Iron is essential to nearly all known living organisms. Because iron reacts and binds with oxygen very easily, it is the critical component for oxygen transport in every cell of the body. Even though many species have unique energy production systems, most rely upon oxygen in order to produce this energy.

bloodEach breath we take brings oxygen into our lungs, which is then bound to the iron inside of red blood cells. This iron molecule is called hemoglobin. When hemoglobin captures oxygen, it turns the blood cell red. The red blood cell then travels throughout the body until it crosses a cell that is signaling for more oxygen. The red blood cell then docks to the cell and releases the oxygen, which is then recaptured by iron containing compounds within the cell to then be utilized for its various functions.

Iron, though found in every cell in the body, is most concentrated in the liver, heart, and brain. Because these organs have high energy and nutrient demands, large amounts of iron are needed in order to manage the energy production system.

When the body has sufficient amounts of iron, the body’s iron absorption mechanisms are slowed down in order to prevent too much iron from entering the body. Very few cells release their iron stores easily once they have sufficient quantity. New red blood cells are often made with recycled iron from dead red blood cells.

While most essential nutrients in the body are gradually depleted over the course of time, iron obeys different rules. Iron deficiency is among the most common deficiencies in the modern world. Its symptoms are often slow to appear and often require a significant amount of time to correct.

On the other hand, it is completely possible to have too much iron in the body and for it to become toxic and cause serious harm. Iron overdose is not as rare of a condition as one might imagine. Especially in men, dangerously elevated iron levels are becoming increasingly common.

Iron deficiency can occur from a number of different sources, predominantly diet related. Among the most common methods for women to become deficient is through heavy or prolonged menstrual bleeding. Women with these conditions are at high risk of developing anemia and iron deficiency.

Less known, but more pervasive is dietary iron insufficiency. Many substances found in common foods greatly inhibit the body’s ability to absorb iron, and depending on gender, age, and genetics, can gradually lead to depletion of body stores of iron and manifest into an apparent iron deficiency. Phosphoric acid in sodas and carbonated beverages not only inhibits iron absorption, but actually promotes excretion of iron from the body.

Sodium EDTA, among the most common preservatives in the world, also inhibits absorption and promotes excretion. Caffeine and tannic acid, from tea, also prevents iron absorption.

grainsIn grains and cereals, the most abundant sources of iron in the plant are in the germ and the bran, but through modern milling processes about 75% of the naturally occurring iron is removed from the grain. At the behest of the government, manufacturers restore or ‘fortify’ their grains with iron, but the form of iron they use is more difficult for the body to absorb and utilize meaning that eating grains or baked goods that use enriched or fortified nutrients are severely lacking in bioavailable iron.

Besides limited iron availability in the diet, there are also a number of circumstances in which the body will actually reduce the amount of available iron in the body intentionally. We humans are not the only species that relies upon iron to thrive, but bacteria require iron in order to proliferate. Bacterial infections thrive when there are abundant iron ions in the blood stream or in the gastrointestinal tract. When the body detects a bacterial infection, it releases signaling molecules that trap all of the iron in the body within the cells and prevent its release. This is done in order to force the bacteria to scavenge, or attack cells for their iron, but such actions require a tremendous amount of energy and often the bacteria will run out of fuel and become too weak to effectively defend against the immune system.

While this may sound like a positive scenario, and it very well may be if we lived in a perfect world, but alas this is not the case. Bacterial infections trigger inflammatory responses in the body, and it is this inflammation that triggers cellular iron hoarding. However, there are other sources of inflammation, many dietary, which can also cause the body to deprive itself of iron. In people with chronic inflammation, iron deficiency can occur as a result of this prolonged ‘lock-down’ on iron which can cause a unique form of anemia, and subsequently immune system impairment, fatigue, and a host of other symptoms.

Blood tests that indicate very low iron stores in the body can also, on occasion be indicative of cancer activity in the body. Cancer cells, similar to bacteria, require large amounts of iron in order to proliferate. In fact, chemotherapy agents typically target cells that are rich in iron, and since cancer cells tend to be among the richest in iron when they are growing that the chemo tends to find it easily. Unfortunately, blood, sperm, liver, heart, and brain cells are also iron rich and can be affected by these types of chemotherapy agents as well.

Iron deficiency, though among the most common nutrient deficiencies in the world, an emerging condition is iron overload. There are situations where the body takes in more iron than it can use and won’t allow iron to be excreted from the body either. This is how the body becomes overloaded with iron. The iron that isn’t inside of cells travels freely throughout the bloodstream where it can react with oxygen molecules to form what are called ‘radicals’. Radicals are highly reactive oxygen molecules that can cause serious harm to the surrounding cells, tissue, DNA and other parts of the body. Ironically, very high iron levels have been linked to increased risk of colorectal and other cancers. It is ironic, because low iron levels can sometimes indicate cancer activity in the body, yet high iron can also be a precursor to cancer in the body.

balanceIt appears that our bodies walk a thin red line when it comes to iron levels. Too little and the body’s necessary functions become impaired, too much and the body is damaged. If either extreme is carried to far, death is a possible result.

It might be easy to assume that because iron balance is so critical to health in the body, that testing its levels would be common practice in the medical field, but unfortunately, iron imbalance is often unrecognized or misdiagnosed.

Doctors and other medical professionals rely upon symptoms to first indicate which areas to test and what conditions to look for. Iron deficiency does not always immediately manifest symptoms because first the body’s reserves must be depleted. This can be either a fast or a slow process depending on lifestyle and genetic factors.

But then once symptoms do manifest, there is another issue: compare the symptoms of iron deficiency with iron overload:

Iron deficiency:

  • Weakness
  • Nausea
  • Pale skin
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Severe fatigue
  • Brittle nails
  • Headache
  • Restless legs
  • Sore tongue
  • Craving non-food substances like dirt and ice (common in children).

  • Iron overload:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Upset stomach
  • Heart palpitations
  • Joint pain

  • In severe iron toxicity, bloody stool, vomiting, and even death can occur if untreated. With severe iron deficiency, anemia, and potentially death can also occur if left untreated for too long.

    If you compare the symptoms of both extremes, you’ll notice they both contain relatively generic symptoms. How many other conditions can you think of that manifest as: headaches, fatigue, nausea, especially in the early stages. Iron imbalance is frequently overlooked in these early stages because it is assumed that the body regulates iron well and there is sufficient amount in the diet available if one consumes enough meat. That is how an iron imbalance goes undetected until the symptoms are too severe to ignore.

    Diagnosing an iron imbalance also requires accurate testing. There are different types of iron in the blood and not all are tested for. Without the whole picture of iron levels in the body, iron imbalance cannot be accurately assessed. There are four different types of iron tests, and most doctors tend to do the simplest and the cheapest, but it is the one most susceptible to artificial fluctuations from other conditions unrelated to iron levels.

    Here at the Nutrikon Wellness Center, our standard procedure is to use all four of the iron assessment tests in order to get the complete picture of iron metabolism in the body and also control and assess for any irregularities that may cause fluctuations in the results.

    These tests are classified as: iron levels test, ferritin test, Total Iron Binding Capacity (TIBC) test, and Transferrin tests.

  • blood testIron Levels Tests measure the amount of iron in the blood serum that is being carried in the transferrin, a blood protein plasma.

  • The Transferrin Tests measure that amount of transferrin in the blood, not necessarily how much iron is inside.

  • The Ferritin Test measures the amount of ferritin, which is a protein that contains iron, which the body uses as storage for later use.

  • The TIBC Test measures the amount of iron that the blood would carry if the transferrin were fully saturated. Since transferrin is made in the liver, it can be used to assess liver function.

  • Using only one of these tests will only tell you one aspect of the iron story in your body. Knowing how much iron is in the blood, but not stored may give a false picture, as will the converse.

    Improper diagnosis and lack of proper testing are extremely common in the medical field at large, but in our center, we strive to utilize as much testing as possible to gain the most accurate assessment of our patients’ conditions so that we can provide the most effective help and relief.