The Trouble with Iron Part III Diabetes
You were trained to think of iron as absolutely necessary to help fatigue. “Build up your blood!” and other such phrases are deep in our subconscious. We see blood and know it is the red of iron. Iron is critical for life, because it’s the key to carrying oxygen to the tissue so that we can make energy. No doubt, iron is important. But carrying oxygen is no mean feat, as it is such a reactive chemical, it needs the strong chemical bond of iron in heme to transport it. What happens when you get too much iron?
Two conditions of too much iron are thalassemia and hemochromatosis. Guess what happens to those folks? Hemochromatosis is also known as bronze diabetes. They fill up the islet cells of their pancreas with iron, and their insulin producing capacity fails. This can be reversed with removal of the iron.
And what happens to normal folks? Well, here again we find that the tendency to being diabetic goes along with the tendency to be iron overloaded. And the devil is in the details. It’s not just the total load of iron that causes damage. It’s not just the accumulation of iron in the islets of your pancreas. It’s the whole ecosystem effect of iron. Iron plays a role in every tissue that mediates energy metabolism, particularly the fat cell. There is a whole host of signaling that occurs when iron is present with intracellular and extracellular messaging. The nuance of it is still not anywhere close to being understood, but you can get a sense for its complexity by the review in Cell Metabolism.
And what have we done, with all of our good intentions, in America. We have devised guidelines for iron supplementation that serve young, pregnant women, well. We add iron to all our grains. It is the fortification you see on the label of every kind of flour product. When you eat most breakfast cereals, particularly the ones that claim to have you supplemented with great vitamins and minerals, you will find 18 mg of iron added to each serving. But it will also be in the flour of your bagel, your hotdog bun, your Danish, your french toast. And it interferes with your metabolism of carbs, immediately. On the spot.
This raises a fascinating conjecture. Is it the iron added to carbs that makes them so problematic for weight gain, insulin resistance and diabetes? Hmmm. There is enough evidence around iron to make it a perfectly reasonable hypothesis. That also explains a few conundrums that the pure carbohydrate hypothesis doesn’t solve. For example, why is red meat so insulogenic? You eat a large bloody red steak, dripping with heme, and you get a huge spike in insulin. And it may not be just the red meat per se, because we see a stronger effect with processed meats. The evidence seems to lean towards more complicated and nuanced reasons, like the amount of AGE’s and ALEs. (If you knew what those were before you read this: you are a star. AGE’s are Advanced Glycation End Products – made by roasting meat with sugared sauces and ALEs are Advanced Lipo-oxidation Products, that occur with food preparation of meats with protein and high fat content.) However it occurs, iron is in the middle of it.
Here are some tests this hypothesis. First, one must look for high ferritin in folks who have high cholesterol, moderate blood glucose and elevated insulin: all the people we thought were overindulging in carbs. So far, I’m three for three. The last one had a ferritin over 600. Another test…..why can’t women lost weight after menopause? Answer: They stop losing iron with menses after menopause, accumulate iron and have their insulin go up. That makes them gain weight. Hmmm. Ever seen that happen? They go carb free and eat more meat, and don’t lose weight. Hmmm. I’m about 400 for 400 on that one.
WWW: What Will Work for Me. I’ve paid a lot of attention to this topic in my own life. Right now I’m reading labels and finding secret iron everywhere. At the picnic last night, I avoided the hamburger offering and had two olive oil salads instead. I had just read that the iron in spinach is tightly bound by oxalates. And what about Vitamin C? It increases iron absorption 400%. Complex, isn’t it?
- Too much iron in you can cause you to become insulin resistant, thereby leading to diabetes risk and obesity? T or F Answer: Bingo. True
- The mechanism for this cause is well known. T or F Answer: Well, it’s well known now but the mechanism is still murky. Too complex. The phenomenon has been observed. And ferritin is deposited into insulin cells in the pancreas, but the cellular mechanism is much more nuanced, probably because iron is so tightly regulated and bound.
- You should know your iron level and it should be? Answer: Ferritin of 40 or so.
- If your ferritin is too high, you can reduce it by? Answer: giving blood to the Red Cross. Come on in and we will phlebotomize for you if the Blood Donor Center won’t or can’t do it. (Leaches. Blood letting. Hand to hand combat.)
- This iron topic is a whole new way of interpreting the problem with carbohydrates, because………..? Answer: we added iron to virtually all carbs in Western societies. It may be the iron, and not the carbs. This is conjecture for now, but it sure fits.