What is "hemochromatosis"?
My ex-husband was recently diagnosed with an excess of iron in his blood. The medical term for this condition is called "hemochromatosis". His iron level was double the normal level in a man's blood results. But what does iron do in your body? Iron is the essential element for blood production: it is required for the production of red blood cells (R.B.C.). These cells, in turn, are part of the haemoglobin (Hgb) which binds with oxygen and helps in its transportation throughout the whole human body. Iron is also involved in the conversion of blood sugar into energy. It also helps in the production of enzymes such as the ones necessary for the manufacture of new cells which is indispensable during the recovery process from an illness or an accident.
You ingest iron through the foods that you eat. It is in higher concentration in beef, seafood such as clams and oysters and in the liver of pork, chicken, beef and lamb. Iron is better absorbed from these meat sources but plant iron is better regulated in the body, meaning that it is less harmful than the meat iron. One of the most common causes of iron overload is the regular consumption of alcohol which helps to increase iron absorption of any iron in the diet. Women of course, are fairly immune from iron overload because of our monthly cycles with its blood loss. But in men, iron excess is another story.
As presented above you would think that too much iron can only make you stronger and better, just like the good old fashioned Popeye or the new Iron Man. But in fact iron overload or excess can cause more damage than bring on benefits in men mostly. That is because iron is not excreted easily through urine, bile or sweat. The primary method of losing iron in men is by shedding of cells from the skin or the gastrointestinal tract (G.I.), and also by chronic or sudden blood loss such as a blood donation or an accident. As such, when men experience an iron overload, this extra iron deposits itself in different organs. Iron deposits in the testicles cause shrinkage of the testicles and eventually possibly impotence. Iron deposits in the pancreas, where insulin is produced, cause a decrease in insulin production resulting in diabetes. Iron deposits in the heart muscle can bring on cardiomyopathy (a chronic disease of the heart muscle) and may lead to heart failure and even a heart attack or a myocardial infarct (M.I.). Iron accumulation in the liver brings on eventually scarring of the liver (cirrhosis). Iron excess can also increase your risk of cancer such as liver or testicular cancer and other types of cancer.
Symptoms of hemochromatosis are vague but they include the most common symptom of all diseases: chronic fatigue. Alongside this symptom can be joint pain, loss of sex drive, abdominal pain, depression and change of skin color, such as jaundice (yellow tinge), reddish or gray-olive.
The best way to diagnose hemochromatosis is my a series of blood tests which check the iron levels and also the ferritin level, which is a protein that helps store iron in the blood.
There is not a plethora of treatment for treating excess iron. The main treatment is phlebotomy which is having a certain amount (usually a pint) of blood drawn to remove the excess iron. This is equivalent to a blood donation. The treatment can start aggressively with 1-2 phlebotomies per week until the iron levels return to normal level.
To conclude, to all men who are are of Irish, Scottish and Northern European descent, who drink everyday, who have a family history of high iron, beware and have yourself checked out. Women, also, should be monitored after their menopause for excess iron. Iron still remain an important element in everybody's health but in moderation just like anything else.
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