Your body needs iron for healthy red blood cells, which carry oxygen to your muscles and tissues. Iron is also needed for proper cell growth and differentiation. Although it's important to get enough iron in your diet, certain conditions can cause you to absorb too much iron and can be damaging to your health.
A healthy person absorbs 10 to 15 percent of dietary iron. Several factors influence iron absorption, such as the type of dietary iron and the amount of other nutrients you eat, such as vitamin C, calcium and proteins. Iron absorption increases when iron levels are low and decreases when iron levels are high to prevent iron toxicity. Elevated blood iron levels can cause a condition called hemochromatosis.
According to the Iron Disorders Institute, iron absorption in a person with hemochromatosis can be as much as four times the normal amount. Untreated, it can damage your liver, pancreas, heart, joints and pituitary gland and even cause death. You may or may not exhibit any symptoms, depending on the severity of the condition. Common symptoms include fatigue, joint pain, weakness, abdominal pain and weight loss. Treatment involves removing excess iron from the body via iron chelation therapy, therapeutic phlebotomy, treating any complications and introducing dietary changes.
Your doctor will recommend an iron-restricted diet. You will be advised to avoid iron supplements or multivitamins containing iron. If you drink alcohol, you will be advised to limit consumption or stop entirely. The Iron Disorders Institute also suggests that having coffee or tea with your meals can reduce iron absorption.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, you need to limit foods with vitamin C, because vitamin C enhances iron absorption from food. Your doctor will tell you how much vitamin C you can have.
Certain shellfish and fish contain bacteria that can cause infection in persons with hemochromatosis, so you should avoid eating raw shellfish and fish. You want to limit or avoid red meat, which is rich in heme iron that is easily absorbed in the body.
Persons with hemochromatosis can eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are good sources of non-heme iron, which is not well absorbed in the body. Whole grains, beans, nuts and rice are good sources of fiber, which not only promotes healthy digestion but impairs non-heme iron absorption as well.
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