There is a disorder called haemachromatosis that is common in the Irish and Celtic population. This condition causes your body to absorb too much iron from the food you eat. The excess iron is stored in your organs, especially your liver, heart and pancreas.
Doctors diagnose too much iron in your blood with two tests; transferrin saturation and ferritin levels. Both blood tests are needed as ferritin levels can also be elevated due to other causes, such as an infection or inflammatory disease.
Is having too much iron a bad thing?
Yes, having too much or too little iron can cause fatigue. Diagnosing haemachromatosis can be delayed as some of the signs and symptoms can also occur in other conditions.
Most people with haemachromatosis complain of arthritis, chronic fatigue, abdominal pain, impotence, have abnormal thyroid and liver function tests, high blood sugar levels and skin-colour changes.
With time, excess stored iron can damage many of your organs. In later stages you are at risk of developing chronic diseases such as cirrhosis (irreversible scarring of the liver), diabetes, heart failure and abnormal heart rhythms.
My doctor asked if there was anyone else in my family who had too much iron. Why is this?
Haemachromatosis is a genetic disorder, so if you have a close relative with this condition, you are more likely to develop it.
The gene that controls the amount of iron you absorb is known as HFE. This has two common mutations -- C282Y and H63D. Inheriting just one gene with a C282Y mutation means you are a "carrier". About one in 10 Irish people are carriers for haemachromatosis.
Your risk factor rises if you have two of the mutated HFE genes. A blood test will show whether you do, but it will only identify a genetic risk for haemachromatosis, not the condition itself.
How is haemachromatosis treated? It is treated by removing blood from your body regularly -- just as if you're donating blood. In the beginning about a pint of blood is taken once or twice a week. Once your iron levels have returned to normal, you may only need blood drawn a few times a year.
You should avoid iron supplements and multivitamins containing iron. Also avoid vitamin C supplements, especially with food as these increase the absorption of iron. You can drink vitamin C-rich juices between meals, and whole fruits and vegetables containing vitamin C are fine. Keep alcohol to no more than 1-2 drinks a day. If you have liver disease, avoid alcohol altogether.