The Importance of Iron

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Iron

Iron is essential for human life, as it is a key part of various proteins and enzymes, involved in the transport of oxygen and the regulation of cell growth and differentiation, among many other uses. One of the most important roles of iron is to provide hemoglobin (the protein in red blood cells), a mechanism through which it can bind to oxygen and carry it throughout your tissues, as without proper oxygenation, your cells quickly start dying.

If you have too little iron, you may experience fatigue, decreased immunity, or iron-deficiency anemia, which can be serious if left untreated. This is common in children and premenopausal women.

But, while iron deficiency affects more than a quarter of the global population, it’s equally hazardous to have too much iron, and elevated levels are just as common, or perhaps even more so than iron deficiency, thanks to a hereditary disease known as hemochromatosis, one of the most prevalent genetic diseases in the United States. While I was seeing patients, I regularly screened my patients for ferritin, and noticed nearly one-fourth of them had elevated levels.

If you have more iron than what your body needs to satisfy your hemoglobin requirement (for cell oxygenation), the rest becomes a surplus. And since your body has a limited capacity to excrete iron, it can build up in your body, with potentially lethal consequences. Iron is a very potent oxidant stressor.

The oxidation caused by too much iron causes dangerous free radicals to form, which can cause significant damage in your cells and increase your risk of heart disease by damaging the inner lining of your blood vessels. It can also damage your DNA and promote diseases like cancer.

Ferritin Test — An Important Preventive Health Screen as Too Much Iron Is as Dangerous as Too Low
Fortunately, checking your iron levels is easy and can be done with a simple blood test called a serum ferritin test. I believe this is one of the most important tests that everyone should have done on a regular basis as part of a preventive, proactive health screen. The test measures the carrier molecule of iron, a protein found inside cells called ferritin, which stores the iron. If your ferritin levels are low, it means your iron levels are also low.

The healthy range of serum ferritin lies between 20 and 80 ng/ml. Below 20 is a strong indicator that you are iron deficient, and above 80 suggests you have an iron surplus. The ideal range is between 40 to 60 ng/ml.

This test saved my dad’s life some two decades ago when I discovered he had a ferritin level close to 1,000. It was because he has beta-thalassemia. With regular phlebotomies, his iron levels normalized, but the high iron levels damaged his pancreatic islet cells and now he has what is called “bronze” diabetes that requires the use of insulin. I inherited beta-thalassemia from him so I’m quite familiar with this issue.

I keep my iron levels normal by removing about a pint of blood a year, extracted over a few dozen deposits. Considering the dangers of elevated iron levels, I strongly encourage you to be screened annually for this, as it is so much easier to prevent iron overload than it is to treat it.