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. Normally, your intestines absorb all the iron you need from the food you eat. But if you have hemochromatosis, your intestines absorb too much, and your body has no way to get rid of it.

If left untreated, iron overload can lead to serious health problems like:

  • Liver cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Arthritis
  • Heart attack

One of the causes of iron build-up in the body is too much alcohol. So it’s important to raise awareness about the relationship between hemochromatosis and alcohol.

Long-term consumption of excessive amounts of alcohol greatly increases your risk of iron overload. The primary result of alcohol-related iron overload is the potentially fatal disorder alcoholic liver disease.

Iron Overload Basics

Iron plays a vital role in several aspects of your health and well-being. It helps your body make hemoglobin. This is the protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen through your bloodstream to various tissues and organs.

Your 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
  • Proper regulation of the body’s immune functions

Some people develop a form of iron overload called primary hemochromatosis. This type of genetic hemochromatosis stems from a gene mutation that makes the body absorb much more iron than usual from dietary sources. In most cases, people develop a form of the condition called secondary hemochromatosis. This occurs when other health problems or circumstances lead to excessive iron accumulation.

Chronic, excessive alcohol consumption can cause this secondary form of iron overload. Other things can too, including:

  • 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
  • A rare, genetic red blood cell disorder called atransferrinemia

The Link Between Hemochromatosis and Alcohol

Alcohol intake makes your 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. This is according to a study published in the journal Gastroenterology.

This level of alcohol intake is typically too low to trigger the onset of iron overload. If you consume more than one or two drinks per day, you elevate your risk for iron overload. But 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 build-up of iron in the liver. 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 isn’t corrected, it eventually triggers cirrhosis and liver tissue destruction.

Other problems associated with the presence of ALD include:

  • An abnormal accumulation of fat deposits within the liver
  • Jaundice
  • Localized high blood pressure called portal hypertension
  • A potentially fatal form of brain damage called hepatic encephalopathy

Symptoms of Hemochromatosis

Common symptoms of iron overload include:

  • Unusual fatigue or weakness
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Darkening skin color
  • Body hair loss
  • A significant drop in libido
  • Pain in your 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
  • Increased susceptibility to the disease-causing effects of certain types of bacteria

Can You Stop Hemochromatosis from Developing by Quitting Alcohol?

If you’re abusing alcohol and you’re worried about iron overload, you can reduce your risks. Quitting alcohol is ideal. By abstaining completely, you significantly reduce the risk of hemochromatosis. When you stop drinking for a long period of time, your iron levels may return to normal.

Hemochromatosis develops because of excessive alcohol consumption. Drinking heavily and frequently also worsens the condition. Drinking at moderate levels should, therefore, minimize the risk of the condition developing or worsening. By reducing your alcohol intake, you can keep your iron levels within a healthy range.

Can Hemochromatosis Be Cured?

There is currently no cure for hemochromatosis, but there are steps you can take to reduce the amount of iron in your body. Quitting alcohol or minimizing your alcohol consumption can both help. By limiting your alcohol intake, you can relieve yourself of hemochromatosis symptoms and reduce the risk of damage to your heart, liver and pancreas.

Other treatments for hemochromatosis include:

  • Phlebotomy (or venesection) – This procedure removes some of your blood, similar to the process of giving blood. The removed blood cells contain iron. Your body will use up more iron to replace those blood cells. This treatment usually needs to be repeated every few months.
  • Chelation therapy – This form of therapy is used when a phlebotomy isn’t possible. This might be because it’s difficult to remove blood regularly, like in people with thin or fragile veins. Chelation therapy involves taking medication that removes iron from the blood and releases it into your feces or urine.
  • Dietary changes – As well as limiting your alcohol intake, dietary changes can help maintain healthy iron levels. This includes avoiding breakfast cereals fortified with iron, iron supplements and raw oysters and clams. (These seafoods contain a type of bacteria that can cause infections in people with hemochromatosis.)

You can gain control over hemochromatosis symptoms. The condition doesn’t have to impact your life in any major ways.

The Importance of Treating Excessive Drinking

It’s important to treat excessive drinking before it turns into full-blown alcoholism, which increases your chances of developing hemochromatosis. Facilities like The Ranch provide a number of treatments that can help get your drinking under control. Rehab options include:

  • Medical detox
  • One-on-one therapy
  • Group counseling with peers
  • Family therapy
  • Mindfulness
  • Fitness
  • Yoga

If you don’t have hemochromatosis and alcohol abuse is an issue you struggle with, it’s crucial to treat the alcohol abuse. Doing so could save you from having to deal with a life-long medical condition.

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Krisi Herron

Medically Reviewed by

Krisi Herron, LCDC

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