More bad news about iron

The medical world likes to warn you about the dangers of low iron. For decades, you’ve been scared into taking iron pills and eating iron-fortified foods. But all this extra iron is not only unnecessary, it’s downright dangerous.

In fact, earlier this year, excess iron was linked to an increased glaucoma risk. Glaucoma is one disease you don’t want to accidently get by taking too much iron. It can lead to total blindness. I’ll give you more details about this disturbing report in a moment, but first, a little history about iron…

Our research into iron began more 25 years ago. In the 1980s, I teamed up with Nobel prize-winner Dr. Baruch Blumberg and our brilliant colleague Richard Stevens to take a closer look at iron.

We began by analyzing data from the largest ongoing health study that has ever been done—the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). 

But it wasn’t easy getting to the truth.

You see, NHANES is a taxpayer-funded study. But NIH held the data. And the agency refused to fund our iron research. Plus, they refused to even grant us access to the data! This kind of childish “It’s Mine” attitude is unheard of among real scientists but is one of the problems plaguing modern medical research (as we reported in previous Daily Dispatches on the current dysfunctional scientific climate). But coming from NIH, I can’t say we were surprised.

Eventually we went to the U.S. Department of Energy, which has an “alternative” medical research program. They also had a copy of the NHANES study. They granted us access to the data and gave us funding.

We uncovered a strong link between excess iron and cancer. In fact, it’s a risk factor for many types of cancer in both men and women. Plus, over the years, other studies tied excess iron to increased heart disease and infections.

Our findings made headlines back in the early 1990s. We even helped launch a new iron-free supplement industry. And my colleague Richard Stevens convinced some Scandinavian countries to cease iron fortification of foods altogether.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t convince the U.S. food industry to follow suit. Pick up a loaf of bread at a regular grocery store in the U.S. and you can pretty much guarantee it’s fortified with iron. You’ll also still find it in breakfast cereals and even infant formulas. 

But since our original research, more dangers about iron continue to come to light.

Just this month in the Daily Dispatch (“Fishing without a license”), I told you about a new study linking iron to higher mortality rates in women showing a direct dose-response effect. In this study, the higher the intake of iron, the higher the death rate among these women in Iowa.

And now, from that same ongoing NHANES study, there comes a new iron study recently reported at the American Academy of Ophthalmology’s annual meeting…

This time, researchers found a link between high intake of iron and increased glaucoma risk. Glaucoma is a condition of the eye that develops over time. The passage of fluid from one compartment of the eye to another is restricted, creating pressure  build-up inside the eyeball. This causes pain, light sensitivity and eventually blindness by interfering with blood flow to the retina. 

In light of this new research, the American Academy of Ophthalmology report considers that increases we now see in glaucoma rates may be driven by higher use of supplements containing iron.  

Here’s the kicker…

Greater intake of whole foods that are higher in iron (such as greens, eggs, and lean red meat) did not show an effect on the development of glaucoma.  In fact, men and women who ate high-nutrient foods had a lower risk of developing glaucoma. 

The researchers appeared a little perplexed about this seeming paradox. But it’s no mystery to anyone who has taken Nutrition 101 (or to anyone who’s read my Insider’s Cures newsletter). 

Foods with high iron content also have high content of other nutrients.  And the body is best equipped to metabolize nutrients (even iron) that are taken into the body as whole foods. But when you leave the farm and start taking dietary supplements, it is critical to know what you are doing (or recommending as a doctor).

The AAO meeting report concludes that dietary intake of foods must be different biologically from supplement intake.  Well, there’s one step forward. Maybe eventually they will catch up.

In the meantime, here’s the bottom line…

You do need to take in some iron from foods. But chances are very good that you do not need iron supplements or multivitamins with iron. It’s only necessary when you have been specifically diagnosed by your doctor as having iron-deficiency anemia. And even then, proceed with caution!

Eat all the healthy foods you want that are naturally high in iron. You will never “overdose” on the minerals naturally present in foods. But avoid processed foods “enriched” with iron.

Lastly, consider making a blood donation. That can truly become the gift of life and will help keep your iron at healthy levels besides. 

“The association between glaucoma prevalence and supplementation with the oxidants calcium and iron.” Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 2012; 53(2): 725-731