Having too much iron in your body can result in a medical condition known as haemochromatosis. There are several forms of this condition but the most common one is referred to as genetic haemochromatosis (GH).
What is haemochromatosis?
Most people are aware that if there is not enough iron in a diet, a person can have a medical condition known as anaemia, one of the most common nutritional deficiencies throughout the world. However, in haemochromatosis the opposite happens: the body absorbs too much iron, and the human body does not have a natural mechanism to remove unwanted iron once it has been absorbed.
Iron is an essential mineral that the human body needs to make haemoglobin, which is an important protein in red blood cells. Haemoglobin helps deliver oxygen to cells throughout the body (it also makes blood red in colour). The small intestine absorbs iron from food during digestion. About two thirds of the iron absorbed from food will be used to make haemoglobin, and of the remaining third, the majority of it is normally stored in the liver with a small amount being divided among other organs and skin tissue. One theory is that the body stores iron as an evolutionary survival mechanism, so it can replace blood lost through bleeding more quickly than if the body had to first absorb iron from dietary sources.
When red blood cells die, the iron in the haemoglobin is recycled to make new haemoglobin, with any leftover going into storage, so only a small amount of iron is lost each day. In the body there’s normally about 3–4g of iron. Once more than 5g of iron is absorbed, the excess will be stored around the body. In people with haemochromatosis, at least two times as much iron as normal is absorbed from their diet, with the excess stored around the body, which can mean 20g or more. Besides storing excess iron in the liver, it may be stored in the pancreas, heart, ovaries or testes, skin and joints.
Signs and symptoms of haemochromatosis
Excess iron normally builds up over years, so symptoms often don't normally appear in people with genetic haemochromatosis until they reach their 30s or 40s. However, because women typically menstruate, symptoms usually appear later, when they are closer to their 50s. Symptoms can include:
Some people with haemochromatosis experience mood swings, depression and mental confusion. Symptoms normally start off being vague, with the person at first feeling tired and having joint pains. Symptoms become more specific if the condition remains undiagnosed and untreated.