I used think that iron was a good thing. The more the better. After all, mainstream dietitians and nutritionists regularly lauded the mineral, advising us to make sure we got enough of it in our diet.
And it made perfect sense to me.
Iron is important in making red blood cells (specifically hemoglobin), and red blood cells themselves are responsible for carrying oxygen around in the body. Not having a enough iron in your system means that you can’t produce as many red blood cells and/or hemoglobin, which in turn results in less oxygen and less energy (i.e. anemia).
However, as with most mainstream advice on diet and health, I should have known better.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that iron is totally bad for you. It’s not. You definitely need it. But what I’ve come to learn is that excess iron is a real danger and is associated to numerous diseases and illnesses.
And the real kicker is that the vast majority of us have too much iron in our bodies.
I discovered all this after reading a great book on the topic called Dumping Iron: How To Ditch This Secret Killer and Reclaim Your Health by P.D. Mangan:
For those of you who don’t know, P.D. Mangan runs a great website called Rogue Health and Fitness where he writes extensively on how to defy aging by becoming leaner, stronger, and more muscular. I highly recommend you check out his site as P.D. definitely knows what he’s talking about. Very few men 60+ years old look as good as he does:
The main premise of Dumping Iron is that excess iron leads to disease states and that the majority of us have too much iron in our bodies.
P.D. Mangan does a fantastic job of covering the research in the book. All of his claims are fully referenced in the back so anyone is free to look up the research.
Without getting too bogged down by the science, the problem with iron is that it’s a powerful pro-oxident. Even though it is essential to numerous chemical reactions, too much of it in the body damages cells and tissues through oxidative stress ultimately leading to various disease states.
And since iron is a heavy metal it accumulates in our bodies over time and there is no controlled way for us to get rid of it. The best we can do is decrease the absorption of iron from food but our bodies can’t actively get rid of it (although women are a bit luckier than men in this regard as they menstruate regularly and lose iron through their menses).
Compound this with the fact that iron is abudant in our modern food system (in the U.S. iron is required by law to be added to food such as flour, corn meal, and rice) and it’s no wonder most of us are over loaded with iron in our bodies.
The number of the diseases linked to excess iron include the following:
- heart disease
- muscle wasting
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- liver disease
- macular degeneration
P.D. even references a study in the book where iron could be implicated in the premature graying of hair!
Suffice it to say you need to keep your iron levels in check if you want to live a long, healthy life. Barring deficiency, the lower your iron levels are the better.
Optimal iron levels
According to the book men should aim to have iron levels somewhere between 50-70 ng/ml and women should aim for levels between 20-40 ng/ml. My current iron levels are at 90 mg/ml the last time I had them checked. I initially thought this value was too low but I’ve since come to realize that I’m a bit too high.
How to reduce iron in the body
According to P.D. Mangan the best way to bring your iron levels back into the optimal range is by donating blood.
According to the book, the rule of thumb is that one whole-blood donation lowers ferritin (iron) by about 30 ng/ml. Therefore, if your ferritin was 120 before a donation, you can expect it to drop to around 90 ng/ml after 1-2 months post donation. Depending on where your iron levels are you may need to donate blood several times in order to get them into the optimal range. For me, if I were to donate blood once this year I should be good to go.
Another way to lower iron is through chelation. Chelation is a chemical process where the body removes heavy metals (such as iron) by grabbing onto or binding with them. P.D. discusses several substances in the book that can actually bind to iron and remove it from the body including the following:
- green tea (EGCG)
- quercetin (found in onions)
- curcumin (found in tumeric)
- IP6 (molecule refined from rice bran)
There are also several foods that can inhibit iron absorption such as the following:
- dairy products
- grains and vegetables
- foods high in phytates, such as walnuts, almonds, and legumes (beans, peas, and lentils)
- tea and coffee
- red wine
- olive oil
I’m a huge advocate of eggs. I typically eat anywhere between 4-8 whole large eggs a day. Apparently eggs and dairy products can hinder iron absorption by as much as 50%.
While donating blood is still the most optimal way to reduce iron levels in the body, once you’ve got them down into the optimal range you can keep them there by incorporating more of these foods into your diet.
Iron is an important mineral but the vast majority of us have too much of it in our bodies leading to illness and disease. Donating blood is the simplest and easiest way to reduce the amount of iron in our bodies and improve our health. I highly recommend you get your iron levels checked and begin donating blood if you need to. Also, be sure to check out Dumping Iron to learn more about the affects of too much iron on your health.
Here’s to staying fit!