- 1 Iron Function – Yes, Iron & Hormones Are Closely Related
- 1.1 Functions of Iron
- 1.2 Iron Storage
- 1.3 Iron Disorders
- 1.4 Iron Deficiency
- 1.5 Diagnosis
- 1.6 How Iron Levels Affects Your Hormones
- 1.7 Dietary iron
- 1.8 Get Clarity With a Proper Diagnosis
Iron Function – Yes, Iron & Hormones Are Closely Related
How can it be that us women again, get the short end of the stick when it comes to iron disorders, specifically iron deficiency. It is estimated that around 20% of women and 50% of pregnant women are iron deficient, while only 3% of men are iron deficient. What is this all about?! Iron function is really important and I want to not only explain iron deficiency but iron toxicity, because we must be careful to not over supplement to try to overcome possible iron deficiency. I also want to clearly explain the difference between anemia and iron deficiency because they are NOT the same, and it is really unfortunate that they are used interchangeably.
Functions of Iron
The first thing to understand is the function of iron. Iron MUST bind to another chemical, because in the free-standing state, it is TOXIC to the body.
a. Transports oxygen from the lungs to the body’s tissues:
To do this, iron binds to:
- Hemoglobin protein in red blood cells responsible for carrying oxygen to the tissues from the lungs.
- Myoglobin protein found in muscles that is used for storage of oxygen.
b. Binds with enzymes to help with metabolism. Many enzymes REQUIRE iron to do their job, and most of these are the enzymes that require iron to function, are those that convert the nutrients you eat, into energy for the body to use.
We typically have about 4 to 5 grams of iron in the body if we are well-nourished.
70 percent of this amount, is the iron that helps transport oxygen, and is there stored with hemoglobin and myoglobin.
The rest of the iron is stored in a non-toxic state, by it being bound to a protein complex called ferritin. Each ferritin complex can hold over 4000 ions of iron. The majority of ferritin complexes are found in the liver,
This can happen in 1 single dose of iron or an over-accumulation of iron over time.
Taking too many supplements, eating too many foods high in iron, or taking too many iron injections.
The following doses can cause iron toxicity: (1)
1. Single doses as low as 10 to 20 mg/kg;
2. Doses greater than 40 mg/kg which require medical attention
3. Doses greater than 60 mg/kg can be lethal.
This is more specifically when all the proteins that mind to iron are saturated, and the levels of iron are too high, resulting them to be in the stand-alone state in the body.
Usually the result of too many blood transfusions or a genetic hereditary disorder called Hemochromatosis.
Risks & Symptoms of Too Much Iron
SOME of the risks include:
- Damage to the gastrointestinal system
- Death of cells
- Fatal damage to the liver (long-term risk) and/or liver cancer
- Damage to other organs and the blood is also possible
- A serious electrolyte disorder called metabolic acidosis where there is a large acidic imbalance in the body.
- Fatal damage to the brain (long-term risk)
- High levels of heme iron (red meat) associated with an increased risk of colon cancer
- Heart attack or heart failure
- Thyroid issues (hypothyroidism)
- Decrease function in the pituitary
- Bacteria-forming diseases – bacteria needs iron to survive and grow. So free radicals of iron will cause bacteria to grow.
- Hypoganadism (I also discuss this in more detail below)
- chronic fatigue
- abdominal pain
- joint pain
- skin color changes (bronze, ashen-gray green)
- loss of period
- loss of interest in sex
- hair loss
- enlarged liver or spleen
Treatment for excessive iron must be obtained through a doctor only. A doctor can use medication alone, and/or iron reduction therapy, which involves the REMOVAL of blood from the body. Only a doctor can decide if the person is able to handle the regular removal of blood to treat iron toxicity.
This is the most common form of iron disorder, and what is commonly referred to as anemia BUT THEY ARE NOT THE SAME.
Iron Deficiency = Low Iron
Anemia = Low hemoglobin
**You can be ONLY iron deficient and not anemic, and you can be anemic and not iron deficient. You can have BOTH as well. Now this is important to understand for DIAGNOSTIC reasons.
1. Not enough iron intake
2. Increased iron demands through developmental stages (from fetus to adolescence)
3. Blood loss through menstruation, blood donations, blood disorders etc
1. During pregnancy and child development:
Premature births, low birth weight babies, delayed growth and development, delayed normal infant activity and movement are all associated with iron deficiency during pregnancy.
Poor memory or poor mental function and associated to lower IQ levels.
Symptoms can include:
- chronic fatigue
- weakness and dizziness
- sore tongue
- sensitivity to cold
- shortness of breath doing simple tasks
- the desire to chew ice or non-food items
- loss of interest in work, recreation, relationships, and intimacy
Which People Are More At Risk?
This is because women use all their stored iron, to compensate for the iron lost each month through menstruation, through pregnancy through breastfeeding and during menopause.
If you are a vegetarian, ensure you eat plant based iron foods simultaneously with vitamin C foods. This is because the absorption of plant-based iron requires vitamin C, where animal-based iron does not.
3. Fetuses, Infants and children
You can not determine if you have too little or too much iron just through symptoms. You have to ask your doctor to request a blood test, to measure the levels of IRON or FERRITIN.
Now be careful ladies! Many doctors do a finger prick test, which gives the level of hemoglobin, but if this is normal, hence not anemic, this does not conclude that you do not have low levels of iron.
Hemoglobin DOES not measure iron deficiency, but anemia. There are many that go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed and I do not want that to be you.
SO BE SURE THAT YOUR DOCTOR DOES A BLOOD PANEL IF YOU ARE EXPERIENCING SYMPTOMS.
The normal range of ferritin in women is approximately 20 to 200 ng/ml.
How Iron Levels Affects Your Hormones
Iron Toxicity Affects Pituitary Gland
OK so this is why you need to REALLY ensure you do not supplement with too much iron, because TOO much iron, or iron toxicity, leads to hypogonadism. Now what the heck is this?
Remember my article where I spoke largely about the endocrine system? This is the system that controls all your hormone production and hormone release. Also remember that hormones are the MAIN messengers in your body that allow all your organs, cells and tissues to function properly. One of the most important glands of the endocrine system is the pituitary gland, which in part of the brain.
Well the pituitary is involved in the secretion of many hormones, but for us ladies, it is LARGELY responsible for the hormones we need to have a healthy reproductive system. In other words, important for puberty, menstruation, egg development/ovulation and fertility.
So TOXIC levels of iron cause the pituitary gland to SHRINK in size, which is known as hypoganadism.
Studies have shown through MRI testing, that people with iron overload occurs most rapidly between 10-20 years of age and this is when pituitary volume loss first becomes evident. The volume loss is then more significant during the third decade of life.(2)
I am not saying that taking too much iron supplements for a few months or even a couple of years will do this. First of all, this study was done on people with iron overload which were people who have a genetic disorder. This is a a whole different ball game. But still, making sure that your children or yourself, especially if you are in you 20s, do not over just take iron because you hear it is “good for you”. Things that are good for you are NO LONGER good for you in excess amount PERIOD. This becomes even worse, if the excessive intake occurs over a prolonged period.
Iron Deficiency Affects the Thyroid Gland
The thyroid gland is another important gland that forms part of the endocrine system.
Iron is important for the production of both red blood cells and thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). TSH is important for the proper functioning of the thyroid so being iron deficient will again affect all the hormones produced by the thyroid.
There are 2 forms of dietary Iron, and depending on if you have too much iron or too little, will determine if you should eat more or less of these foods.
1. Heme iron is found in animal food, and the highest level of iron is found in red meat, such as beef liver. Other sources of heme iron are:
- Chicken liver
- Oysters, clams and mussels
- Beef, ham and veal
- Canned sardines
- White fish
2 Non-heme is found mostly in plants and requires vitamin C to be absorbed.
- Enriched cereals
- Cooked beans
- Pumpkin seeds
- Canned Lima beans
- Dried apricots
- Baked potato
- Nuts (peanuts, pecans, walnuts, pistachios, etc.)
Usually supplements and/or dietary changes are sufficient to deal with iron deficiency. To learn about the different types of iron supplements, and the ones I recommend the most, read this article.
If taking a specific iron supplement vs a daily multivitamin containing iron, I would recommend you confirm your low iron through a blood test and follow the dose recommended by your doctor. A follow-up blood test should also be done a few months later to see how your levels have changed,
According to WebMD, taking iron during pregnancy and breastfeeding SHOULD be safe, but again speak with your doctor.
According to Mayo clinic, the doses suggested vary depending on the concentration of the supplement, your personal health, your age and WHERE you live. If you look at the doses suggested, they differ depending on if you live in Canada or the USA.
Get Clarity With a Proper Diagnosis
So again ladies, we are at a higher risk of developing iron deficiency. The symptoms are also very similar to hypothyroidism so if you are experiencing these symptoms, make sure your doctor does a full blood panel. The issue could be your thyroid only, or having low iron may have subsequently affected your thyroid. Regardless, you need to know the root of the problem in order to address it properly and have success with treating your symptoms.
It is concerning that many articles out there interchangeably use iron deficiency with anemia. You can have BOTH of these, and the term used is anemia iron deficiency. But one this is for sure one does not equal the other. They require a difference diagnostic measure and completely different treatment. Being educated gives you the opportunity and advantage to be in charge of your health.
Have any of you ever been diagnosed with anemia? iron deficiency? Or do you experience any of the symptoms mentioned?
Share and let us know!