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Hemochromatosis

Published on July 31st, 2015 by Dr. Jennifer Nardella and Dr. Meghan Haggarty

Hemochromatosis (he-moe-kro-muh-toe-sis) is a condition causing the body to absorb too much iron from food.  The excess iron is stored in the body’s organs, especially the liver, pancreas and heart.

Typically, the body has 4,000 mg of iron, of which 3,000 mg is contained in hemoglobin in the red blood cells.  About 500 mg is bound to the storage protein ferritin, and 300 mg is stored in the liver.  The protein that carries the iron from organ to organ around the body is called transferrin, and it helps regulate how and when iron is stored.

Excess iron accumulation in hemochromatosis is chronic and ongoing. If left untreated, the excess iron can prove poisonous to the organs and can cause serious conditions such as cirrhosis, cancer and heart arrhythmias. The condition tends to be more serious in men and symptoms generally occur later in life, between the ages of 50 and 60.  Women are more likely to develop any symptoms after menopause.

Hemochromatosis is a common genetic disease and of those that inherit the gene, only a small minority will develop serious problems or may never have symptoms.  Early signs and symptoms can be non-specific and may mirror other common conditions.  Common symptoms can include:

  • Joint pain
  • Severe/Chronic Fatigue
  • Weakness

The diagnosis of hemochromatosis is based on clinical features of the disease, such as elevated levels of ferritin.  Lab tests conducted in evaluating a suspected case include:

  • Genetic testing (testing your DNA for mutations in the HFE gene is recommended if you have high levels of iron in your blood)
  • Transferrin saturation levels (to measure the amount of iron bound to the protein carrying your blood. Values greater than 45% are considered too high)
  • Serum ferritin studies (to measure the amount of iron stored in your liver)
  • Liver function testing (if hemochromatosis is diagnosed) to ensure there is no damage to the liver from the excess iron

Hereditary hemochromatosis can be treated effectively by removing blood from the body (phlebotomy) on a regular basis (a blood donation) to reduce iron levels to normal. Afterwards, maintenance blood donation is continued at regular intervals to keep levels within a normal range.

You can reduce the risk of complications from hemochromatosis by:

  • Avoiding iron supplements and multivitamins containing iron
  • Avoiding vitamin C supplements, especially with food
  • Avoiding alcohol
  • Drinking tea (evidence suggests tannin-rich tea may slow the storage of iron)

Make an appointment with one of our naturopathic doctors today to learn more about this condition and the tests available to put your mind at ease.

(403) 282-4488