What is the role of iron in the body?

Iron is an element that we require for many different bodily processes such as creating new red blood cells, carrying oxygen around our body and strengthening our immune system. Most of the iron in our bodies is found in haemoglobin, a protein in our red blood cells. A smaller proportion is stored in a protein called ferritin that is responsible for controlling the release of iron when levels are too low or high. Iron is transported around the body by a protein called transferrin.


Depending on our age and gender, we all require different amounts of iron. But in a world where lots of our food products are fortified with iron, it is important that we are aware of how much iron we are consuming and that a diet high in iron is not necessarily a good thing. According to the NHS, for men aged between 19-64 years, it is recommended that they have at least 8.7mg of iron a day, 14.8mg a day for women aged between 19-50 years and 8.7mg a day for women aged 50-64 years. Women between the ages of 19 and 50 have a higher requirement for iron because of menstruation – the body has no mechanism for getting rid of excess iron, so blood loss is the main cause of low iron levels.

What are the risks of too little or too much iron?

Low levels of iron can lead to a decrease in the amount of oxygen carried around our bodies, eventually leading to iron deficiency anaemia. Symptoms can include fatigue, dizziness and headaches. Although not life-threatening, iron deficiency anaemia can increase the risk of heart disease as the heart needs to pump more blood around the body to compensate for low oxygen levels. Similarly, too much iron in our bodies can cause health problems as it increases the number of free radicals in the body which can damage cells, tissues and organs. Haemochromatosis is an inherited condition also known as iron overload disease. Iron levels slowly build up in the body over time and often symptoms take many years to appear. If they do, they may include the following:

  • tiredness, fatigue or lack of energy
  • weakness in the limbs and pain in the joints
  • stomach pain
  • yellowing of the skin (jaundice)
  • liver disease

Often symptoms can be overlooked or mistaken for other conditions, even being mistaken for low iron levels.

Haemochromatosis is caused by a faulty gene that affects how the body absorbs iron from food; people with haemochromatosis can absorb twice as much iron as a non-affected individual. To be at risk of developing the condition, both of your parents must have the faulty gene and you inherit one copy from each of them. Those who inherit only one copy of the genetic fault will not inherit the disorder, but there’s a chance you could pass the faulty gene on to any children you have. However, even those that do inherit two copies won’t necessarily get haemochromatosis. Only a small number of people with two copies of this genetic fault will ever develop the condition.

According to research undertaken by the University of Exeter, hemochromatosis could affect up to 20 times more people than earlier figures suggested [2]. There’s currently no cure for haemochromatosis, but early diagnosis and treatment can reduce the amount of iron in the body, reducing the risk of damage. If haemochromatosis is not found until it is more advanced, high iron levels have the potential to cause serious complications, such as liver damage, heart failure, diabetes and arthritis [3].

How can high iron levels be improved?

For most people, the best ways to reduce the amount of iron in the blood is by reducing our intake of iron-rich foods such as red meat, avoiding using iron cookware and avoiding consuming vitamin C with foods that are rich in iron, as vitamin C increases iron absorption. For people who have been diagnosed with haemochromatosis, therapeutic bleeding (phlebotomy) is the main treatment. Initially, treatment will be every week or two until iron levels return to normal. After that phlebotomy will be required 2 to 4 times a year for the rest of their lives.

How is high or low iron diagnosed? 

As iron is essential for our health, it is important we measure the levels of iron in our bodies to ensure we are not at risk of a deficiency or overload.

[1]. BBC News. (2019). Iron disease ‘bigger threat than we knew’. [online] Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-devon-46891782 [Accessed 23 Jan. 2019].
Source;  Medichecks


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