By Dr. W. Gifford Jones
August 29, 1993
How much iron do we all need? For years we've been told that iron deficiency was a major nutritional concern. Now, a recent headline©making report from Finland links too much iron to heart problems. So who do you believe?
Finnish researchers studied 2,000 middle©aged men living in Eastern Finland. They measured their levels of serum ferritin to determine how much iron their bodies had stored. And then related the amount of iron to the incidence of heart attack.
Their conclusion? A one per cent increase in the level of serum ferritin was associated with a four per cent increase in the risk of heart attack. And those males with the highest levels of ferritin had more than double the chance of coronary attack.
On the surface this was a major discovery. It appeared that the amount of iron stored in the body was a greater predictor of coronary disease than even the level of blood cholesterol and hypertension.
A trifle frightening if you've been taking multivitamin tablets containing iron. Or you've been taking iron for "anemia" and haven't returned to the doctor to see if you still require it.
Ferritin is a protein and acts much like a bank, but rather than holding money, it stores iron in body tissues. The test assumes that just as rich people usually have more money in their bank and pockets, a body abundant in iron usually has more ferritin in its blood serum.
This research tossed a hot potato at one current theory. For instance, it's been known for years that women, prior to menopause, have fewer heart attacks than men. It's been thought this protection was due to the female hormone estrogen.
But is it the loss of iron during menstruation that's actually the preventive factor? And if that's the case, should women following the onset of the menopause donate blood at regular intervals? And men roll up their sleeves at an early age?
Before women toss out estrogen it's prudent to scrutinize the Finnish study in more detail. What is true for Finland may not be valid for this country. Ô 0*0*0* For instance, the average intake of iron for Finnish men was 19 milligrams a day. North American males consume about 10 to 15 milligrams a day.
There is also a vast difference in the serum ferritin levels. Finnish males had a serum ferritin that was 50 per cent higher than North American males. And one in four had ferritin levels 100 per cent higher!
The difference in ferritin levels was even more pronounced between Finnish men and North American women.They ranged from 300 to 600 per cent higher.
One has to conclude that this is an interesting study. But even if the Finnish findings hold water few people in North America have to worry about it. Our levels of serum ferritin are in all probability not high enough to trigger heart problems.
Besides, without the mere teaspoonful of iron that the body contains we wouldn't last a second. 70 per cent of iron is present in the hemoglobin of red blood cells. Hemoglobin collects lifeªsustaining oxygen in the lungs and carries it to the tissues of the body.
Iron is to the body what money is to the financial system and the body protects it's iron stores with the same vigilance as banks protect their money.
In the event the human body runs low on iron it absorbs more from the food we consume. On the other hand if there's a plentiful supply the absorption of iron through the bowel decreases. Provided with an adequate supply of iron nature does the rest.
There are two potential problems. Some people have a hereditary disease called "hemochromatosis". These people absorb more iron than they need. Luckily the majority do not develop problems. Others sustain damage to the liver and other organs. The only treatment is regular blood©letting to remove excess iron.
Iron deficiency anemia is the larger problem. It's usually seen in young children and adolescents whose iron stores cannot keep up with their rapid growth. Or in child©bearing women with heavy menstruation or pregnant mothers with inadequate diets.
My advice? Never forget Aristotle's "Doctrine of the Golden Mean"; not too much and not too little. Or as another wise sage once remarked, "Too much of anything is worse than none at all".
This means don't take iron if you don't need it. I see patients who have been taking iron for years for no apparent reason. Your doctor is the best person to decide on whether or not you need iron.
W. Gifford-Jones M.D is the pen name of Dr. Ken Walker graduate of Harvard. Dr. Walker's website is: Docgiff.com
My book, “90 + How I Got There” can be obtained by sending $19.95 to:
Giff Holdings, 525 Balliol St, Unit # 6,Toronto, Ontario, M4S 1E1Pre-2008 articles by Gifford Jones