Blood-letting, the practice of removing blood to prevent or cure illness, was standard-of-care for thousands of years until it was marginalized as “pseudo-science” in the late 19th century. It’s not the barbaric relic it sounds like: a body of modern science supports adding this practice to the wellness toolbox.
Like so many other health measures, iron levels are subject to the Goldilocks effect, in which too little or too much is harmful, and the just-right amount is the sweet spot for health. Blood-letting is used to treat hemochromatosis, a genetic iron overload disorder, but it’s also a great solution for the too common, non-genetic iron overload that results from our modern lifestyle. Donating blood is a simple way to lower the risk of cancer, Alzheimer’s, heart and other chronic diseases, and of course, build good-karma points.
“Only the dose keeps any substance from being a poison.” -Paracelsus
Iron is an essential mineral, a nutrient required for life-sustaining functions that must be sourced through diet because it can’t be produced by the human body. Healthy adults absorb 1 - 2 mg of iron daily through the small intestine. On average, total body iron is 4 grams for males and post-menopausal females, and 3.5 grams for pre-menopausal females, the result of a tightly controlled balance between intake through the gut and loss through sweat, exfoliated skin cells and stool. The human body has no natural process for removing excess iron, so if the amount absorbed exceeds what’s needed, the surplus is stored, causing “iron overload.”
It’s common knowledge that low iron levels trigger anemia and downstream effects, from the typical tired-weak-pale triad to the more extreme: rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, chest pain, headache, lightheadedness and dizziness. On the other end of the spectrum, iron overload is a less well known, toxic source of organ damage that can lead to a number of chronic disorders. While heredity iron overload affects between 1 in 200 to 1 in 400 people, the incidence of the lifestyle-related form was found to be 1 in 10 in 2007, and is likely even higher now, affecting all ethnic groups. Absent proving otherwise, consider yourself at risk.
Non-heredity risk factors for iron overload:
- Alcohol consumption
- Dietary iron intake (animal protein)
- Iron supplements
- Vitamin C supplements
- Cooking in iron pots/pans (especially slow cooking and acidic food)
- Occupational iron exposure (foundry, welding, mining)
- Metabolic syndrome / insulin resistance
- Polycystic ovary syndrome
- Chronic hepatitis B and/or C infections
- Chronic hemolytic anemias
- Therapeutic blood transfusions
The most common presentation of iron overload is no presentation at all: most of those affected are symptom-free and learn of the disorder through blood tests. However, blood tests for iron overload are not part of the standard screening ordered with annual checkups and routine doctor visits, which contributes to delayed diagnosis. When they exist, early symptoms are general and can be confused with many other disorders.
Early Signs Of Iron Overload:
- Memory Loss
- Hair Loss
- Palpitations / abnormal heart rhythm
- Abdominal pain
- Joint pain/arthritis, especially hands (knuckles of 2nd/3rd fingers)
- Impotence / decreased libido / infertility / irregular menses
- Hyperpigmentation of the skin (“bronzing”)
- Spoon nails (nails become flat or concave)
Iron overload leads to deposition of iron in organs, causing damage mainly through oxidative stress and the production of toxic free radicals which attack cellular DNA, lipids and proteins. Iron can accumulate in any bodily tissue, but excess stores are mainly found in the liver, heart, pancreas, brain, thyroid, sex organs and joints. Detectable symptoms usually require significant iron accumulation, tending to express after age 40 in men and post menopause in women. Overall, men present at a younger age because they lose, on average, 1 mg of iron daily, whereas women during childbearing years shed approximately 500 mg of iron per pregnancy and 40 mg per natural menstrual period. Monthly blood loss from birth control pills is generally less than the natural amount.
Serious Disorders Associated Iron Overload:
- Liver cirrhosis / fibrosis
- Diabetes / insulin resistance / metabolic syndrome
- Alzheimer’s disease / dementia
- Heart failure/cardiomyopathy
- Progressive polyarthritis (wrists, spine, knees, hips)
- Cancer of the liver, pancreas
- Testicular failure / shrinkage
- Amenorrhea (no menses)
- Osteoporosis / osteopenia
- Sepsis / bacterial and viral infections
- Accelerated aging / premature death
Regular blood donation, also known as “iron reduction therapy,” is a fast, efficient way to optimize iron levels and is especially important for for men and post-menopausal women. Eligibility rules are simple, requiring adult blood donors to be healthy and minimally weigh 110 pounds; more specific details, including medication exclusions, are available from the American Red Cross. Each donation of one pint (about 500 ml) of whole blood represents 8 to 10 percent of the total amount of blood in the body and can be repeated as often as every two months. A doctor’s prescription for “therapeutic phlebotomy” allows blood donation for those who are ineligible due to age, weight, use of excluded drugs or other reasons. Federal law mandates blood donation centers remove blood if prescribed as therapy, in which case it’s discarded rather than donated. There are many short and long term benefits to blood donation.
Short term benefits of blood donation:
- Burns 650 calories per unit donated
A routinely performed panel of blood tests is free and you can request results:
- Blood type, Rh and antibody screen
- Liver enzymes
- Hepatitis B
- Hepatitis C
- HIV types 1 and 2
- Human T-lymphotrophic virus types 1 and 2
- West Nile virus
- Chagas disease
Some donations are also tested for:
- CMV (cytomegalovirus) if blood will treat immunocompromised recipients
- Lower cancer risk and mortality (lung, colorectal, prostate, lymphoma, liver, others)
- Reduces heart disease (88% reduced risk of acute MI)
- Improve metabolic syndrome (markers of cardiovascular risk and glycemic control)
- Lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders
- Improve longevity and healthspan
The best test to determine iron overload is through a blood test called “serum ferritin.” Ferritin is a protein that carries iron inside cells, making it an excellent proxy for measuring stored iron where it causes the actual damage. Laboratories recognize the normal ferritin range as 20 - 80 ng/ml, but it’s optimal at 40 - 60 ng/ml. For point of reference, pre-menopausal woman and highly conditioned athletes typically have ferritin levels around 25 ng/ml. If too low, iron replacement should bring the levels up. Iron overload is directly related to how high the ferritin level is, generally starting at 100. Almost everyone with long term levels over 300 will sustain serious organ damage. For most, each pint of blood removed drops ferritin by 30 - 50 ng/ml and removes about 250 ml of iron. Twice-weekly, aggressive bloodletting is recommended for for those with ferritin levels over 1000 ng/ml until its brought below 1000, at which point the donation schedule can be readjusted.These steps also lower iron overload:
- Reduce alcohol consumption
- Reduce animal protein / iron fortified food (breads, cereals, pasta) consumption
- Mediterranean, vegetarian or vegan diet
- Increase fiber intake
- Consume turmeric / green or black tea / coffee / milk thistle
- Reduce or eliminate iron and vitamin C** supplements
- Cook/bake with stainless steel / ceramic / glass
- Reverse osmosis filtration system if water high in iron
- Eliminate tobacco products / nicotine gum
- Daily aspirin
- Physical exercise
**Note: Megadosing vitamin C through supplements creates a risk that is not generally seen with normal dietary intake.
Regular blood donation is a no-brainer for improving health, wellness and longevity. That it helps qualify you for superhero status, is an extra, added bonus.
Disclaimer: This article was created for informational purposes only, is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Oobroo™ Inc or its staff.