Jul 17, 2012
Tissue damage due to iron-generated free radicals is indistinguishable from damage caused by exposure to radiation from CT scans, mammograms, dental x-rays, and nuclear radiation fallout. A growing body of research suggests that consuming iron-fortified foods and iron-containing dietary supplements could pose a much greater health risk in men and women than has previously been appreciated. Published studies link elevated body stores of iron with such serious health problems as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, skin aging, vascular disease, cataract,and age-related macular degeneration.
A diet high in heme iron can also promote age-associated accumulation of iron in bone tissue that contributes to osteoporosis, especially as a woman’s estrogen levels decline with age. The rate of breast cancer rises significantly after menopause, concurrent with the accumulation and release of iron in the body.
Do you take a dietary supplement laced with iron? If so, this could pose health risks in certain groups of people because the conventional Paleo 2.0 diet already provides a rich supply of highly absorbable heme iron. This caution applies to most men and to postmenopausal women. Many healthy Paleo dieters could probably achieve healthy iron status on as little as 10 milligrams a day without suffering anemia. Yet most iron supplements provide 18 milligrams of iron, which combined with heme-iron-rich foods, continues to add to the iron burden throughout life. By age 60, iron levels in the body could be dangerously high in many people.
Although many health experts believe that a relative abundance of the hormone, estrogen, protects women against cardiovascular disease (the leading killer of women in the U.S.), one reason women enjoy such protection relative to men is due to their comparatively low circulating iron and body stores of iron and iron-related oxidative damage in arteries and the heart—that is, until they reach menopause, when their risk of cardiovascular disease and their iron levels both begin to rise to levels typically found in middle-aged men.
Throughout their reproductive years, women generally lose 20-40 mg or iron per month during their menstrual cycles, a magnitude of loss that can lead to iron-deficiency anemia (IDA). Another common cause of IDA is eating inadequate amounts foods rich in folate and B12 (I’ll address the subject of these and other iron-controlling factors, including ferritin, hepcidin, leptin, transferrin, and thyroid hormones in future post).
Iron deficiency anemia, the most common disorder of the blood, occurs when the number of red blood cells or blood level of hemoglobin (the blood’s oxygen-carrying protein) dips below normal levels, starving tissues of oxygen. During oxygen deprivation, vital organs cannot produce sufficient energy to meet functional requirements. Severe IDA can become a serious condition if left untreated. Pregnant women are at increased risk for developing IDA due to higher blood volume and to the elevated demands for iron for the fetus and the placenta. In such cases, iron supplements may be justified when prescribed by a physician.
Consuming plant foods that contain inositol hexaphosphate (IP6) and other iron-chelating phytonutrients while enjoying grass-fed beef, poultry, shellfish, and fish–all sources of highly absorbable heme iron — provide a balanced, Paleo 3.0-compatible way to prevent IDA while maintaining safe levels of iron in the body. Due to the serious health risks of iron supplementation, iron supplements and iron-fortified food and multivitamin-mineral products should be used as a last resort to correct IDA or as advised by your healthcare professional.
Iron Supplements: A Double-Edged Sword?
Women are less at risk for dangerous iron overload than men because of the blood they lose monthly during menstruation and because they tend to consume less heme iron from muscle meats. Women have about half the circulating iron levels as men and accordingly, their rates for heart disease, cancer and diabetes are also about half those of males. The average adult man stores about 1,000 milligrams of iron in his body; the average premenopausal woman stores about 300 milligrams in her body. It’s not until the age of 70 that a woman’s level of iron will equal that of a man half her age. At that point, rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease are nearly equivalent in both sexes.
In addition to menstruation, body iron can be reduced by donating blood, moderating intake of meat and liver, and consuming foods rich in iron chelators. Blood donation or consuming iron-chelating foods and natural compounds can improve insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance and possibly reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease in adult men. The reason? Blood loss through donation, like menstrual blood losses, affords protection against the diseases of aging by reducing body levels of free iron. Once a woman reaches menopause, blood donation would seem to be a reasonable option to help control iron stores and to reduce the increasing risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Vegetarians may be at higher risk of IDA because they avoid consuming such prime sources of heme-iron as beef and other muscle meets. For those who are not anemic, iron-chelating foods, beverages, and nutraceuticals may be an excellent diet strategy for reducing the risk of degenerative diseases. But it’s not just iron-rich foods that can cause damage–it’s the iron carried in red blood cells that release their iron from hemoglobin when they die–about every 90 days. Muscle cells also store iron in myoglobin, which is periodically released during exercise or injury. All of this recyclable iron accumulates in scavenger-like storage vesicles called lysosomes.
Iron And The Nanny State
The mandatory fortification of wheat flour with iron in the U.S. began in the 1940s. Most U.S. citizens are probably unaware that they ingest supplemental iron nearly every day of their lives whether they need it or not! Mandatory iron fortification of our food supply is an ill-advised public health strategy to insure that the poor, who subsist primarily on iron-poor starchy foods, obtain sufficient iron to prevent anemia. This is the same reason that the American Dental Association still promotes the use of mercury amalgam fillings, which can lead to toxic levels of the dangerous metal in children and adults. Mandatory iron fortification and and widespread use of mercury amalgam fillings are two examples of what can go terribly wrong when the government decides what is healthy for you. Don’t get me started on the dangers of mandatory folic acid fortification of grains! (But do please do read my post on this topic here).
The use of iron supplements to correct frank IDA may be warranted in certain cases of very low blood levels of hemoglobin, excessive blood loss, or genetic disorders that affect red blood cell structure, ferritin levels, or hemoglobin metabolism. Studies suggest that in most other cases, consumption of iron supplements, iron-fortified foods, and excessive amounts of heme iron in red meats, poultry, and seafood can lead to a decrease in insulin sensitivity and to an increase in damage to the endothelium (artery wall), which can promote atherosclerosis.
Current scientific evidence suggests that unless prescribed by a physician, iron supplements should be avoided, especially since so many food products are already iron-fortified. Reprogram Yourself® does not contain iron-fortified foods but it does recommend foods and natural compounds that can reduce the risk of dietary iron and copper overload. Accordingly, the risk of mineral overload is reduced relative to eating a SAD (standard American Diet) or Paleo 2.0 diet.
Iron-chelating foods, beverages, and nutraceuticals may help prevent iron overload in individuals at risk and thereby reduce the likelihood of developing cognitive dysfunction, diabetes, endothelial dysfunction, macular degeneration, and mitochondrial dysfunction.
Bottom line: Reprogram Yourself ® and its iron-chelating nutraceutical protocol can keep you from “iron aging” in the 21st century.
Iron absorption rates from foods and supplements can vary widely, from less than 1 percent to almost 100 percent. You can help regulate the amount of iron you absorb by using the following guidelines:
How to Limit Iron Absorption From Foods
- Consume foods rich in inositol hexaphosphate (brown rice, green tea, nuts, seeds)
- Include berries. cherries, citrus fruits, and grape skins in your diet because they contain iron-binding pigments
- Exclude such iron-fortified foods as breakfast cereals, breads and iron supplements
- Take vitamin C supplements apart from meals
- Use extra-virgin olive oil in cooking and on salads and vegetables
- Enjoy meatless Mondays or become a total vegetarian (you’ll only absorb a fraction of the iron you consume from vegetables)
- Use iron-chelating nutraceuticals
How to Boost Iron Absorption From Foods
- Cook in iron pots
- Eat more animal foods, especially beef and liver (about 30 to 50 percent of iron from meat vs. about 5 percent of the iron in plant foods is bioavailable).
- Eat foods rich in vitamin C or take vitamin C supplements with meals
☆ Disclaimer: This is my informed opinion. I could be wrong. What do you think?
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