Iron overload is a condition where your body takes in and stores too much iron from the diet.
Iron overload (haemochromatosis)
Iron overload (haemochromatosis) a genetic condition that affects 1 in 200 New Zealanders, and it’s thought to be the most common genetic disorder in the world.
Most people absorb only as much iron as they need from iron-rich foods such as meat, seafood, grains, and green vegetables. The rest of the iron passes through the body.
But for people with iron overload, the body takes in and stores too much iron from the diet. Too much iron is toxic. The iron slowly builds up in the body, especially your liver, heart, and pancreas. Eventually, these organs can be permanently damaged by the excess iron.
Excess iron can also weaken your body’s immune system, which makes you more likely to get infections or illness. People who have iron overload at the same time as other conditions, such as cancer, hepatitis, or HIV, do not recover well until their iron level has been lowered.
Iron overload can be treated, and the treatment works well to prevent complications.
Some people with iron overload (haemochromatosis) never have symptoms.
Early iron overload signs and symptoms can be confused with other common conditions, so many people with iron overload aren’t diagnosed right away.
Common symptoms of iron overload include:
- joint pain
- pains in the belly
- extreme tiredness
- general poor health
- weight loss
- loss of sex drive or impotence
- sometimes the skin looks slate-grey or bronze.
Not every person with iron overload will have all of these symptoms. Sometimes they can be mistaken for other conditions such as arthritis, stomach ailments or chronic fatigue syndrome.
If a medical professional suspects you have iron overload, they can diagnose it with blood tests that measure the amount of iron you have in your blood. If the blood test suggests that you have iron overload, a 4–6 week trial of the treatment will confirm whether you have the disease.
It’s important to go through all of the testing. Getting diagnosed early and starting treatment helps reduce your iron levels and avoid future organ damage.
If you have iron overload, you’ll be treated by removing some of your blood (called venesection).
The procedure is similar to donating blood. When blood is removed from your body, your body makes more red blood cells to replace it, using up some of your stored iron.
When iron overload (haemochromatosis) is first diagnosed, you may need to have treatment every week for up to two years.
Once your excess stored iron is down to a safer level, your doctor will reduce how often you have treatment. This may be to three or four times a year.
Your health professional will monitor your blood iron level to make sure that it stays at a safe level.
If you are otherwise well, then the New Zealand Blood Service can use this blood as a donation.
When iron overload (haemochromatosis) is treated before severe organ damage has occurred, regular treatment to keep your iron levels under control will ensure there is no further damage.
If you do have some damage to your organs, it’s likely to be permanent, and you may need additional treatment to manage these conditions.
Iron overload cannot be controlled by altering your diet. However, these things can help:
- Eat a balanced diet (including a little red meat).
- Avoid alcohol, because alcohol can put stress on your liver.
- Avoid vitamin C and multivitamin pills, as vitamin C can increase iron absorption.
- Avoid iron supplements and iron-rich foods, like offal.
- Drink tea with meals – this can help reduce the amount of iron you absorb.
Check with your healthcare provider about making changes to your diet.