Iron Overload: Hemochromatosis

We all know we need to make sure we get enough iron, right?  But did you know getting too much iron can be just as dangerous as not getting enough?  Some people have a genetic condition that makes their bodies absorb and store excess iron. Iron overload, or hereditary hemochromatosis, may lead to diabetes, arthritis, cirrhosis of the liver and even heart failure. The disease progresses slowly, but has an unusual, but effective treatment.

James Rupp has spent years collecting artifacts from different cultures across the globe. His adventures keep him moving, and he says he never felt sick on his journeys. James recalls his shock when his doctor told him he had so much iron in his body that he would be dead in five years. Since then, James has learned that a large part of treating the disease is understanding it.

"What happens is, the body absorbs more iron from the small intestine," explains Mayo Clinic doctor David Brandhagen, "and the iron deposits in various tissues and organs, possibly causing damage." Brandhagen and a team at Mayo Clinic study hemochromatosis.

The research team confirmed that the condition often happens when a person has two copies of a specific genetic mutation. One from the mother and one from the father. It's the most common genetic disorder among Caucasians. So how do you get rid of the excess iron?

"Phlebotomy, which is just blood removal," says Dr. Brandhagen. To get his iron levels down, James donated blood once a week for several months. Now he gives blood once every three months. All together he's given about 100 pints of blood. From all that blood, James removed less than half a thimble full of iron from his body.

For decades, while James explored other cultures, his body was making too much iron.
A simple blood test was all it took to make the diagnosis and get him on effective treatment.

Hemochromatosis is hereditary. All of James' siblings were tested and his brother found out he also had the condition. If someone in your family has excess iron, it's important that siblings and children of that person be tested too. Having the gene does not mean you'll get hemochromatosis. Studies show anywhere from 1% to 50% of people with the gene develop it. Dr. Brandhagen says the actual number is somewhere in the middle.

Iron overload progresses very slowly, over years or even decades. James began treatment before the disease caused too many problems. He does have some liver damage, or cirrhosis, and mild arthritis. Hemochromatosis is not curable, but it is treatable.

For more information about hemochromatosis: