Isn’t Iron Ironic?
Iron is a potentially toxic heavy metal, and excessive intake and storage can damage metabolism and promote inflammation, cancer, heart disease, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, MS, diabetes and numerous other degenerative as well as infectious diseases.
“Iron may be carcinogenic in several ways: it catalyzes the formation of hydroxyl radicals which are cancer-causing agents, it suppresses host defenses allowing for proliferation of neoplastic cells and it acts as an essential nutrient for the proliferation of tumor cells.”
“…iron elevation is increasingly reported as a feature of Alzheimer’s disease…these data support…therapeutic strategies that lower brain iron, which have reported beneficial outcomes in Phase II trials of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases”
“Iron is considered to play a key role in the development and progression of Multiple Sclerosis…iron that accumulates in myeloid cells…may contribute to chronic inflammation, oxidative stress and eventually neurodegeneration.”
Whilst it’s common to be told that iron insufficiency is at the heart of a variety of issues related to aging and disease, experimental evidence continues to show the opposite to be true, and when it comes to maintaining metabolic health, difficulty often lies in ensuring one does not consume and absorb too much.
“Iron has been shown to accumulate in deep gray matter structures in many forms of multiple sclerosis (MS)…The findings suggest that iron deposition is a pathological change that occurs early in the development of MS.”
Blood tests commonly used as evidence of ‘iron deficiency’ can be diagnostically misleading, and fail to accurately measure iron accumulation inside tissue, thereby not giving a real picture of iron status.
Tissue stores of iron can be predictive of disease outcomes and are an important benchmark for a genuine and accurate determination of metabolic health.
When levels are too high, iron tends to accumulate in the liver (as well as in other tissue including the brain and bone marrow) promoting stress and inflammation, interfering with a number of metabolic functions, encouraging cancer development.
“Liver is the major organ for iron storage and has the largest capacity to store excess iron. The measurement of hepatic iron concentration by liver biopsy is the most reliable means to assess body iron storage…”
Although serum ferritin tests can be somewhat predictive of high iron stores – especially when levels are on the extremely high end – it has been demonstrated that the ratio of ferritin/AST (aspartate transaminase) is an accurate predictor of liver iron concentration, and is therefore an easier way to determine whether there is iron overload, avoiding more invasive methods such as liver biopsy. Ferritin and transferrin measured together can also help to give a more reasonable picture of actual iron storage status.
“Elevated serum ferritin does not always reflect iron overload…A combination of both parameters expressed as ferritin/aspartate transaminase ratio was highly predictive of tissue iron overload…without exposing the patient to unnecessary risks and costs.”
“In human studies, high levels of iron, measured as plasma iron, transferrin saturation and total iron binding capacity (TIBC), have been associated with an increase in overall cancer risk and an increase in the risk of dying from any type of cancer.”
Interaction between iron and the polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) powerfully promotes inflammation, damages metabolic performance, and has been shown to be a cause of degenerative disease, including cancer, MS and Alzheimer’s. It is also a significant factor interfering with liver health, preventing the liver from being able to properly carry out many important pro-metabolism and detoxification functions.
“Increased lipid peroxidation with age is well accepted as an index of age-related increases in oxidative stress…usually attributed to…the vulnerability of lipid molecules to oxidative reactions, due to their unstable double bondings…in the absence of iron, little lipid peroxidation is detected.”
“…results obtained…highlight the importance of the presence of heme iron together with the type of dietary oil, in the formation of secondary lipid oxidation products that are well known as oxidative stress biomarkers. The urinary excretion of DHN-MA and MDA strongly depended on the type of oil used in diets. This was expected since MDA comes from the peroxidation of PUFA…”
“Iron overload…in the MS brain can contribute to pathogenesis of Multiple Sclerosis and iron imbalance is associated with a pro-oxidative stress and a proinflammatory environment…this suggest that iron could be a target for MS therapy…”
“In MS lesions, oxidative stress appears to play a major pathogenic role…radical injury can be further amplified by transition metals such as iron…and iron toxicity has been suggested to participate in neurodegenerative diseases…”
Some of the symptoms which are commonly blamed on iron deficiency include fatigue, dizziness or lightheadedness, headache, tongue swelling and inflammation, irregular heartbeats, chest pain, weakness or shortness of breath, irritability, impaired immune function, restless leg syndrome, thinning hair, dry skin, brittle nails, cold extremities, brain fog, poor appetite, depression and anxiety, and of course anemia.
Symptoms such as these often elicit recommendations to increase iron intake with supplements or fortified food items containing excessive amounts of iron, often in the more reactive and dangerous reduced ferrous form.
Realistically, those symptoms mentioned (and many others) blamed on a lack of iron, are often the result of chronic exposure to stress, and the suppression of metabolic energy systems. This includes anemia, which is a common symptom of impaired thyroid function.
“In the deficiency of thyroid hormones, anemia frequently develops and may be normocytic, hypochromic-microcytic, or macrocytic…In our study, anemia frequency was 18% in the subclinical hypothyroid patients and 11% in the overt hypothyroid group.”
“…chronic disease anemia is the most common type of anemia in hypothyroid patients similarly with the literature. Suspicion of hypothyroidism should be considered in every case of anemia with uncertain etiology.”
Actual iron deficiency anemia (although possible), is unlikely and should be the last suspected cause. In fact, keeping iron stores low can be extremely beneficial for health. Serum ferritin levels have been shown to increase and decrease relative to thyroid function.
The liver plays an important role enabling the effective performance of thyroid energy systems, and the proper removal of excess estrogen from circulation. Excess iron accumulation in the liver interferes with this process, and high estrogen promotes iron absorption, thyroid dysfunction and degenerative disease.
“Iron has not received much attention in discussions of estrogen-induced carcinogenesis…In humans, elevated body iron storage has been shown to increase the risk of several cancers including breast cancer. A role of iron in hormone-associated cancer in humans offers attractive routes for cancer prevention by regulating metal ion metabolism and interfering with iron accumulation in tissues.”
The polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) are increasingly released out of storage into the system, when thyroid function is sub optimal, worsening the inflammatory effects of interactions between estrogen and iron, potentially creating a vicious circle of iron dysregulation which can be difficult to deal with and harmful.
Interactions between estrogen and PUFAs promote the kind of conditions which help to change ‘free’ iron into the far more toxic and reactive reduced ferrous form, making iron more dangerous and damaging.
A diet avoiding the PUFAs and minimizing excessive intake of high iron foods, is a rational approach to improving health and avoiding many kinds of degenerative disease.
A suppressed thyroid metabolism slows digestive function and adds further strain on the liver, and this allows for increasing amounts of bacterial toxins to enter the system, causing inflammatory issues. Bacterial endotoxin (LPS) promotes the absorption of iron from food, and ‘free’ iron has been shown to fuel bacterial growth, increase endotoxin levels, and interact with bacterial toxins, exacerbating their disease causing effects.
“…we review the evidence that….bacteria are a crucial feature of AD, that their growth in vivo is normally limited by a lack of free iron, and that it is this iron dysregulation that is an important factor in their resuscitation…A consequence of this is that the growing cells can shed highly inflammatory components such as lipopolysaccharides (LPS).”
A small amount of beef or lambs liver once a week has more than enough iron content. Because most cases of anemia are not a genuine reflection of low storage of iron – often being diagnosed on the basis of hemoglobin or red blood cell levels – improving thyroid function (rather than increasing iron intake) is generally all that is required.
Low testosterone has also been shown to increase the risk of anemia, and this makes sense in the context of metabolic suppression, high estrogen relative to progesterone, and an inflammatory state, all of which can be connected to excess iron.
Sufficient Vitamin A, K and copper (copper deficiency promotes excess iron storage, and iron interferes with copper usage), have been demonstrated to be effective for improving iron status and different measures of anemia (rather than an unnecessary increase in iron intake).
Anemia can also be the result of chronic inflammation, and so it may not be surprising to discover that iron promotes the release of nitric oxide, a powerful promoter of inflammation, and a substance which helps to increase levels of free iron. Reducing iron stores also limits the production of the inflammatory stress substance, serotonin.
Stress, and the things that interfere with metabolic function (including serotonin and endotoxin), promote carbon monoxide (CO) production, and rising CO not only increases inflammation and energy system suppression, it also goes hand in hand with the release of iron from inside the heme molecule (due to more exposure to the enzyme heme oxygenase which rises under stress), adding to iron buildup in the brain and other tissue and organs.
Iron increases serotonin and nitric oxide, and serotonin promotes nitric oxide and estrogen, and all of these things interfere further with energy system metabolism, and increase the risk of chronic inflammation, thyroid dysfunction, and iron dysregulation related disease.
Elevated iron levels are a risk factor for postmenopausal osteoporosis (PMOP), and it is reasonably common for menopause, chronic inflammation and thyroid dysfunction to go together.
It has been suggested that PMOP is made worse as a result of insufficient estrogen, however this is based largely on the popular belief that menopause is a low estrogen state. In reality, chronic stress, iron dysregulation, thyroid and liver dysfunction, inflammation, and excess estrogen (more likely to be found locked inside tissue post menopause) relative to progesterone, go hand in hand and promote each other.
Focusing mainly on pro-metabolic foods like milk, cheese, and gelatin to get sufficient protein, and including plenty of carbohydrate from sweet ripe fruits, fruit juice, honey and white sugar, is a good way to reduce iron intake, and an effective method for avoiding many of the thyroid related symptoms mentioned, including anemia, often misdiagnosed as iron deficiency.
Apart from reducing intake of iron, there are a number of generally safe and easy ways to either lower iron stores, or protect against some of the dangerous effects of iron in the body. These include regular use of aspirin, vitamin E, supplementation with glycine and taurine, certain kinds of antibiotics, as well as occasional blood donation.
“…iron reduction by phlebotomy decreased cancer risk in the apparently normal population. These results warrant reconsideration of the role of iron in carcinogenesis and suggest that fine control of body iron stores would be a wise strategy for cancer prevention.”
Many of the things which have been shown to protect against the toxicity of iron are also known to protect against the inflammatory and thyroid suppressive impact of the circulating PUFAs and excess estrogen (as well as numerous other stress related substances), and as such they can have powerfully synergistic disease protective, anti-aging effects.
Sugar lowers stress hormones and improves energy metabolism, limiting the release of the polyunsaturated free fatty acids, and maintaining glycogen stores, helping keep blood sugar levels stable.
Sugar protects against inflammation and thyroid dysfunction, and as such can help to prevent anemia as well as iron dysregulation. Sugar powerfully suppresses cortisol which when high, can also be associated with an inflammatory anemic state.
Diabetes symptoms have been demonstrated to result from interactions between iron, PUFAs, stress substances (including serotonin, nitric oxide and estrogen) as well circulation of bacterial toxins.
“Excess iron is usually stored in the liver, muscle, and pancreas and may cause organ-specific oxidative damage leading to insulin resistance and eventually beta-cell failure…higher iron stores may…contribute to the origin of type 2 diabetes in a generally healthy population.”
Sugar consumption (in the context of a nutritious diet low in iron and the difficult to digest starchy, fibrous, high PUFA foods) rather than being the cause of blood sugar dysregulation symptoms, is likely to be highly protective against them.
Too much iron can promote liver dysfunction, inflammation, estrogen excess, endotoxin issues, increased serotonin, nitric oxide, and free fatty acid levels, and all of these things have not only been shown to promote diabetes, but inflammatory disease in general.
Regularly consuming coffee with the consumption of foods high in iron can possibly help to limit excessive absorption. As vitamin C may be able to increase the absorption of iron, it is probably a good idea to avoid drinking things like orange juice together with meat if you are attempting to lower iron stores.
Many of the positive effects attributed to iron supplementation, can be explained as the short term response of the body to the introduction of a stress promoting substance (for example causing an increase in red blood cells or hemoglobin). Some foods that supply iron, also provide generous amounts of pro-metabolic nutrients, and it is common for the credit for improvement to be incorrectly given to iron. Also harmful effects of iron can take significant time to show up, and are easily misattributed down the track to some other cause.
There are so many ways that too much iron in the system can damage proper thyroid metabolism, it seems ironic (or perhaps a little tragic) that suppressed thyroid function is the predominant cause of the symptoms which so often lead to a recommendation to supplement with iron.
How many of your health issues, rather than having anything to do with iron deficiency, are actually being caused by suppressed thyroid metabolism directly connected to excess iron and PUFAs stored in your body?
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