Excess Iron and Brain Disorders: The Little-Known Link

Chronic Disease Environmental Medicine

Excess Iron and Brain Disorders: The Little-Known LinkOver a lifetime, iron will accumulate in certain cells and tissues. Too much iron can accelerate cellular decay and tissue damage, eventually inflicting system-wide failure. Age-related iron overload is a known contributor to diseases like atherosclerosis, neurodegeneration, liver failure, and cancer.1-3 The significant dangers posed by excess iron in the body remain little-known and often-overlooked. As a result, most of us are not taking aggressive measures to ensure ideal total-body iron status — and most doctors do not properly test for it.

Limiting Iron Reduces Risk

A compelling study published in late 2011 demonstrated for the first time that limiting your body’s lifetime exposure to iron can in turn limit your risk of neurodegenerative brain disorders, like dementia. It began with the observation that women not only have lower brain iron levels in their later years, they also have lower iron levels throughout their bodies for most of their lives. It has long been known among physicians that this difference arises because women lose iron during their reproductive years through menstruation. Could steady, low-level loss of iron be an effective means by which women inadvertently but effectively limit their lifetime exposure to iron, thereby protecting themselves from early-onset brain disorders? UCLA researchers studied brain scan images of 39 postmenopausal women, of whom 15 had undergone a hysterectomy prior to menopause. Those women obviously had stopped menstruating prior to menopause, prematurely ending their bodies’ ability to lose iron on a regular basis. The other women had experienced regular periods until menopause. For comparison, the researchers included brain scans of 54 men of similar ages.4 Not surprisingly, the men’s brains had higher iron levels than those of women who had reached menopause naturally, without hysterectomy. But in a compelling validation of the researchers’ hypothesis, the brains of the women who had undergone hysterectomies exhibited iron levels not only higher than normal menopausal women but identical to levels in male subjects.4 The UCLA study demonstrated that lifelong menstruation grants most mature women beneficially lower brain iron levels and affords significant protection against early onset of dementia and other brain disorders. It also underscores the critical need for humans to aggressively limit lifetime exposure to iron and thereby substantially lower their risk of neurodegenerative brain disorders and cognitive decline. So let’s look at how we can test for iron excess and reduce iron overload.

Testing for Iron Excess

Of the body’s normal 4 grams of iron, approximately 65% resides in red blood cells. A small amount is also found in muscle and in cellular enzymes throughout the body’s tissues. Any remaining iron is stored mostly in the liver as ferritin. Iron is transported in the blood as transferrin, a major transport protein. Transferrin carries 60–70% of the body’s iron. The total amount of iron bound to transferrin is referred to as total iron-binding capacity (TIBC). All of this means that checking your iron level alone is not enough. An appropriate iron profile would include:
  • Serum iron
  • Total iron-binding capacity
  • Percent of iron saturation
  • Ferritin

Eliminate Excess Iron with Supplements

Flavonoids are naturally occurring plant molecules that offer both powerful antioxidant protection and the ability to bind to free iron atoms (chelate). Quercetin, a flavonoid found in berries and other plants, chelates iron atoms as powerfully as the prescription drugs used in managing severe cases of iron overdose.5,6 Quercetin’s antioxidant effects are likely to be closely related to its strong iron-chelating capacity and account for its ability to prevent the DNA strand damage that precedes cancer development.7,8 Extracts from dark-colored and red fruits, like cranberry and pomegranate, have now been shown to have potent iron-chelating capabilities, in some cases completely suppressing iron-catalyzed oxidant reactions.9 We’ve long known that cranberry juice and extracts are active in preventing urinary tract infections with some of the most common pathological organisms. The traditional view has been that the extracts’ antioxidant and anti-adhesive powers are the primary mechanisms. New evidence shows that another way cranberry extracts work is by depriving infecting bacteria of the iron they need for survival through chelation.10,11

What You Need to Know

Excess iron in cells and tissues can cause damage and disease, especially to the brain. Yet, this is something that most doctors don’t even think about. Get tested and if your iron level is too high, take appropriate steps to reduce your iron burden.


  1. Free Radic Res. 2007 Mar;41(3):324-8.
  2. PLoS One. 2008;3(8):e2865.
  3. J Alzheimers Dis. 2009;16(4):879-95.
  4. Neurobiol Aging. 2011 Sep 16.
  5. Dalton Trans. 2007 Nov 21(43):4951-61.
  6. J Inorg Biochem. 2011 May;105(5):693-701.
  7. Free Radic Biol Med. 1998 Jul 15;25(2):196-200.
  8. Biometals. 2000 Mar;13(1):77-83.
  9. J Agric Food Chem. 2007 Feb 21;55(4):1491-500.
  10. Biofactors. 2011 Mar;37(2):121-30.
  11. Appl Environ Microbiol. 2011 Feb;77(4):1532-5.

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