What is Hemochromatosis?

Hemochromatosis is an iron disorder in which the body simply loads too much iron. This action is genetic and the excess iron, if left untreated, can damage joints, organs, and eventually be fatal.

There are several types of hemochromatosis. Type 1, also called Classic Hemochromatosis (HHC), is a leading cause of iron overload disease. People with HHC (too much iron) absorb extra amounts of iron from the daily diet. The human body cannot rid itself of extra iron. Over time, these excesses build up in major organs such as the heart, liver, pancreas, joints, and pituitary. If the extra iron is not removed, these organs can become diseased. Untreated hemochromatosis can be fatal.

Iron is an essential nutrient found in many foods. Iron carries oxygen (in hemoglobin) to all parts of the body. Normally, humans absorb about 8-10% of the iron in foods that they eat. People with hemochromatosis (too much iron) can absorb four times more iron than normal.

Undiagnosed and untreated hemochromatosis (too much iron) increases the risk for diseases and conditions such as:

  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Irregular heart beat or heart attack
  • Arthritis (osteoarthritis, osteoporosis)
  • Cirrhosis of the liver or liver cancer
  • Gall bladder disease
  • Depression
  • Impotence
  • Infertility
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Hypogonadism
  • Some cancers

Mismanaged iron in the brain has been observed in autopsies of people with neurodegenerative diseases: Alzheimer's, early onset Parkinson's, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and Huntington's disease.

Caucasians are the people most at risk for the classic type of hemochromatosis. More than one million Americans have the genes for this type. However, there are other gene combinations that result in hemochromatosis regardless of a person's ethnicity. It is estimated that as much as or more than 16 million Americans have some degree of elevated iron and are at risk for the same diseases that occur in people with the untreated classic type: bone and joint disease, cirrhosis, liver cancer, diabetes, hypothyroidism, hypogonadism, infertility, impotence, depression, or premature death due to liver or heart failure.