We’ve talked about the impact that chronic iron deficiency can have on your heart and now, continuing on with our series of Iron and Your Heart (in honour of Heart Month), I want to talk about the effect that too much iron – also known as hemochromatosis – can have on your heart.
What is Hemochromatosis?
Hemochromatosis, a form of iron overload disease, is the progressive storage of excess iron inside of cells. Those with hemochromatosis absorb surplus amounts of iron from food eaten. The body uses the iron it requires on a daily basis and when it cannot rid itself of the excess iron, it is then stored in the liver, pancreas, joints, heart and other organs.
This ‘buildup’ of iron will occur over many years and, if left untreated, can cause organ damage or dysfunction. For instance, too much intracellular stored iron can cause:
- An enlarged liver, liver failure, or scarring of the liver (cirrhosis)
- Heart failure or arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats)
- Diabetes (in relation to iron stored in the pancreas; due to defects in the insulin response to glucose)
- Arthritis (can limit joint function)
While the prevalence varies between different populations, the Canadian Liver Foundation estimates that the most common type of hemochromatosis (hereditary hemochromatosis) affects as many as 1 in 327 Canadians.
Types of Hemochromatosis
There are three different types of hemochromatosis:
- Hereditary hemochromatosis (or primary hemochromatosis) is caused by inherited gene mutations. Most people do not experience common symptoms until middle age, but some may not experience symptoms at all. A sub group of this hereditary type is Neonatal hemochromatosis, a severe and rare disease that causes liver failure and mortality in newborns due to iron rapidly building up in the liver.
- Secondary hemochromatosis is commonly caused by frequent blood transfusions in the treatment of severe anemia (not related to iron deficiency such as sickle cell anemia, thalassemia, etc.). Secondary hemochromatosis is not to be confused with iron toxicity (iron overdose), when someone takes more iron than directed in a short period of time
The symptoms of hemochromatosis can depict many other possible conditions (even symptoms of iron deficiency); it is important to know the symptoms and take action especially if you are experiencing a combination of symptoms:
- Chronic fatigue
- Unexplained or sudden weight loss
- Joint pain
- Increased glucose levels
- Irregular heartbeat
- Abdominal pain
- Change in skin colour – bronze or grey
- Loss of body hair
- Personality changes/mood swings – especially anger or severe depressions
Iron Overload and Your Heart
As mentioned above, excess iron can impair the muscle’s ability to pump and circulate blood throughout the body. When this happens, one can experience heart failure (congestive heart failure), which can cause further damage to other organs, potentially causing them to shut down.
What You Can Do
Those with hemochromatosis, or with a heightened risk of developing the disease, can help to moderate iron overload by:
- Limiting the amount of high iron-containing foods (ie. red meat) consumed
- Avoiding supplements with high amounts of iron
- Limiting vitamin C intake (absorption enhancer)
- Limiting alcohol intake (although no effect on iron absorption, this can decrease the co-morbid damage to hepatic cells and indirectly prevents liver damage)
- Blood donation
Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing any combination of the common symptoms mentioned above and/or have a family history of hemochromatosis. When diagnosing this disease, your doctor will look to your family history, conduct a physical exam, and order routine blood tests.
This month’s articles are dedicated in loving memory of my parents, Leo Dove (who suffered a catastrophic stroke in 1993 and passed in 1996) and Alice Dove (who suffered her first and fatal heart attack in 2001). The woman I am today, I am because of you. The best treatment for heart and stroke is prevention.
Content and advice provided on The Iron Maiden is for information purposes only and should not serve as a substitute for a licensed health care provider, who is knowledgeable about an individual’s unique health care needs