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Iron Overload: Hematologists Explain Hemochromatosis, and Why Too Much of a Good Thing Is Not a Good Thing

*Please note client's practice name and physician names have been redacted to ensure client privacy.

The childhood image of Popeye chugging down a can of spinach and immediately popping a big bicep is burned into many of our brains. Often the cartoon moment prompted a nearby adult to say, “Eat your spinach, iron makes your strong!”

Popeye wasn’t wrong; we do need iron. “The body needs iron for growth and development. Your body uses iron to make hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to all parts of the body, and myoglobin, a protein that provides oxygen to muscles. Your body also needs iron to make some hormones,” according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Hemochromatosis: Too Much of a Good Thing

But, for some people with a genetic predisposition, an excess of iron in the blood creates a physical state called “hemochromatosis” – iron overload that over time can damage “many parts of the body, including your liver, heart, pancreas, endocrine glands, and joints,” according to the NIH.

“Hemochromatosis is the most common inherited medical disorder in the U.S. Estimates are that one in 260 people have it, and one in 25 are carriers. In order to get it, you have to have a gene from your mother and a gene from your father. More men than women are impacted by hemochromatosis, and individuals with Celtic ancestry are more predisposed to hemochromatosis,” said [The Practice] hematologist Dr. [Anonymous A], who has more than 30 years of experience helping patients manage hemochromatosis.

Typically, patients learn they have hemochromatosis from their primary care physician, based on routine bloodwork that shows high iron levels. Once a patient finds out from their doctor that  they have hemochromatosis, it’s time to reach out to the experienced network of physicians at [The Practice] for specialized help from hematologists accustomed to managing the condition.

“Be reassured”: [The Medical Practice] Can Help

When it comes to hemochromatosis, there’s good news for most patients “Hemochromatosis is compatible with a normal lifespan as long as people attend to it. Be reassured,” said Dr. [Anonymous A]. “It’s very uncommon for folks today to have significant problems” once hemochromatosis is identified and ongoing care is in place. “It’s not as severe as many other inherited disorders,” said Dr. [Anonymous A].

[Practice] hematologist Dr. [Anonymous B] concurred, “If patients keep an eye on their iron levels, they’re [unlikely] to experience damage,” said Dr. [Anonymous B].

[The practice] is one of the nation's largest networks of oncology and hematology specialists and offers treatment for hemochromatosis close to home. Patients can receive cutting-edge, compassionate care at community-based [practice] centers, rather than having to travel to larger cities for help.

Creating a Treatment Plan

The solution to the problem of hemochromatosis is reducing the amount of iron in a patient’s blood. Several complimentary approaches are used to keep the disorder in check at [The Practice's] centers located throughout New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, and the Washington, DC, area.

“The easiest way to treat hemochromatosis is to donate blood,” said Dr. [Anonymous A]. “In states like New Jersey, the donated blood can be used for patients in need.” Hemochromatosis patients can reduce iron in their blood through donation and “can be good citizens” at the same time, if they meet blood donor criteria overall, according to Dr. [Anonymous A].

Patients may need to continue to donate blood over time until their iron levels are in normal range, according to Dr. [Anonymous A]. In addition to phlebotomy to extract blood from the body that can be accomplished in-office at many [practice] locations, lifestyle changes related to diet can help.

“Education, counseling and support from our staff and physicians help patients learn how they will manage hemochromatosis in an ongoing way. Hemochromatosis is a lifelong issue, so patients will need to understand how to make lifestyle changes, and we help patients do that,” said Dr. [Anonymous B].

The [Practice Name] Difference

Having the right doctors makes all the difference in managing hemochromatosis across an individual’s lifespan.

“We counsel our patients very well,” said Dr. [Anonymous B]. “We spend time with them, we help them go to dieticians, we help family members get screening [if they decide to], if a patient’s iron is high, we do phlebotomy in our offices. Our office staff is very educated [about hemochromatosis treatment], and they make patients feel very comfortable.”

Dr. [Anonymous A] offered, “Many people when they first hear they have hemochromatosis are frightened, so you want providers with experience. An experienced person can manage the issue quite easily in the office at [our practice].”

You May Be Able to Keep Eating Your Spinach

When it comes to dietary changes, Dr. [Anonymous B] pointed out that she most often encourages hemochromatosis to reduce intake of animal products, rather than cut down significantly on green leafy vegetables, because vegetables are great for health overall.

“Counseling about diet is very important, as is helping patients to decide what should be eliminated in their diet, and how to still continue eating a healthy diet,” said Dr. [Anonymous B].

Overuse of Supplements May Play a Role

Iron supplements should not be taken unless people have been informed by a doctor that their bloodwork shows iron deficiency, according to Dr. [Anonymous B]. “Many times I find patients who have hemochromatosis are on iron supplements because at one time they were told they were anemic, were told to take iron, and kept taking it. Iron should be used only short term, and after a few months blood should be rechecked.”

Too much iron in one’s diet (for example from over-consumption of red ) and use of supplements like Vitamin C may increase the risk of hemochromatosis in a patient who already has a genetic predisposition to the disorder.

“It Runs in the Family”

Dr. [Anonymous B] emphasized that anyone diagnosed with hemochromatosis should be sure to inform family members that they may have the condition, too – since the disorder has a genetic cause. ““Hemochromatosis, if you know you have the gene, tell all your family members that they should get tested,” said [Anonymous B].

Family members who are men over 30 and post-menopausal women who are family members of someone with hemochromatosis should be tested at least once for too much iron in their blood, according to Dr. [Anonymous B]. [The Practice] can help with family member testing when needed.

A Positive Outlook

Medical advances in testing for hemochromatosis, coupled with the specialized knowledge of [The Practice's] healthcare providers and staff, mean the vast majority of patients can get their iron levels in check without too much interruption to their normal activities.

“I don’t like to call hemochromatosis a disease,” said Dr. [Anonymous A]. “Once you pay attention to [managing] it, you should live a long and happy life.”

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