What Is Iron Overload? - The Dark Side of Iron

What Is Iron Overload? - The Dark Side of Iron

Iron is a vital mineral in the human body. Iron overload, however, is deadly. Most physicians believe it is rare and mainly hereditary. In fact, it is far more common and more dangerous than many people imagine.

Conditions in which iron toxicity can be a factor include diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, Alzheimer's disease and cancer. Others include chronic infections, hair loss, hypothyroidism, hyperactive behavior, violence and many more conditions.


Iron toxicity can result from:

1. Too much iron in the diet.

2. Other sources, such as iron in supplements, iron in the water, or occupational exposure.

3. Excessive absorption of iron from the diet.

Iron toxicity can also be due to a combination of these factors.  Let us discuss these causes in more detail.


Some say that the average American diet includes excess iron for men, but perhaps not enough for menstruating women.  I firmly disagree with this because many women today have iron toxicity, as revealed on blood test results.

Foods high in iron. These fall into two main groups:

1. Those that contain heme iron.

2. Those that contain other forms of iron, including iron added to some foods. This is important because heme iron is better absorbed than other forms of iron.

Heme iron foods. These include organ meats such as liver and kidneys, and all red meats. Dark meat chicken and dark meat turkey also contain some heme iron. Products from the sea may also contain some, such as tunafish, clams, oysters and perhaps other shellfish.

Non-heme iron foods. These include egg yolk, kelp, blackstrap molasses, brewer’s and torula yeast, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, dark green vegetables, and soybeans.

White Flour Products. An important source of excess iron can be refined wheat flour products.  (The product is labeled as wheat flour, but it means refined white flour.  Only whole wheat flour really is the genuine article.)

In the 1920s, it was found that animals fed a diet of white flour developed serious neurological diseases and then died. Instead of banning this product, the US Food and Drug Administration declared that most white flour products must be “enriched” with iron and a few vitamins to “correct” the problem.

However, the “enrichment” makes for an even worse situation, in many cases, that contributes to diabetes, heart disease and cancer.  The reasons are:

1. “Enrichment” enhances the iron content far more than was originally in the whole wheat flour.  This can increase iron in the diet too much.

2. The form of enrichment is either iron sulfate, iron fumarate, or NaFeEDTA.  These can easily change into a toxic form of iron such as an oxide.

3. The body requires minerals and will absorb whatever is available. White flour is mainly stripped of its trace elements, creating a nutritionally deficient food. The iron is plentiful. Thus the body absorbs more of it than it would if there were a natural balance of minerals in the flour. This also unbalances the body.

4. Iron is selectively absorbed by the body, to begin with. This is a survival mechanism because of the great importance of iron for oxygen transport in the blood.

This combination can easily contribute to iron toxicity.

I hope this explains the serious problems with bleached, refined white flour, labeled as “wheat flour” or “enriched flour”.

Iron in water supplies. In certain areas of America and around the world, the ground water is very high in iron. This occurs because the water passes through rocks containing iron, or it could be due to industrial contamination, in a few cases.  Wells should always be tested for iron contamination.


1. Vitamin Supplements and Tonics with Iron.  Doctors and some health food advocates recommend iron and iron-containing potions, even when they are not indicated medically.  Some prescription and a number of over-the-counter drugs also contain iron.

Prenatal vitamins may contain lots of iron, and many women are told to just stay on their prenatal vitamin after the birth of a child.  This is not good advice.
2. Alcohol intake of any amount tends to worsen iron toxicity because alcohol depletes zinc, an important iron antagonist.

3. Occupational Exposure.  Welders, electrical workers who use solder, iron and pipe workers, steel fabricators and other occupations may expose one to enormous quantities of toxic iron.

4. Congenital Iron Toxicity (excessive iron present at birth).  Most children today are born with some excess iron.  They may still be anemic because their iron is not all bioavailable (see the section on biounavailability).

Large amounts of white flour, red meats and vitamins with iron consumed by young women can contaminate their bodies with iron.  Some is passed on through the placenta to their children, causing chronic infections, developmental delays and behavior and learning disorders among other children’s conditions.

5. Iron cookware.  Iron cookware is a potential source of toxic iron if used to cook tomatoes or other acidic foods.  Rarely is this a major problem, however, if the other sources are not in the picture.

6. Hemochromatosis and hemosiderosis are genetic causes for iron overload.


1. Iron Replaces Other Vital Minerals Causing Enzyme Dysfunction. Understanding this requires knowledge of the concept of preferred minerals.  It basically states that all enzymes in the body have ideally a certain mineral in each binding site that allows the enzyme to function most efficiently.

If, however, the preferred mineral is not available, the enzyme will accept a less preferred mineral in its place to allow the enzyme to function at all.

Iron replaces other vital minerals such as zinc, copper manganese, and many others in hundreds or even thousands of enzyme binding sites. This causes the enzymes to malfunction and leads to many physical and emotional symptoms.

The problem of mineral replacement is made worse by the fact that all minerals compete for absorption.  Iron enjoys a selective advantage. That is, it is selectively absorbed because of its essential role in oxygen transfer. This mechanism of iron absorption definitely works against a person who is eating white flour, lots of red meat, and perhaps smokes or drinks a little alcohol, for example. Adding orange juice at breakfast makes it worse, because vitamin C enhances iron absorption greatly.

The person becomes greatly saturated with iron at the expense of other trace elements that are already deficient in the food supply.

2. Inflammation. When iron replaces other elements in the body, in addition to enzyme malfunction, the next most important problem it causes is inflammation.

This occurs because iron attracts oxygen directly to it. Then, when it contacts delicate body tissues, the singlet oxygen molecules, termed free radicals, detach and destroy body tissues. This mechanism is called oxidant damage or free radical damage, a potent cause of inflammation.

Oxidant damage contributes to many other problems as well. These include insufficient repair of the organs and tissues to meet the needs of the body. This, in turn, can cause every disorder imaginable from heart disease to cancer to hyperactive behavior.

Aging is though to be caused by oxidant damage and it may be a direct effect of iron toxicity. This is rarely diagnosed, however, unless one happens to undergo special blood tests or a liver biopsy for iron.

3. Toxic Iron Oxide. Iron oxide is formed when iron combines with several atoms of oxygen at once.  It is biologically useless and quite toxic as well

4. Bacterial Growth Stimulant. Due to its properties as an excellent oxygen transporter, iron tends to stimulate the growth of common bacteria. This is a significant cause for chronic infections in our population.

5. Cellular Poison (Cancer). Imbalances related to iron reduce the output of cellular energy in the body.  This leads directly to cancer, which is basically a parasite on the human body. It uses an inferior energy generating system based on direct conversion of sugar to energy without the many intermediary steps associated with the Krebs and glycolysis cycles.


We have discussed the major types of damage caused by iron excess. Each of these mechanisms affects all the organs and tissues of the body. Thus the damage done by iron and other toxic metals with similar properties is very complex and comprehensive.  However, some organs and tissues are damaged more extensively than others by iron.
For example, all organs and tissues are affected by generalized inflammation. The manifestation will vary, however, depending on the function or functions of the particular organ or tissue and upon its resonance or its generalized response to the presence of excessive iron.

Organs that may be most affected by iron are the pancreas, liver, kidneys, brain, heart, arteries, and joints. This is not so much because the mineral deposits there.  In fact, more iron is in the liver than elsewhere, but so are many other minerals deposited there. It is more about the resonance or response of the organ to the energy or structure, more properly, of the iron molecule or combinations that iron forms with oxygen and other elements.

The liver and iron. The liver can be saturated with iron, and in Chinese medicine the liver is the seat of iron.  It is associated with an attitude of anger and rage.  Iron also accumulates in the amygdala, a part of the brain associated with anger and rage.

However, it can accumulate everywhere in the brain and is certainly one cause of dementia related to aging, since iron accumulates with age, as a general rule. As it does so, it replaces other vital minerals such as chromium, molybdenum, selenium, germanium and others in vital organs, glands and tissues.


1) Diabetes. This is known in the medical literature and is sometimes referred to as bronze diabetes.  However, we feel that researchers will learn that more than this is due to iron overload, in subtle ways.  Iron replaces many minerals that can give rise to symptoms of diabetes.

2. Cancer. Many cases of cancer are indirectly caused by or related to iron toxicity from non-hereditary causes.

3. Nervous System Diseases. These may include Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and behavioral abnormalities, including violence, anti-social behavior, ADHD, autistic characteristics and other. A bad temper is often related to iron toxicity, as mentioned earlier. People with multiple sclerosis also often have elevated iron in their brains.
4. Hypertension and All Cardiac Conditions. Iron has an ability to enhance the hardness of the arteries, as does cadmium.  So, the blood pressure rises, without any obvious cause. Arrhythmias, congestive heart failure, cardiac stenosis, cardiomyopathy and others are included in the list of cardiac difficulties that are known to occur with hemosiderosis and hemochromatosis and can occur with acquired iron overload as well.

5. Kidney Problems of Many Types. Iron can accumulate here, causing hypertension, renal failure and other difficulties.

6. Inflammatory Symptoms. These include a wide range of disorders and syndromes, ranging from rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis and Sjogren’s syndrome to lupus, myelination diseases such as multiple sclerosis and others.

7. Milder forms of inflammation such as random aches and pains, premenstrual syndrome, headache syndromes and so many other inflammatory conditions that may occur in children and adults.


Also let us say a few words about iron deficiency, a much more well-known problem. This is a severe problem in certain parts of the world, especially Africa where malaria and other parasitic diseases cause blood destruction and other problems.

In America, it is found most often in poor children, those with chronic illnesses or bleeding that can deplete iron rapidly, in some menstruating women and in strict vegetarians.

In many cases of iron deficiency anemia, as it is called, the cause is not really poor iron levels. It is copper toxicity. This is a most confusing aspect of “iron deficient anemia”.  In fact, many physicians prescribe iron to patients who do not need it, including most menstruating women who have copper toxicity and copper biounavailability causing their anemia.  This wastes their time and leads to worsening iron overload problems in these young women.

We hope that this article will bring to the attention of physicians the need to be more careful before prescribing iron pills to their patients, including those who appear to have an iron-deficiency anemia.


1. N Eng J Med, 1999, Hereditary Hemochromatosis in Adults without Pathogenic Mutations in the Hemochromatosis Gene, Pietrangelo, A. et al., 341:725, September 2.

2. Neurology, 2003, Parkinson's disease risks associated with dietary iron, manganese, and other nutrient intakes, Powers, KM et al., Jun 10;60(11):1761-6.

3. Amer J Clin Nut, 1998, 68:3-4 (calcium used to inhibit iron absorption)

4. Life Extension Foundation, 2000, Disease Prevention and Treatment, Third Ed., pp.317-321.

5. Casdorph, H.R. and Walker, M., Toxic Metal Syndrome, Avery Publishing, 1995.

6. Kutsky, R., Handbook of Vitamins, Minerals and Hormones, 2nd ed., Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1982.

7. www.mercola.com

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9. J Royal Soc Med. 1988, “Iron added to flour: Is it nutritionally beneficial? Discussion paper”, M J Hall, May; 81(5): 280–283.

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