Approximately 10 percent of the Caucasian population has a condition called hemochromatosis that causes a dramatic overload of iron in the body.464 It is five to ten times more prevalent in men than women, with an overall incidence of one in three hundred people.
While hemochromatosis is a genetically inherited disorder, not everyone with the gene has the full-blown clinical expression of the disease. About 18-20 percent escape the disease. When it is expressed, we see iron levels between fifty and one hundred times higher than normal in the liver and pancreas, 25 times higher in the thyroid and 10-15 times higher in the heart and adrenal glands.
Diagnosis is usually made by iron-blood studies. Normally, less than 5 percent of iron is unbound to ferritin, but in hemochromatosis, up to 35 percent can be unbound. In those with the disorder, transferrin saturation is normally greater than 55 percent and ferritin levels are greater than 200 ug. Transferrin is a transport protein for iron when it is traveling in the blood. Generally 25 percent or less is saturated with iron. Several other conditions can also be associated with iron overload, including alcoholism, heavy smoking, African siderosis, sideroblastic anemia and thalassemia. Due to persistently high concentrations of iron, liver disease eventually appears. The constant free-radical generation caused by high free iron levels in the liver leads to liver cell destruction and fibrosis.
We also see a dramatic increase in heart attacks and strokes in these same individuals. Most cases are treated by repeated transfusions, which is quite effective in ridding the body of excess iron. The success of this practice even lends credence to the ancient treatment of bloodletting. Maybe they weren't so ignorant after all! An easier way to remove excess iron is with a chemical known as IP-6, which tightly binds iron, preventing it from harming you. It can be taken as a capsule with meals to remove the iron from your food. When absorbed, it chelates iron from your tissues.
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