Before taking iron pills or supplements, make sure you really need more iron. According to recent research too much iron may increase the risk of type two diabetes and other medical problems as well. Find out more.
Iron is a mineral the body needs in small amounts to make hemoglobin – the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen to the body. Too little iron leads to iron deficiency anemia – but too much iron isn’t a good thing either. Some studies show that too much iron increases the risk of heart disease, and it may play a role in type 2 diabetes as well. So, what’s the verdict on iron and diabetes – does one cause the other?
Iron and Diabetes
Two large studies, one involving 33,000 women and another that followed 85,000 women for ten years found that women who had higher iron stores in their tissues had a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The risk seems to be increased both in people who take iron pills as well as those who get iron exclusively from diet.
There’s other evidence that too much iron increases the risk of type 2 diabetes too. People who have the genetic disease called hemachromatosis where they absorb and store too much iron in their tissues have a greater risk of type 2 diabetes. In fact, according to Prescriber’s Letter, half of all people with this condition go on to develop diabetes.
Iron and Diabetes: How Might Too Much Iron Raise the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes?
Iron is pro-oxidant, meaning unlike antioxidants that protect cells against damage due to oxygen, iron may actually cause it. Some experts believe that iron damages cells in the pancreas that produce insulin by having pro-oxidant effects. Another theory is that too much iron damages tissues so that glucose can’t move easily into cells. Excessive iron may also contribute to insulin resistance.
Other Bad News about Too Much Iron
There’s another reason to think twice before popping iron pills. Studies show that too much iron may contribute to heart disease and cirrhosis of the liver. People who have iron overload from hemachromatosis are at high risk for both of these conditions.
Who Needs Iron Pills?
There are some people taking a multivitamin with iron who don’t need the additional iron. Men and post-menopausal women usually have sufficient iron stores – and iron pills or vitamins that contain iron are unnecessary and may be harmful. Before taking an iron pill or supplement, ask your doctor to check your ferritin and transferrin levels to see how much iron your body is already storing.
The two groups of people who may need iron supplements are pre-menopausal women who have heavy menstrual periods with low iron stores – and pregnant women. Most others have sufficient iron stores and get enough iron from their diet.
The Bottom Line?
Don’t take iron pills unless you really need them.
Prescriber’s Letter. August 9, 2010.
Diabetes Self-Management. “Ironing It Out: Linking Diabetes with Iron Intake”