- Healthy iron levels are important as low iron can cause anemia and cardiovascular problems.
- Higher iron may protect against heart disease, but it also can increase the risk of stroke.
- Most people don’t need iron supplements unless recommended by a doctor.
- The best way to identify whether iron levels are healthy is through a routine blood test.
Iron is an essential mineral in the human body, facilitating the creation of red blood cells that help pump oxygen throughout the body.
Low iron levels can cause fatigue as well as hinder the immune system’s ability to fight off infections.
But what happens when iron levels are too high?
Recent research out of Imperial College London, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association (JAMA) and PLOS Medicine, shines new light on some of the negative side effects of higher iron levels.
The study’s lead author told Healthline that the research should give doctors more tools to provide treatments, while an outside expert says it’s a reminder of the importance of regular visits to the doctor.
Researchers used information from about half a million people from the UK Biobank, a long-term repository of genetic data.
“We studied the effect of subtle changes in genetically determined levels of iron, which is not the same as actual changes in iron status,” explained Dr. Dipender Gill, a research fellow at Imperial College London’s Centre for Pharmacology and Therapeutics.
“With that said, our research supported the known protective effect of higher iron levels on risk of anemia and also identified potential detrimental effects of higher iron status on formation of some types of blood clot and bacterial skin infections,” Gill told Healthline.
The researchers found that people with naturally higher iron levels saw the benefit of a reduced risk of atherosclerosis — a condition in which fatty substances clog the arteries that can lead to a host of serious complications.
On the flip side, researchers also found that high iron levels could be connected to blood clots caused by slower blood flow. Another possible side effect of high iron is an increased risk of bacterial skin infections.
“The findings related to the narrowing of arteries and blood clot formation were somewhat expected, given our previous research suggesting that higher iron may protect against heart disease but increase risk of some types of stroke,” Gill said.
“However, the finding related to higher iron increasing the risk of bacterial skin infections came from an exploratory, hypothesis-free analysis looking at over 900 disease outcomes, and added novel insight,” he added.
Gill said that further clinical research is needed to confirm these associations, adding that he and his team have plans for future research.
“We will now look at the mechanisms that mediate the effects of iron on disease, so that we can identify additional therapeutic targets.”
Dr. Len Horovitz, an internist and pulmonary specialist in private practice in New York as well as on staff at Lenox Hill Hospital, told Healthline that high iron levels aren’t unusual.
“Iron overload is a relatively common phenomenon in the northern European population, particularly men, called hemochromatosis,” he said. “What’s interesting in this study is what wasn’t mentioned: Is there some genetic reason why they have higher iron levels? Do they have hereditary hemochromatosis?”
When both high and low iron levels are linked to adverse side effects, what’s the best way to ensure your iron levels are healthy?
Horovitz cautions against seeking out iron supplements unless they’ve been advised by a doctor.
“Menstruating women, for instance, may become iron deficient or even anemic because of menstrual losses. Those women need some iron supplementation,” he explained.
“People with an abnormal diet that does not contain any iron-containing foods may need some iron supplementation. But most people do not need iron supplements and should not take them. For the most part, anyone who has a normal diet doesn’t need a lot of supplements.”
Anemia can be detected by a few symptoms. Since there isn’t enough iron to boost red blood cells, the heart and lungs have to work harder to circulate the blood. As a result, shortness of breath is a common symptom.
High iron levels aren’t as easy for a patient to detect. They can be identified through a blood test.
“It’s something that most people would not know unless they’re having a routine blood test or they’re coming in because they have a family member with hemochromatosis and they want to know if they do as well,” said Horovitz.
“High iron is not something that would give a lot of symptoms. I think, really, it’s routine examination that’s going to cover that.”
Low iron levels are easier for a patient to detect than high iron levels. But in either case, a medical professional is equipped to make a diagnosis and recommendations based on each unique patient. Thus, the age-old advice of “talk to your doctor” holds true.
There are a number of ways to maintain healthy iron levels.
“A healthy and balanced lifestyle, including diet, is vital to good health,” said Gill.
“In cases of suspected iron deficiency or excess, individuals should consult their doctor for advice on the possible medical options available.”
Because high iron levels in particular are most likely to be identified through a blood test, Horovitz emphasizes the importance of getting a regular physical.
“It’s routine blood tests that bring these things to light,” he said.
“Having routine blood tests is important for patients. It’s important to get your physical.”