It’s a little-known fact that too much iron can be dangerous, and almost nobody needs to take it in a supplement.
It’s true that iron is needed to make hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen around the body and delivers it to your tissues. Low energy – anemia – is a well-known symptom of iron deficiency.
At the other end of the scale is a hereditary condition called hemochromatosis, where too much iron gets absorbed into the body, causing serious damage to internal organs. And that’s a bigger problem in our society than iron deficiency.
But there’s also a third problem to be aware of…
As you age, iron accumulates in your brain. The latest research finds that too much iron in your brain tissues may contribute to memory decline and Alzheimer’s disease. Fortunately, there are simple steps you can take to stop iron-related memory damage before it’s too late.
What makes iron so dangerous to your memory? The danger has to do with brain cell oxidation. When iron reacts with oxygen and water in our environment, it forms rust.
Something similar happens in the brain when abnormal iron metabolism triggers the production of highly toxic free radicals – the process called oxidation, which damages a cell’s structure, including its fats, proteins, and DNA – ultimately leading to cell death.
Excess iron also contributes to formation of beta amyloid brain plaques and tau protein tangles that are both strongly associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
In fact, high iron levels in the brain have been linked to Alzheimer’s for decades. Specifically, brain imaging shows damage occurs where iron accumulates in deep gray matter structures including the hippocampus, a key memory area.
But iron’s role in damaging the neocortex, the deeply grooved outer layer of the brain responsible for higher cognitive functioning, hasn’t been explored until now.
Biomarker for Predicting Alzheimer’s
Neurologist Reinhold Schmidt and his colleagues at the University of Graz in Austria used a special version of an MRI machine called 3T, because it’s difficult to scan the neocortex using a conventional MRI.
Using this special imaging technology, Dr. Schmidt’s group created a map of brain iron in 100 patients with Alzheimer’s and 100 healthy control patients. 56 of those 200 patients had a follow up MRI and cognitive testing 17 months later.
“We found indications of higher iron deposition in the deep gray matter and total neocortex, and regionally in temporal and occipital lobes in Alzheimer’s disease patients compared with age-matched healthy individuals,” reported Dr. Schmidt.
“These results are all in keeping with the view that high concentrations of iron significantly promote amyloid beta deposition and neurotoxicity in Alzheimer’s disease.”
He went on to say that the iron mapping technique could be used as a biomarker for predicting the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, and that drugs called chelators, which remove excess iron from the body, could play an important role in the treatment of the disease.
Long-time readers of this newsletter might remember that we’ve written about the importance of detoxifying the body and the brain from heavy metals to preserve a healthy memory. This new research seems to reinforce what we’ve learned from many natural doctors that we’ve interviewed throughout the years.
Now, even top conventional doctors are pointing to the danger of iron accumulation in the brain.
Harvard Doctor: “Iron Single Most Dangerous Element” in Your Diet
Why iron accumulates in the brain with aging is unknown. However, the body can only obtain iron from the diet, and some scientists believe that older people should limit intake.
One such scientist is Dr. Preston Estep, Director of Genome Sequencing and part of the senior management team of the Personal Genome Project at Harvard Medical School.
He describes iron as “the single most dangerous element in modern…diets.” He thinks the RDA of eight mg for adults aged 51 years and older is way too high. Instead, that age group should aim for no more than three to five mg of iron per day.
How to Avoid Iron Overload like Long-lived Populations
Dr. Estep suggests the following:
- Eliminate any food fortified or enriched with iron such as fortified grain products. The adjectives “ferric” or “ferrous,” rather than iron, may be listed on the label. Organic flour does not usually come with added iron, while conventional flour is often iron-enriched.
- Limit red meat consumption, which is rich in the highly-absorbable form of heme iron.
- Drink tea and coffee with meals to reduce iron absorption.
- Eat a nutrient-rich, whole food diet filled with vegetables since these contain oxalates, phytates, polyphenols and fiber, all of which reduce iron absorption.
- If using a multivitamin and mineral supplement, make sure it’s labeled iron-free.
- Take vitamin C supplements away from food, especially meat, as this increases the absorption of iron.
- Donate blood regularly.
Dr. Estep maintains that long-lived populations around the world have low body stores of iron. For instance, Japanese women have the lowest levels of iron in the developed world, live the longest, and have low rates of Alzheimer’s disease.
I’ve often heard that menstruating women may need additional iron because of the monthly loss of blood, while post-menopausal women do not. I think the safest course is to have a blood test BEFORE undertaking any supplemental iron to see if you need it.
When your doctor measures your serum ferritin, or blood iron level, Dr. Estep recommends aiming for a level of 10 – 40 ng/ml. This represents the lowest end of the normal range.
I also wonder whether vegetarians or people who merely avoid red meat may be at greater risk of iron-deficiency anemia. Again, a blood test will tell the tale.
- The Mindspan Diet by Preston Estep, Oneworld Publications 2016