Could too much iron be the real reason you’re so tired?

Fatigue is often linked to low iron levels, but it turns out that having too much can also leave you feeling achy and lacking energy.

Jayne, 44, first began experiencing chronic fatigue and lethargy in her early 20s, which worsened into her 30s.

“I had seen several GPs over the years to try to get to the bottom of my symptoms, without success,” she says.

“I was told it was a virus that would eventually pass or I needed to change my lifestyle and diet.”

Jayne eventually found another GP who identified her symptoms as signs of haemochromatosis – a condition that causes your body to absorb too much iron.

“After an iron studies blood test, I was then sent for a gene test, which came back positive for the condition,” Jayne says.

Left undiagnosed, haemochromatosis can lead to life-threatening conditions such as liver disease, heart problems and diabetes.

What are the symptoms of haemochromatosis?

Because fatigue and lethargy are common signs of haemochromatosis – and these symptoms can also be linked to a myriad of other conditions – it can be tricky to diagnose, says hepatologist Prof John K Olynyk says.

“In the early stages of iron overload caused by haemochromatosis, symptoms may be completely absent or very nonspecific, including general fatigue and weakness, weight loss, abdominal pain and joint aches,” he says.

“Higher levels of iron impact the liver, joints, pancreas, skin and sex organs and the symptoms may be different from person to person.”

What causes haemochromatosis?

Haemochromatosis is an autosomal recessive genetic condition, with sufferers inheriting a faulty gene from both parents, explains Prof Olynyk.

“In Australia most people affected inherit two mutated copies of the HFE gene – this occurs in about one in every 200 people of northern European descent,” he says.

“There are some other rarer forms of haemochromatosis due to faults in other genes.”

Can too much iron be dangerous?

Excessive iron can lead to a range of serious health conditions including heart failure, cirrhosis of the liver, liver cancer, diabetes and sexual dysfunction.

“People with liver problems may develop an enlarged liver, jaundice, easy bruising and pain in the liver,” Prof Olynyk says.

“The heart can be affected, and symptoms will include palpitations due to damage of the heart muscle, breathlessness with physical activity and swollen ankles.”

Prof Olynyk says if the pancreas is affected it can lead to type 2 diabetes, and if sex organs are impacted women may experience early menopause and loss of libido while men may experience impotence and shrinking testicles.

How is haemochromatosis treated?

While there is no cure for haemochromtosis, it can be treated by regular venesections, which are the same as a blood donation, Prof Olynyk says.

“Haemochromatosis is treated by reducing the levels of excess iron stored around the organs,” he says.

“In most cases the blood can be removed at a blood donation centre if the patient is registered with Lifeblood as a therapeutic donor.”

Jane manages her condition with a therapeutic blood donation every three to four months and annual haematologist check-ups.

“I am fortunate I have no long-lasting damage from iron overload and now everything is under control and my iron levels remain in the normal range, I am able to lead a relatively normal life and it doesn’t impact my lifestyle too much,” she says.

Prof Olynyk says it is important symptoms of haemochromatosis are investigated to boost chances of early detection.

He urges people get their iron levels checked before taking iron supplements or iron-fortified foods.

World Haemochromatosis Week is June 1-7 2021.

Written by Claire Burke.