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Iron: Too much of a good thing

Iron is an essential component in proteins that help transport oxygen throughout the body. Not having enough iron causes fatigue, poor work performance and a weakened immune response. But having too much iron can create a host of problems, too. In addition to damaging your liver, heart and pancreas, hemochromatosis—a disease in which too much iron builds up in the body—can cause an irregular heart rate and lead to heart failure. Although some people never have symptoms or complications, others can have serious side effects or die from the disease. One of the most common genetic diseases in the United States, hemochromatosis is diagnosed based on your medical and family history, a physical exam and diagnostic tests and procedures. Treatment includes:

  • periodic blood removal, which is like donating blood, once or twice a week until iron levels return to normal
  • iron chelation therapy, which uses medicine to remove excess iron from your blood
  • dietary changes like limiting your intake of vitamin C, which increases the amount of iron your body absorbs; staying away from uncooked fish and shellfish to avoid infection-causing bacteria; and avoiding alcohol, which increases liver-disease risk and can make liver disease worse.