The Two-Edged “Iron” Sword

Dr. David DeRose, M.D. with Elizabeth J. Hall

So what’s the deal with iron? Is this metal truly worth its mettle? For a certainty, iron plays a huge role for the body’s health.

Worldwide, iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency with estimates of approximately two billion people suffering from iron-deficiency anemia! Here in the United States, a low iron level ranks as the most common cause of anemia, affecting roughly 10% percent of toddlers, adolescent girls, and women during their reproductive years. In developing countries, it is the third leading cause of disability for females of child-bearing age.

Additionally, a lack of this crucial mineral has potentially further-reaching effects than simply causing anemia. In children, impaired mental and physical development as well as lower IQ levels have been linked to childhood iron deficiency. Also, if a mother is seriously low in iron, her child may be born with an iron deficiency.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Yet at the other extreme is a condition called hereditary hemochromatosis, which is a genetic disease of impaired iron excretion causing excessive iron accumulation. Hereditary hemochromatosis is arguably the most common genetic disorder in our nation, affecting some 1.5 million Americans. It ultimately results in a toxic accumulation of iron levels in the vital organs such as the heart, liver, and pancreas, causing damage.

Not only that, but iron-overdose happens to be the leading cause of toxicological death in children younger than six years old, as iron pills can look much like candy, setting the stage for ingestion and accidental overdose.

Thus we’re faced with a two-edged “iron” sword. We all need some iron, but too much appears to be dangerous.  Where is the balance? The good news is that hemochromatosis is a treatable disease which ‘runs in the family,’ and iron pills masquerading as candies are often unnecessary in a household with a healthful, balanced cuisine!

What then, is the final verdict? There is still no question: all of us need iron in adequate amounts to live vibrant lives.

The ABCs of Iron

Perhaps iron’s most critical and most recognized role involves the oxygen-carrying protein, hemoglobin. Without adequate iron stores, the production of hemoglobin suffers and subsequently, oxygen cannot be effectively transported throughout our bodies. Iron is also a vital component in many human enzymes, playing a role in everything from neurotransmitters to cellular metabolism and from digestion to immune functioning. Clearly, iron deficiency is poised to take a significant toll on our bodies.

Common Causes of Iron Deficiency

Increased demand:  Infants, children, adolescents, and pregnant women have higher demands for iron; if the increased need is not met, anemia and other complications can result. The total iron need during nine months of pregnancy averages about 1,000 mg for the mother. Inside the womb, a full-term infant eventually stores 300 to 500 mg of iron. Regular, intense exercise may increase the body’s demand for it.

Excessive Blood Loss: Blood loss from any cause—whether it’s trauma, heavy menstrual bleeding, hemorrhoids, uterine fibroids, parasites, a stomach ulcer,  colon cancer, or the use of intrauterine devices—substantially increases the likelihood of iron deficiency. Menstrual blood loss is the most common cause of iron-deficiency anemia in women of reproductive age.

 

References

[i] Zeigler, EE, Consumption of cow’s milk as a cause of iron deficiency in infants and toddlers. Nutr Rev. 2011 Nov; 69: Suppl.:S27-42.

[ii] Fernandez, SM, et al., Intestinal blood loss as an aggravating factor of iron deficiency in infants aged 9 to 12 months fed whole cow’s milk. J Clin Gastroenterol, 2008, Feb. 42(2):152-6.

[iii] Miller, Daphne, M.D. The juice on cow’s milk for babies, webmd, 1999.

[iv] Craig, Winston, J., Nutrition and Wellness: A Vegetarian Way to Better Health, 2nd ed, Golden Harvest Books, Berrien Springs, Michigan, 2011, p. 141.

[v] Hurrell RF, et al., Inhibition of non-haem iron absorption in man by polyphenolic-containing beverages. Br J Nutr. 1999 Apr; 81(4):289-95.

[vi] Butler, Justine, Ironing out the Facts, Why Plant Iron is the Best, www.vegetarian.org.uk/factsheets/iron.html