Iron overload is a medical condition that occurs when too much of the mineral iron builds up inside the body and produces a toxic reaction. Doctors refer to this condition more formally as hemochromatosis. If left uncorrected, an iron overload can lead to serious health problems that include liver cancer, diabetes, arthritis and heart attack. Moderate consumption of alcohol can potentially help the body maintain proper iron levels. However, long-term consumption of excessive amounts of alcohol significantly increases risks for the development of iron overload. The primary result of alcohol-related iron overload is a potentially fatal disorder known as alcoholic liver disease.
Iron plays a vital role in several aspects of human health and well-being. First (and perhaps foremost), it helps the body make hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that’s responsible for transporting oxygen through the bloodstream to various tissues and organs. The body also needs an adequate iron supply to make myoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen inside muscle tissue. Additional essential tasks that rely on the availability of iron include the formation of proteins called enzymes, maintenance of a stable internal temperature, development of higher-level reasoning skills and proper regulation of the body’s immune functions.
Iron Overload Basics
Some people develop a form of the condition called primary hemochromatosis, which stems from a genetic mutation that makes the body absorb much more iron than usual from various dietary sources. However, in most cases, people develop a form of the condition called secondary hemochromatosis, which occurs when other health problems or circumstances lead to excessive iron accumulation. In addition to chronic, excessive alcohol consumption, potential underlying causes of the secondary form of iron overload include a blood disorder called thalassemia, hepatitis C or other sources of chronic liver disease, multiple blood transfusions, the cumulative effects of kidney dialysis, excessive consumption of iron supplements and a rare, genetic red blood cell disorder called atransferrinemia.
Common symptoms of iron overload include unusual fatigue or weakness, unexplained weight loss, skin darkening, body hair loss, a significant drop in libido, and pain that appears in the joints and/or abdomen. Potential complications of the disorder include scarring of the liver tissues (cirrhosis), liver failure, shrinking of the testicles, permanent skin color changes and an increased susceptibility to the disease-causing effects of certain types of bacteria.
The Role of Alcohol Consumption
Alcohol intake makes the body increase its level of iron storage. Adults who drink moderate amounts of alcohol (one or two drinks per day for men; one drink per day for women) have reduced risks for developing an iron deficiency, according to a study published in 2004 in the journal Gastroenterology. Just as importantly, this level of alcohol intake is typically too low to trigger the onset of iron overload. People who consume more than one or two drinks per day elevate their risk for iron overload. However, truly elevated risks occur in alcoholics and other alcohol abusers who habitually drink to considerable excess.
Chronic, excessive alcohol consumption frequently leads to an abnormal buildup of iron in the liver, according to the authors of a study published in 2006 in Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics. In turn, the presence of iron accumulations in liver tissue can contribute to the onset of alcoholic liver disease (ALD). People with this disease initially develop hepatitis (a general term used to describe any form of liver inflammation). If this inflammation goes uncorrected, it will eventually trigger cirrhosis and liver tissue destruction. Other problems associated with the presence of ALD include an abnormal accumulation of fat deposits within the liver, jaundice, a form of localized high blood pressure called portal hypertension, and a potentially fatal form of brain damage called hepatic encephalopathy.
Although no one knows for sure, risks for the disorder in alcohol abusers and alcoholics may be at least partially genetic. One known fact that supports this theory is alcohol consumption’s ability to worsen the effects of cirrhosis and other forms of liver damage in people with hereditary primary hemochromatosis.