in the body.

Normal iron content in the body

Iron is a mineral found in many food items that plays a vital role in the body. Normal iron content in an individual’s body is three to four grams. There is a loss of about 1 mg of iron daily from sweat, and cells that are shed from the skin and the inner lining of the intestines.

In a normal adult, the intestines absorb 1 mg of iron daily from food to replace the lost iron, and therefore, there is no excess accumulation of iron in the body. If there are excess of iron losses from the body, more iron is absorbed from food.

Hemochromatosis: Know the condition

An individual is said to suffer from hemochromatosis when there is too much iron build up or iron overload in his/her body. It is one of the most common inherited disorders, in which the daily absorption of iron from the intestines is greater than the amount needed to replace losses even in the absence of excess iron loss. Since the normal body cannot increase iron excretion, the absorbed iron accumulates in the body.

Over many years, iron accumulates to toxic levels that can damage or even destroy an organ. This excess iron is seen to be deposited in the joints, liver, testicles, liver, brain, and heart. Iron overload in the pancreas can cause a form of diabetes that is often resistant to insulin treatment and is called as “bronze diabetes."

Too much of iron in the heart can lead to arrhythmias/irregular heartbeats. And excess iron in the liver can cause an enlarged liver, liver failure, liver cancer or a condition called as liver cirrhosis in which there is scarring of the liver that prevents it from working properly.

Primary hemochromatosis is the most common type of disease, and runs in families. It is caused by a defect in the genes (HFE genes) that are responsible for controlling how much iron you absorb from food. These faulty genes cause the body to absorb too much iron.

A person is at risk of iron overload and can have signs and symptoms of the condition if he/she inherits two copies of the faulty gene (one from each parent). A person may only inherit one faulty gene from one parent. In that case he/she would become a hemochromatosis carrier who will not develop the disease but is capable of passing it on to their children.

Secondary hemochromatosis is seen to occur in an individual due to the presence of another underlying disease condition that can cause iron overload. Few such conditions are certain types of:

  • Anemia (thalassemia and sideroblastic anemia)
  • Atransferrinemia and aceruloplasminemia (inherited disorders)
  • Chronic liver diseases such as chronic hepatitis C infection, alcoholic liver disease, or non alcoholic steatohepatitis.

Other factors that can cause secondary hemochromatosis are:

  • Blood transfusions
  • Oral iron pills
  • Iron injections (with or without very high vitamin C intake that helps to absorb iron), and long term kidney dialysis

Only half of the individuals affected with hemochromatosis will show the signs and symptoms due to iron overload. The severity of the condition is seen to vary from person to person with some of them never having any complications despite high amounts of iron in their body. The condition is more common in men as compared to women, and in older individuals as compared to younger people.

Women are seen to be less likely to develop symptoms of iron buildup probably due to normal iron loss during menstruation. Signs and symptoms may include:

  • Joint pains
  • Fatigue
  • General weakness
  • Weight loss
  • Abdominal pain

Reproductive organ failure causes symptoms such as,

  • Impotence
  • Shrinkage of the testicles
  • Loss of sex drive in men
  • Absence of the menstrual cycle
  • Early menopause in women
  • Deposition of iron in the skin can make the skin look gray or bronze

A detailed medical history (symptoms, intake of iron pills, vitamin C intake), family history of the condition, physical examination (irregular heartbeats, arthritis, abnormal skin color, enlarged liver etc…) along with certain tests and procedures can help in the diagnosis of the condition.

Blood tests are done to check for the level of iron in the body and functioning of the liver.

A liver biopsy (removal of small sample of liver tissue to examine under the microscope) to check for the amount of iron in the liver may be done.

A MRI scan (uses radio waves, magnets, and a computer to create pictures of your organ) may be done to show the amount of iron in your liver.

Genetic testing may be done in certain individuals to show if they have the faulty genes for hemochromatosis however it cannot predict if they will develop the signs and symptoms of the condition.

Hemochromatosis treatment can be done effectively and safely by removing blood from the body on a regular basis similar to donating blood. It is done to reduce the high iron levels to normal. The amount of blood drawn depends on your age, your overall health and the severity of iron overload. Initially, a pint of blood may be taken once or twice a week. Once the iron levels have returned to normal, blood may be needed to be drawn for about four to six times a year.

If the individual cannot under the procedure of removal of blood then a medication that causes the body to expel iron from the blood may be prescribed. A doctor can inject the medication or else the individual can take it as a pill at home.

Few dietary changes that are recommended include avoiding iron supplements and multivitamins, avoiding red meat, abstaining from alcohol, and avoiding raw shellfish to prevent the increased risk of bacterial infection.