Who eats iron?

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Everyone absorbs iron in their diet. Some of us can’t get rid of it as easily as others. Are there do’s and don’t, a special diet, forbidden horrors? Simple answer: no, no and no.

Present a medical condition that has something to do with diet and all the crazies come out of the woodwork. Iron absorption is a natural function of the human body. In people with hemochromatosis, it just happens to hang around. That iron is absorbed through your diet but it doesn’t follow that a decrease in iron in your diet will, necessarily, decrease iron deposits in hemochromatosis.

All food groups have iron and we only absorb a small fraction of that iron. There is some speculation that the iron we absorb is of the heme variety, as opposed to the non-heme, but that research is inconclusive. There is another theory that a defect in hepcidin, a circulating peptide produced by the liver, is the defect in hemochromatosis that causes greater intestinal absorption of iron. Heme iron is more prevalent in red meat and vegetarians have lower serum ferritin levels and so the dots get joined and two and two can become five.

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irondisorders.org

 

Iron supplements in food were introduced as a marketing gimmick in the 1950s and that’s about all it amounted to, a gimmick. Ok, don’t eat raw shellfish, not because of the amount of iron they do or do not contain, but more usefully because of other bacteria.

The one that really gets me going, though, is the assertion that cast iron pots could kill you. Well, I agree, if you want to swing a 12″ skillet at someone’s head. Those are heavy suckers. But absorbing killer levels of iron from a well seasoned skillet? Codswallop.

Look, the way I see it, is if you eat sensibly, you’re fine. Don’t take health supplements with concentrated iron and go easy on the vitamin c, particularly around meal time, as it facilitates the absorption of iron.

As a diabetic, my diet has always been based on three principles; low fat, no sugar, high fibre. Add plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit in to the mix along with a judicious balance of grains and nuts and you’re on a winner. Just because you have a condition with an iron overload doesn’t mean if you eat less iron, it will help you. Your body will still need iron and it will, if you’re eating a good, balanced diet, find it, too. The problem for people like us is getting rid of the excess, once the body has used what it needs.

I like to eat fish, particularly hake and mackerel. Coffee, I’m told, should be avoided but hell, Starbucks notwithstanding, I enjoy a sup of java. At the same time, a good friend of mine turned me on to Japanese Matcha tea that has a high tannin level, is an anti-oxidant and can lessen, if not entirely prevent, the absorption of dietary iron. And apart from anything else, a good cup of Matcha a day can get you involved in some wonderful tea making ritual.

Alcohol? ok, we should all drink less and yes, there is iron in beer and spirits, though a glass of wine is not to be sneezed at. I’m sure this has ruffled a few feathers but I don’t like fad food fascists. Eat sensibly and not in excess, you’ll be fine.

Please don’t take what you’ve read here as the gospel, according to how to behave with hemochromatosis. I’ve got my own problems to deal with and that involves staying healthy by eating as sensibly as I can. All I do is write about it.

 

 

Fun with Metal Detectors

Sinead O’Connor saved my life. Yes, that Sinead O’Connor. We were close friends and lovers at the time. She was dropping her daughter off at school and stopped at a shop to pick up a copy of the Irish Times, on her way home.

There was an article on the front page about a medical conference happening in Dublin and how the keynote speaker, Professor John Crowe, had read a paper about a blood disorder that came close to wiping out the Celtic race, a millennium before.

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She read on and began to realise the symptoms of this disorder were manifested by her boyfriend: arthritic pains in my fingers, particularly the left index; bouts of fatigue and diabetes. So she called me and I called my doctor. I explained to her what Sinead told me. My doctor asked me to come in.

There’s too much iron in my blood. It’s called hereditary haemochromatosis and it’s caused by a faulty gene. The body absorbs too much iron from the diet and then it deposits in the liver and other organs, particularly the pancreas. It also deposits itself in the joints.

Globally, one person in twelve has a chance of having that faulty gene but if you’re Irish, you have one chance in six. That’s why it’s called the Celtic Curse. It has other names, like Bronze Diabetes or Blood Rust.

Twenty five years ago, I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Ten years later, I began to experience pain in my joints, particularly the index finger of my left hand. As a journalist, who had to meet numerous daily deadlines, that was painful. Think, while you’re typing, how many times your index finger hits the keyboard.

Back then, I was experiencing frequent bouts of fatigue which, considering my work schedule, didn’t surprise but it did frustrate me.

My doctor performed, what I now know as, a ferritin blood test and, since she worked, as a sideline, in the blood testing laboratory of a local hospital, asked me to come back the following day for the result.

As suspected, my blood showed an inordinately high level of iron. It read 1450 units, she told me and what, I asked, is the normal level of iron? Anywhere between 15 and 50, she answered. An appointment was made with an endocrinologist and two days later, I began my first treatment for haemochromotosis.

Since then I’ve got two artificial hips and no, they don’t cause panic in airport metal detectors because they’re made of a chromium alloy, which doesn’t set off alarms. That said, whenever I travel, I carry a letter from the surgeon who performed the arthroplasty (hip replacement), because it is better to be sure, than sorry.

But that’s for another blog…