Why Iron Is the Most Underrated Factor in Health

I wrote an article at Medium.com, Why Iron Is the Most Underrated Factor in Health. I’m reposting it here.

You’ve got your diet and exercise locked down, you sleep well, take a few supplements, in general, you follow good health practices. Is there anything you’ve forgotten?

Yes, excess iron, the most overlooked factor in health. Iron, which accumulates in our bodies over a lifetime, can cause heart disease, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases; it can increase the rate and severity of infections and lead to faster aging.

Evolution and Iron

Iron is a required nutrient: we need it to make red blood cells to carry oxygen, for energy production, and for many other critical functions. In the course of our long evolutionary history, iron has not always been abundant in our food; for this reason, as well as its critical necessity, our bodies have evolved mechanisms to grab iron and hold on to it. But we have not evolved any way of getting rid of it.

When humans are growing, they require plenty of iron for their development, but after maturity, the iron accumulates, often to high enough levels to damage cells and lead to disease.

Iron is a reactive element. When exposed to air and water, it rusts, and when inside our bodies, it can react with components of our cells — lipids, proteins, cell walls — and damage them. That’s how it leads to illness and premature aging.

Men, Women, and Iron

Women live longer than men, about four years longer in the present-day United States. Men suffer higher rates of heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and diabetes.

Women also have much lower levels of iron in their bodies than men. Two factors are responsible for this: 1) blood stores most of the iron in the body, accounting for up to 80% of all iron; 2) pre-menopausal women lose blood through the menstrual cycle. As a result, until menopause, women accumulate much less iron than do men.

At age 45, men have about four times the amount of iron in their bodies than women, and at the same age, men have about four times as many heart attacks as women.

For a long time, doctors and scientists ascribed the startling sex difference in heart disease risk to hormonal differences. But in 1981, Dr. Jerome Sullivan first proposed that the difference was due to the far higher iron levels in men.

After menopause, iron levels in women begin to rise, and so do their rates of heart disease, but on average, their levels never catch up to men.

Blood Donors Are Healthier Than Non-Donors

Blood donors lose large amounts of iron with each donation, and they also have lower rates of heart disease, as much as 88% lower.

The immediate objection to this fact is that blood donors are likely to be healthier than non-donors even before they give blood, since they can’t be accepted for donation if they are unhealthy, nor would they be likely to donate if they felt unwell.

To get around this, a number of studies have looked at health differentials between frequent donors and non-frequent donors. Frequent donors have better health and lower heart disease rates than non-frequent donors.

Lowering iron through therapeutic phlebotomy (bloodletting) results in much lower cancer rates: 35% less, and a 60% lower risk of death from cancer.

Coffee, Tea, Chocolate, and the Mediterranean Diet

Many studies have reported on the beneficial effects on health of coffee, tea, and chocolate. Frequent coffee drinkers have lower death rates, and high consumption of chocolate has the same effect, for example.

It turns out that these all inhibit the absorption of iron from food.

The Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes high intake of fruits, vegetables, fish, olive oil, and red wine, and low consumption of red meat, results in lower rates of heart disease and cancer than a typical Western diet.

The Mediterranean diet results in far lower levels of body iron, about half as much as in those eating a typical Western diet. The fruits and vegetables, olive oil, and red wine in the Mediterranean diet all inhibit iron absorption, and red meat, which is high in iron, isn’t consumed as much.

The lower body iron that comes from consuming a Mediterranean diet may be responsible for most or all of its beneficial effects on health.

Why Don’t We Hear More About Iron and Health?

The skeptical reader may wonder, if iron is as important to health and disease as I claim in this article, why we don’t hear more about it.

Physicians and scientists are familiar with the dangers of very high iron, seen in such disorders as hemochromatosis, or hereditary iron overload. But the levels of iron discussed in this article as capable of causing diseases are within a range that doctors consider normal.

In the case of heart disease, the cholesterol theory has held sway for most of the past several decades. Doctors and scientists enamored of this theory may be reluctant to consider the prospect that iron may play a large role. As Max Planck said, science advances one funeral at a time.

In the case of diseases like cancer or Alzheimer’s, the role of iron is a fairly recent discovery and is only now coming to be considered seriously.

Perhaps the most compelling reason why iron has been such a neglected topic in health and disease is because there’s little money to be made from it. Pharmaceutical companies can’t make huge profits from lowering iron and therefore have no incentive to promote the idea. In turn, physicians don’t hear about it.

The interventions that lower iron, which include blood donation, or natural compounds like curcumin and green tea extract, are all cheap or even free.

Conclusion

Iron is an important cause of aging and disease. Keeping iron levels from becoming excessive could prove to be one of the most important things you can do for health and long life.

This article has only touched on some of the most important aspects of iron as it relates to health, and most scientific references have been omitted for the sake of simplicity. But if the reader wants to get the full story on iron, as well as practical ways to control it, see my book, Dumping Iron: How to Ditch This Secret Killer and Reclaim Your Health.

PS: Check out my Supplements Buying Guide for Men, and my new book, Dumping Iron.

PPS: Stay tuned for my interview with Michael Fossel, M.D., PhD, author of The Telomerase Revolution. Should be awesome.

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Leave a Comment:

14 comments
Ollie says April 20, 2016

Mr. Mangan, I sincerely believe that in due time, your work highlighting the effects of iron will be viewed as a great contribution to the interest of public health, perhaps on the order of the anti-tobacco efforts. The more I investigate the issue myself, the more I find damning evidence against the iron fortification of processed food. I know you have been diligently studying the subject, and are likely familiar with most of the available material already, but I hope some of the links I dropped in previous comments are of use to you. Keep up the good work, sir.

Reply
    P. D. Mangan says April 20, 2016

    Ollie, thank you so much, I’m grateful to hear that. I’m certainly not the only one who has ever said anything about the ill health effects of iron, nor is it my original research – I just compile it, more or less. But the effects of iron are large, and basically no one knows about it. Let’s hope the word gets out.

    Reply
      Rick Duker says January 30, 2017

      I had never heard of the hazards of iron either until I started reading this blog. Since I’m not a blood donor i will need to consider my options for reducing it. Thanks for bringing this to light.

      Reply
ConantheContrarian says April 22, 2016

Mangan, you have talked about green tea extract, which I assume is a supplement in a capsule. Is it more effective than drinking green tea? If one drinks green tea, is there a special brand that should be chosen over others? Thanks for the great information.

Reply
    P. D. Mangan says April 22, 2016

    Conan, a green tea extract capsule has about 5 times the polyphenols as a cup of green tea. This will obviously vary depending on brand of capsule and brand of tea you compare it to. If you want to go all out, try Japanese matcha tea – it’s expensive. Otherwise no, but you might want to avpoid cheap tea from China, which often seems to be contaminated with heavy metals.

    Reply
Erik J says April 24, 2016

What kind of frying pan do you recommend? I’m thinking of buying a carbon steel pan, but they and cast iron pans emitt small amounts of iron into the food. But “non-stick” pans usually are made of some other questionable often poisonous material.

Whats your take on this?

Reply
    P. D. Mangan says April 24, 2016

    Hi Erik, cast iron pans do put small amounts of iron into food, depending on what you’re cooking. Tomato sauce and other acidic foods leach the most iron, on the order of 1 to several mg. Carbon steel pans I know nothing about. I also have to be agnostic on Teflon: I use one myself, and I’m not aware of any significant toxicity, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Here’s an article that says when used correctly, there’s little danger of toxicity with teflon: http://swac.web.unc.edu/thepipettepen/ask-a-toxicologist-is-it-safe-to-use-teflon-pans/ Seems to me that carbon steel would not put as much iron in food, but that’s a guess.

    Reply
      Erik J says April 24, 2016

      Thanks, im also thinking about a ceramic pan. But I’m quite young yet (in my 20’s) so perhaps i dont have to worry very much about iron overload yet?

      Reply
        P. D. Mangan says April 24, 2016

        Yes, iron overload isn’t usually evident at that age, but ferritin is increasing rapidly. By age 30, something to be aware of.

        Reply
How I Plan to Reach 110 Years of Age - Rogue Health and Fitness says April 27, 2016

[…] other nasty things. I’ve lowered my ferritin  to, at last check, 77, and plan to go lower. Keeping iron low is the most underrated factor in health. Read my book, Dumping Iron, to find out the several ways you can keep iron in the low normal […]

Reply
Tuba says June 3, 2016

I recently got my “iron” test back from the V.A.. Which of the four measurements am I suppose to pay attention to in regard to your thesis and monitoring it? Iron Saturation 25%; Ferritin 69.4 ng/ml; Transferrin 278 mg/dl; iron 99 ug/dl.

Reply
    P. D. Mangan says June 4, 2016

    Ferritin is the one that determines iron stores, and yours is pretty good at about 70.

    Reply
Ole says June 19, 2016

Everything with moderation. Low iron stores increases the bioaccumulation of cadmium. Cadmium is primarily found in vegetables, grains, meat/organ meats. Cocoa also has a significant amount of cadmium. Cadmium primarily damages the kidneys.

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0041008X07001901

Reply
    Tuba says June 19, 2016

    The phrase “Everything with moderation” is an excuse not think. Try some cyanide in moderation.

    Reply
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