The Irony of Iron: The Truth About This Double Edged Mineral

For most of our young lives, we were told to be sure to get enough iron in our diet and our multivitamins. As a public health nutritionist, I got the message over and over. And to be sure, iron deficiency with its classic symptoms of debilitating fatigue and shortness of breath, is something to be reckoned with. We even begin screening for it as young as 12 months of age because lack of iron can stunt a child’s development and growth. However, once you are around 18 years old, excess iron starts to accumulate in your blood at the rate of about 1 mg per day and continues to build up over the years.

Interestingly, women of childbearing age have roughly half the circulating iron that men have due to blood loss during menstruation. Women in this age group also have roughly half the rates of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. 

You have to wonder about the effects of all this iron accumulating in men. And, what about women who’ve gone through menopause? Both probably need less iron than they’re getting on a daily basis. Many processed foods such as flour, refined rice, cornmeal and breakfast cereals are fortified with iron, and many multivitamins are chock-full of it. 

All of this is to ensure that children and women of childbearing age receive adequate amounts. But, iron overload as we age is at least as much of a concern as iron deficiency at a younger age – and just as dangerous. It carries with it the risk of heart disease and hypertension – for both men and post-menopausal women – as well as a host of unpleasant symptoms including fatigue, low immunity, abdominal pain and lack of mental clarity.

You see, the problem is that once we accumulate more iron than we need, the protein ferritin stores the excess – until it can’t. The excess iron builds up, and this unbound renegade accelerates oxidative stress, essentially “rusting” your body tissues and organs, aging you prematurely. The result is a dramatic increase in your risk of heart disease, cancer, arthritis, cataracts, diabetes, osteoporosis, liver disorder, disease of the retina, and brain disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

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