Con­trol­ling iron Over­load

Too much iron can be as bad as too lit­tle

Woman's Weekly (UK) - - Short Story By Gabrielle Mullarkey -

The grad­ual build-up of iron lev­els in the body over many years is a hered­i­tary con­di­tion known as haemochro­mato­sis. It’s one of the most com­mon ge­netic dis­or­ders and af­fects around one in 200 peo­ple – es­pe­cially those from a Celtic/Euro­pean back­ground. The faulty gene causes us to ab­sorb twice as much iron as we need. This much ex­tra iron is thought to in­crease free rad­i­cal chem­i­cals in the body, linked to age­ing and many dis­eases. But the ex­cess builds up grad­u­ally from child­hood, so symp­toms take years to ap­pear – of­ten in our thir­ties or for­ties, or even later in women, as we lose some iron in our pe­ri­ods.

The genes

In 90% of cases, the HFE gene is to blame, but other mu­ta­tions are some­times in­volved. You won’t de­velop haemochro­mato­sis un­less you get two doses of the faulty gene, one from each par­ent. A sin­gle dose means you’re a car­rier, with a one in two chance of pass­ing on that sin­gle dose. If your part­ner is a car­rier too, your chil­dren have a one in four chance of get­ting the double dose.

The symp­toms

These come on slowly and may seem vague at first, or re­sem­ble other med­i­cal con­di­tions that af­fect us from midlife on­wards. Early symp­toms in­clude feel­ing con­stantly tired, joint pains, weight loss, and ir­reg­u­lar or ab­sent pe­ri­ods. As the de­posits in­crease in your skin, you may de­velop a per­ma­nent tan. In other or­gans, how­ever, these de­posits can pro­duce se­ri­ous com­pli­ca­tions. Your liver may de­velop scar­ring and stop work­ing prop­erly, which can lead to cir­rho­sis or, in rare cases, cancer.

You’ll no­tice tummy pain, nau­sea, jaun­dice (yel­low eyes and skin) and itch­ing. As your pan­creas be­comes af­fected, you may de­velop high blood sugar and di­a­betes. Joints feel stiff and painful and heart-mus­cle dam­age

may lead to heart fail­ure with chest pain, breath­less­ness, an­kle swelling and pal­pi­ta­tions. Men de­velop erec­tion prob­lems, and both sexes lose their li­bido.

The treat­ment

This in­volves re­mov­ing iron from your body. It’s like giv­ing a 500ml blood do­na­tion, weekly at first, then ev­ery two months or so. If this isn’t ef­fec­tive, you may be pre­scribed chela­tion ther­apy (tablets to make you ex­crete iron). Many of your symp­toms will im­prove, but you may need treat­ment for di­a­betes, heart fail­ure or other com­pli­ca­tions. You’ll need to avoid iron, vi­ta­min C sup­ple­ments and for­ti­fied ce­re­als con­tain­ing iron. Your doctor may also ad­vise against drink­ing tea, cof­fee and al­co­hol with meals, as well as avoid­ing iron-rich foods (red meat, liver and kid­neys) and raw shell­fish.

The Haemochro­mato­sis So­ci­ety can pro­vide sup­port (helpline 03030 401 102; haemochro­mato­sis.org.uk).

Dr Me­lanie Wynne-Jones has over 30 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence

as a GP

The con­di­tion is caused by the faulty HFE gene Cir­rho­sis of the liver

Skin dark­en­ing

Loss of li­bido Iron is used to make red blood cells in the bone mar­row Ir­reg­u­lar heart­beat or heart fail­ure High blood sugar and/or di­a­betes

Joint pain

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