We are much more likely to suffer from not enough iron, especially if our diet depends on the proximity of McDonalds. But, one in 300 Americans suffers from the disease called hemochromatosis – their bodies absorb too much iron from food and cannot get rid of it. The disease is much more common in white people of European origin than any other ethnic group, and it affects men more than women.
Inherited and acquired iron overload
Inherited or primary hemochromatosis is a genetic disorder. It means you got it from your ancestors. You might not have symptoms right away, but your body is accumulating iron in liver, heart and pancreas, causing them to eventually fail. It takes a long time to accumulate toxic amount of iron, depending on your nutrition, of course, and most people do not show any symptoms until they are in their 40s.
It is not very common, but it is possible to develop iron overload because of some other blood disease: you had too many blood transfusions, you have a long-term alcoholism or suffer from some other disease.
Effects on general health
If anyone in your family has been diagnosed with hemochromatosis, go see a doctor and get tested too. That way you can start taking measures to lower the amount of iron you consume before problems occur.
If untreated, hemochromatosis can create a range of health problems. Liver is the most vulnerable and the lack of treatment can cause liver cirrhosis, liver failure or liver cancer. Other health issues that can be developed as complications of untreated hemochromatosis are arthritis, diabetes, heart problems, testicular atrophy, yellowing (bronzing) of the skin, and vulnerability to some bacterial infections.
How will you know if you suffer from iron overload?
Since genetics play the major role in the development of this disease, as soon as someone in your family has been diagnosed, check if you are OK. If there is nobody, as far as you know, who has the disease, see your doctor if you have more than one of these symptoms:
- Stomach pain
- Fatigue and lack of energy
- Skin darkening of yellowing
- Joint pain
- Loss of sexual desire
- Weight loss
- Loss of hair
Since the disease is completely preventable if caught early, the American Hemochromatosis Society suggests testing newborn children of parents who have the disease in the family. There are several non-invasive tests available.