Hemochromatosis is a disease in which your body absorbs and stores iron more than its needs. Iron is one of the most vital minerals, which your body needs. But, too much of it is toxic for your body.
At first, let’s now about iron and hemochromatosis.
Your body doesn’t synthesize iron; thus, you get your needs from the diet. You can find iron in various easily accessible foods, such as red meat, beans, fruits, vegetables, and seafood. Your body absorbs only the needed amount of iron from your diet, which is about 1 mg per day. Your body does this because it has no way to excrete excess iron. In hemochromatosis, your body absorbs too much iron than its needs, which may reach about 4 mg per day. Because your body can’t excrete this excess iron, it builds up in your organs, such as the liver, heart, skin, joints, and reproductive organs.
We have two types of this disease: primary (hereditary) and secondary, and the 1st type is more common. Hereditary hemochromatosis is due to a genetic mutation that you inherit from both of your parents. Some diseases and medicines may also cause this disease, such as blood transfusions, iron-containing medications (pills or injections), liver diseases, and kidney dialysis. This disease usually shows more manifestations and complications in men because women lose iron with the blood of each menstrual cycle. It is a moderately common disease; about a million Americans have it.
As we said, the excess iron accumulates in your organs, which causes all symptoms and complications of this disease. It may lead to liver cirrhosis and failure, heart problems (like heart failure and arrhythmia), skin changes, sexual problems (for males and females), and joint inflammation. Without early and proper treatment, these complications progress and may end in death.
When you see your doctor, he will take your detailed medical history and examine all of your body. He will suspect that you have hemochromatosis; thus, he will order investigations to confirm it. He will measure your iron levels and investigate any complication to consider it in the management.
Early diagnosis gives you a better chance to slow the disease progression and prevent complications.
Your doctor will put a management plan to normalize the iron levels in your body as possible. Your doctor can do this by removing blood from your body (Phlebotomy) or chelating medications.
But, with this treatment, you can’t ignore your diet. Your doctor will recommend you diet modifications to aid this treatment and improve your control over the disease.
In this article, we will discuss how you can modify your diet to control this disease better. We will discuss:
- Dietary factors that affect iron in your body
- What to eat and what to avoid
- Supplements (iron and vitamins)
The whole story isn’t only how much iron your diet contains but also how this diet affects iron absorption. Not only the foods, but iron-type also affects its bioavailability.
Iron types and bioavailability
We have two types of iron in our diets: heme and non-heme iron. We can get heme iron from meat and seafood and non-heme iron from plants, fortified products, meats, and seafood.
Heme iron is more bioavailable, which means that your body absorbs it more easily. Thus, your diet plan -for hemochromatosis- should contain sources for non-heme iron more than for heme type.
Foods and iron absorption (what increases and what decreases)
Foods that reduce iron absorption
- Calcium: It slows the iron absorption, and, in high doses (about 300 to 600 mg), it has a chelating effect. You can get calcium from milk, soy, green vegetables, oily fish, and fortified foods.
- Oxalates reduce non-heme iron absorption. You can get oxalates from chocolate, tea, strawberries, nuts, wheat bran, kale, and spinach. Spinach is rich in iron, but oxalates limit its absorption.
- Polyphenols: These compounds reduce the absorption of heme iron. You can get them from apples, peppermint, cocoa, and coffee.
- Phytate: It is the stored phosphate, and it decreases the absorption of heme iron. Phytate is present in grains and legumes, such as lentils, cereals, almonds, and dried beans.
- Phosvitin is a protein that binds to iron and helps your body to excrete it (chelating effect). It is present in eggs. Egg yolks are iron-rich, but phosvitin limits this iron absorption.
- Tannins are organic compounds that have a chelating effect. You can get it from dried fruits, grapes, cranberries, barley, and black tea.
Foods that promote iron absorption
- Vitamin C has a significant enhancing effect on non-heme iron absorption. About 100 mg (two 8-ounce orange juice glasses) increases the non-heme iron absorption by 400%. You can get it from vegetables and fruits, especially citrus fruits, like orange, guava, red peppers, and tomato.
- Alcohol increases the non-heme iron absorption by about 10%. We can’t ignore its damaging effect on the liver.
- Sugar: Sugars-rich foods may increase the non-heme iron absorption up to 300%
Now, let’s see discuss foods that you need to eat and avoid if you have hemochromatosis.