When it comes to vitality and disease, iron’s capabilities vacillate between volcanic and an improvised explosive device. This is because iron is the frontman when it comes to the delivery of oxygen, the very essence of your life force allowing your cells to survive and procreate. Adenosine-5-triphosphate (ATP), the currency of cellular energy, also hinges on the provision of adequate amounts of iron. The manufacture of DNA; brain chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine, which drive emotion, focus and movement; and antioxidant molecules, which mop up potentially harmful free radicals, are all ultimately beholden to and powered by the presence of iron.
The problem with iron is, as much as it is essential to our pranayama, having too much of it can be harmful.
The trouble with iron
The potentially lethal flipside to the marriage of oxygen and iron to provide energy is the generation of the most volatile and damaging of all the free radicals, called the hydroxyl radical, which in turn forms an illicit relationship with fats in the membranes of cells to ignite the destruction of brain cells, setting off the kind of raging inferno that might lie at the heart of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.
It’s not only dementias that owe their rites of passage to the actions of iron, though. Autoimmune diseases such as thyroid disease, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, heart disease associated with the blockage of blood vessels and cancers, including breast and prostate cancer, are in part caused by an excess of iron.
A gene known as CDKN2A/2B, which protects against cancer, is switched off by high levels of iron. Insulin, the hormone that controls blood sugar, becomes dysfunctional when iron levels are elevated, which can lead to diabetes. If too much iron can be downright dangerous, having too little of this essential molecule can be just as damaging.
Studies on rats show that when mitochondria, the battery of the cells where energy is made, are deprived or iron, they implode. Liver cells — where harmful chemicals are eliminated from the body — are unable to perform without an energy source, which is why they may become just as incapacitated by iron insufficiency as they may be when they have to deal with a surplus of iron. Reduced iron content in the brain has been associated with restless legs syndrome, a disorder that is especially disturbing, as it leads to uncontrolled movements of the lower limbs at night, compromising sleep.
In younger women, a lack of iron triggers a chemical called vascular endothelial growth factor, which increases the risk of developing breast cancer. What’s most disconcerting about the whole iron saga is that, for the most part, the conversation about iron doesn’t extend much further than who’s getting enough. Meat eaters usually trump vegetarians, which is probably why the health pendulum has swung back to encouraging us to eat meat. If your blood test shows you are deficient in iron, your doctor’s vision is unlikely to extend beyond finding out whether you are getting sufficient iron in your diet and whether you’re having heavy periods or, failing these, investigating the possibility of a tumour in your bowel that is haemorrhaging iron.
Doctors also don’t like it when you’re walking around without sufficient lead in your pencil, which means they will top you up if you are low in iron, especially when their scope of enquiry is unproductive. This could be a tragic error. Bugs love iron and what the body does when microbes appear on the horizon is hide iron, making sure the invading organisms have limited access to a nutrient that can aid their survival. On a blood test, this effect may mimic an iron deficiency — but it isn’t.
What most doctors aren’t aware of is that there’s a substance called transferrin, which carries iron around the body, and this rises when iron is lacking, relative to another substance called ferritin, reflecting how much iron the body has in storage. Having more transferrin suggests the body needs iron, while the converse indicates the immune system needs to be fortified and microbes need to be targeted. Supplementing with iron in this context would be counterproductive.
If you have a genuine iron deficiency, aside from the reasons listed above, coeliac disease and a bug in the stomach called helicobacter pylori could be further causes of low iron. The appropriate tests will identify these. Addressing them if they are present might improve iron status without the need to take extra iron.
There’s a number of causes of raised iron levels. Having too much iron in your bloodstream may make you feel unwell and fatigued and it might be damaging your DNA, mitochondria, liver and brain cells or these destructive effects may be in their early stages. Ideally, you would like to know if you have an iron problem before it does irreparable harm.
Having iron levels measured should be part of a routine health assessment performed by doctors. Often it isn’t. Haemachromatosis is a genetic disorder that sees to it that the body absorbs more iron than it needs. If iron levels are high, a further test will identify this genetic defect. Treatment involves removal of iron by regularly donating blood or at least having it removed. Both testosterone and oestrogen elevate iron, suggesting those who are boosting their hormones need to be mindful of this effect.
There is another more insidious reason for having raised iron levels and that is a condition called insulin resistance, often associated with weight gain and polycystic ovarian disorder. Women who aren’t overweight might also suffer from insulin resistance. This is a condition affecting a lot of women, suggesting many are sitting on a time bomb without knowing about it.
Dr Michael Elstein is a Sydney-based anti-ageing physician and writer. He is the author of two books, Eternal Health: The Comprehensive Guide to Anti-Ageing for the New Millennium and You Have the Power: Why didn’t my doctor tell me about this? Find out more at www.eternalhealth.org