Haemochromatosis is an overload in iron. The body absorbs excessive amounts of iron which it cannot excrete. Over time, this leads to an iron overload. Haemochromatosis is the most common genetic disorder in Australia . The disorder does not develop from eating excessive amounts of iron rich foods, yet diet can play a small role in the management of haemochromatosis.
Excessive levels of iron can cause a lot of damage to the organs and joints that it is stored in. Raising awareness of this condition is therefore paramount.
Haemochromatosis can quite easily go undetected for a long period of time. This is partly due to its symptoms that tend to overlap with many other conditions and can easily go unnoticed. Additionally, symptoms do not normally present until 30 to 60 years of age . The condition becomes more obvious once damage has been done.
The most common symptoms include:
- Fatigue/ lethargy
- Joint pain
- Liver abnormalities
- Abdominal pain
- Loss of body hair
- Sexual disorders
- Bronzing and darkening of the skin
- Cardiovascular disease
- Weight loss
In men, cirrhosis and/ or diabetes are usually how haemochromatosis first presents. In women, the first sign is normally fatigue .
Effects of excess iron
Excess iron is deposited in the liver, heart, pancreas and other organs. Over time, these excessive levels can lead to organ damage. If left untreated, such complications can include:
- Liver disease e.g. cirrhosis, fibrosis, hepatocellular carcinoma
Fortunately, haemochromatosis can be easily treated. In order to remove excess iron, individuals must undergo venesection (also known as phlebotomy).
Venesection is the removal of blood – similar to a blood donation. Blood is removed until the iron stores are within the normal range. The amount of blood that needs to be removed and the frequency of venesections will depend on the individual. Once the normal range has been reached, venesections will become less frequent and will play a maintenance role throughout the life of the patient.
Dietary changes will not reduce iron levels on their own. However, following the points below can help to slow the further rise in iron levels.
- Do not take iron supplements.
- Do not take vitamin C supplements. Vitamin C increases iron absorption from the iron rich foods you eat.
- Avoid alcohol consumption. The liver is one organ that stores excess iron and is therefore placed under extra stress. Excessive iron alone can cause liver damage so this accompanied with alcohol intake can put additional strain on an already compromised liver.
- Reduce iron-rich foods. Avoid foods that are very rich in iron, like offal and be cautious of portion sizes of meat. Many Australian’s eat well over the recommended serving sizes of meat so cutting back to the recommended serves is suggested.
- Some literature also suggests the avoidance of shellfish and uncooked fish. These types of seafood have bacteria that can cause infection in individuals with chronic disease, like haemochromatosis .
Contact us for results focused nutritional advice
This article was written by our dietitian Belinda Elwin who is a Dietitians Association of Australia member and Accredited Practising Dietitian and Nutritionist.
If you have questions about haemochromatosis or other nutrition related issues, make an appointment. We‘ll provide you with a simple and effective routine targeted to your concerns.