Last Updated on October 1st, 2019
For a long time, people have been worried about getting too little iron in their diet, and with good reason. Before the developed world was flooded with abundance, iron deficiency was a real problem that results in iron-deficiency anemia, low hemoglobin that resulted in low red blood cell count1. But in today’s modern world, developed societies rarely face this problem, aside from the vegan/vegetarian population2. In fact, excess iron is a bigger issue and is more likely something that first-world citizens are dealing with, whether or not they’ve been diagnosed by a doctor3.
As it turns out, excess iron, or iron overload, is a real problem that has some damaging effects on the body, including making your skin health and acne pretty bad4.
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First of all, iron is something that your body absolutely needs to survive. In that sense, it’s very good for you. Iron is what helps produce hemoglobin, which carries oxygen to your red blood cells5. Without sufficient hemoglobin, you won’t have an efficient number of red blood cells in your body, resulting in weaker muscles and organs – which comprise your entire body.
Iron isn’t just for helping transport oxygen throughout your body and blood, but it is necessary for growth, electron transport and the synthesis of DNA. However, our bodies need iron in the right amounts. Having too much iron in your body, an excess of iron, results in a host of problems that are just as severe and life-threatening as having too little iron6.
Iron is essential to our survival, but it turns out, harmful pathogens also need iron to survive7. If we have too much iron in our system, these harmful pathogens also have excess iron and their numbers can grow until they generate infections. Iron also forms free radicals in our blood that can damage bodily tissues in our organs and even cause cancer. One way our bodies deal with iron is to lock it in our hemoglobin and ferritin, which is something like a “cage” for the iron. Unfortunately, this isn’t always enough to limit the excess iron from being a problem in the body.
Due to modern dietary modifications in the way we produce and supply food, the possibility of consuming and absorbing too much iron is really high8. Supplemental iron, iron fortifications in food, toxins in food and the environment, oral birth control and even stress all contribute to the body’s ability to be exposed to iron overload. This is especially true for men, but even women are affected by it even though their bodies have a natural mechanism for dumping excess iron – menstruation.
In fact, women actually absorb 3X more iron than men due to their naturally higher estrogen levels, which boosts their ability to absorb iron from the foods they eat9. That’s why shortening or stopping menstruation altogether can women at severe risk for iron overload10. Men, on the other hand, don’t menstruate and so they start to accumulate iron in the body from the time their puberty-related growth ends, which is usually anywhere from 18-21 years of age.
One obvious sign of iron accumulation, especially in men, is in their growing guts, or “beer bellies.” Often associated with the consumption of alcohol and beer, a beer belly is caused by boosted iron absorption – which alcohol actually helps the body to do11. In fact, excess iron can cause obesity as the accumulation of iron leads to blood sugar problems, insulin resistance, and metabolic dysregulation.
One way the body tries to manage this excess iron is to deposit it into the different tissues in your various organs, such as the liver, pancreas, muscles, brain, adipose tissue, eyes, etc. But this leads to all kinds of diseases that degenerate bodily functions. Some of these diseases are heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancer12 and even down syndrome in newborns.
It is also believed that iron overload progressed over time causes aging in the body13. Age spots, for instance, are made of a fatty brown mass call lipofuscin, which is iron and oxidized polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA). People who have a lot of age spots also have a lot of excess iron in their bodies. This is because the excess iron gets deposited in the skin as the body runs out of other places to store the iron.
Now that you understand what your body does to try and get rid of excess iron, it should start to become clear as to how that excess iron can create problems for your skin! In fact, there are several ways that iron affects your body internally that result in skin issues, mainly acne.
These 5 ways that iron causes acne are just the most obvious ways that iron overload is problematic for your skin. But due to the host of problems that are associated with hemochromatosis (causes by iron overload), there are possibly many more ways that iron results in the formation and perpetuation of acne.
Now that you understand the dangers and risks that iron overload poses to your skin and overall health, the next important thing to explore is how your body may be at risk. As mentioned earlier, modern society has made the possibility of excess iron absorption ever-abundant, but in order to take charge of your health and skincare, you should know the specifics.
One of the most popularly known sources of iron, availability of red meat in the developed world is truly excessive17. We get it in any fast food restaurant or fine-dining one in the form of ground beef and steaks, known as “muscle meat.” This is mainly an American favorite, but it’s one of the main ways that we can consume too much iron. That’s because theses red meats have plenty of bioavailable heme iron, which means that it is very easy for the body to metabolize and absorb.
Traditionally, and in other parts of the world, when a cow is cooked, all of its parts are used in one form or another. This means that instead of slicing out only the juiciest, meat-only slabs of muscle, a lot of bone-in cuts are used, and bone marrow and bone broths are used in cooking. This allows for meals to be infused with calcium, and calcium counteracts iron absorption by inhibiting it. But in meals that don’t include these extras, it is likely that they are infused with an overdose of iron.
Speaking of calcium, one way to limit the amount of iron your body absorbs is to consume iron antagonists with your meal18. But if your meals aren’t well-rounded, they might be lacking in sufficient iron antagonists, which will lead to excess iron absorption. Iron antagonists are things like raw dairy, turmeric, bitter herbs, teas (green, black, white), dark purple vegetables and other calcium-rich veggies, cocoa, cranberries, red wine, and as mentioned earlier, bone marrow and bone broth.
While traditional French cuisine features a lot of these ingredients in combination with their red meat meals, American cultures often don’t, which could be a leading reason why Americans face a much higher rate of modern diseases.
When it comes to the dairy products we use, most of them are pasteurized instead of raw dairy. This is due to the mass production of commercial dairy products manufactured for the general population. The process involves heating the milk up to rid it of all the bacteria, but as a result, all the good stuff in the milk is processed out as well, including the elements that would counteract iron absorption19. Even though raw milk is a healthier option for your digestive health, especially when eating it with iron-fortified cereals, it isn’t as mass-produced or widely available as pasteurized milk.
As just previously mentioned, iron-fortified grains and flours are too common in countries around the world, and some even require it. This could be because of the fact that refined wheat flour ends up with reduced iron, so iron is added back to the mix. However, this type of iron is very easy for the body to absorb and as a result, it’s a sure-fire way to end up with an easy excess of iron in the body. This includes foods like bread, cereals, crackers, cakes, cookies, pasta, etc. In some countries, even the rice is iron-fortified.
The best way to get around this is to use non-fortified whole wheat flour, and consume products made with that instead.
Fluoride is an ingredient that has become all too common in the known world, found in drinking water, toothpaste, dental treatments, pesticides, Teflon pans and more. It breaks down vitamin A in the body, which leads to ceruloplasmin deficiency. Ceruloplasmin is a copper-binding protein that your body creates using vitamin A. This protein helps to load iron into transferrin so that the iron can do what it’s supposed to do in your body, help get oxygen to your red blood cells. Without vitamin A, this process is inhibited and you end up with excess iron that isn’t going where it’s supposed to. As a result, the excess iron lingers in your liver and leads to all sorts of damage, as mentioned earlier20.
As mentioned in the previous point, vitamin A is a crucial component in making sure your body uses its iron intake properly21. Aside from ingesting fluoride, which destroys it, a diet lacking sufficient vitamin A will also contribute to vitamin A deficiency. Vitamin A can be found in foods like orange and dark green veggies, and in animal foods like egg yolk, grass-fed dairy, and liver.
An important mineral that is required to limit iron in the body is molybdenum. It helps to prevent the buildup of iron in your liver by getting it mobilized so it ends up in your hemoglobin. Naturally, without sufficient molybdenum, iron doesn’t get used as it should and it just builds up in your liver instead, to levels that literally become toxic.
The best way to avoid molybdenum deficiency and get enough of this mineral in your diet is from lentils and beans. One way to know if you do have a molybdenum deficiency is if you get headaches from red wine and other foods that have sulfites. Molybdenum is also necessary for the enzyme that is responsible for breaking down sulfites. Without it, you’ll experience what is known as sulfite intolerance.
Other deficiencies that could lead to excess iron in the body are a copper deficiency and zinc deficiency. Copper deficiency puts your body at risk of iron overload because your body also requires copper to get iron into transferrin, just like vitamin A22. The lack of copper and zinc also contribute to iron overload due to the fact that these metals actually compete with iron to be absorbed. A sufficient amount of each limits the amount of iron your body can absorb, but a lack of them leaves a lot of room for the body to absorb iron in its place.
One of the reasons why copper and zinc are lacking in modern diets is because of modern farming practices. These days, modern soils are lacking in these two metals because the soil is over-farmed and strip-mined, without having the trace minerals replaced in any way. As a result, the crops that grow in these soils don’t have much copper and zinc to absorb. However, the soil is still very rich in iron, leading to crops that are infused with it.
For women who have PCOS, they are more likely to have issues with iron overload23. Some believe that this may be due to the increase in insulin levels in PCOS causes by insulin resistance. As described previously, insulin resistance enhances the body’s ability to absorb iron from food. Also, during PCOS, the hormone that helps to inhibit iron absorption, hepcidin, drops too much lower levels. As the level of this hormone drops in the body, the ability to absorb more iron increases.
As you read earlier, the female body has a way of dumping excess iron every month through menstruation. Birth control, however, is designed to limit and, in some cases, even halt menstruation altogether. This causes the body to accumulate the iron it should be dumping, leading to excess24. This can be a huge problem for women, as women are already able to absorb three times as much iron as men from the food they eat.
In fact, one of the main reasons why women experience acne after stopping birth control is due to the accumulated excess iron that has been stored away in their bodies during the time they were on birth control. Even though they may not have experienced acne during the time they were taking birth control, due to progesterone which gives you clear skin, stopping their progesterone intake allows the iron to surface and wreak havoc on the skin. That’s why women on birth control need to be very careful of their iron intake during that period of their lives.
There are a few ways to test for iron levels in your body, such as liver biopsies, MRIs, ferritin level tests, transferrin saturation tests, iron levels tests for hair and gamma-glutamyl transferase tests. If you do see a doctor, technician or send samples into a lab for testing and find out that you do have excess iron, your next step is to begin finding ways to reduce the iron levels in your body.
This is probably the most obvious solution to the iron excess problem. Your diet should include foods that inhibit your body’s ability to absorb too much iron. That means, when you have a red meat meal, for example, you should have it with a glass of red wine, some bone broth or even black, green or white tea. Whenever you consume flour-based foods that contain fortified iron, you should also pair it with teas, eggs, cocoa, turmeric, cranberries, calcium-rich vegetables or other iron antagonists.
Keep in mind that your diet should include a daily dose of vitamin A, copper, zinc and molybdenum, as mentioned earlier. If you are interested in tasty food pairings that work together well and supply your body with everything it needs, look no further than ethnic cuisine ideas from around the world, which you can easily do online. Remember, French cuisine is an ideal example of meal combinations that have good pairings of iron-rich and iron-antagonist foods.
Similar to iron-antagonists, or iron-inhibitors, iron-chelators are another way to deal with excess iron. Iron chelators, in fact, do the job of binding itself to iron and taking it where it needs to go in the body. In the case of excess iron, chelators escort it out of the body. The most natural form of this is called inositol hexaphosphate, or IP-6. It’s a phytic acid that has been isolated from rice bran and can actually effectively kill cancer cells. That’s probably due to the fact that it removes excess iron from the body, and excess iron is needed for cancerous cells to feed on and multiply.
The only real problem with it is that IP-6 is also a chelating agent for copper, magnesium, zinc and other important minerals that your body really needs. That’s why it should be taken separately from your meals. One way to do it is half an hour to an hour before you eat breakfast in the morning. The goal here is to make sure it doesn’t wipe away these other precious minerals from your diet, but instead only deals with the excess iron already in your body.
Another reliable iron chelator is lactoferrin, a protein that the human body naturally produces in all of its secretions. But drinking bodily fluids is a gross way to get your lactoferrin intake, that’s why there are lactoferrin supplements that you can take. Additionally, you can get lactoferrin from raw milk, but you would only get it in small portions. Supplements are probably the best way to get a proper dose of it.
Finally, perhaps a surprising fact is that some antibiotics, mainly the tetracycline family of antibiotics, are strong iron-chelators as well. If you happen to be prescribed these antibiotics for a short while, they will be able to assist your body in lowering your iron levels. However, as antibiotics are designed to kill bacteria in the body, they can adversely affect your gut flora and an unhealthy gut will cause acne anyway, so antibiotics need to be taken with extreme caution.
The next obvious way to cut down on excess iron is to stop eating foods that are iron-fortified. This means cutting out the wrong breakfast cereals, white bread, pastas, and generally anything made from refined white flour.
You’ve already read that red meats are very high in iron and can lead to excess iron very quickly. The reality is that your body doesn’t need to have meat every single day of the week to be healthy, and in fact, having meat daily with each meal can really be too much. One sure-fire way to cut down on excess iron, therefore, is to cut down on your meat intake. Studies have shown that vegetarians tend to have lower iron levels and more sensitivity to insulin, so their bodies broke down carbs very well in comparison to intensive meat-eaters.
While this does not mean that you should turn vegetarian yourself, it does mean that you should up your veggie intake and downplay your meat intake quite a bit. Instead of red meats, you can opt for seafood, which has the necessary animal proteins that your muscles require, and more minerals like copper and zinc than red meat has. Whenever you do decide to eat red meat, be sure to pair it with an iron antagonist.
As you already know, sugar spikes blood sugar and insulin levels, and that can lead to insulin resistance and excess production of sebum and skin cells. It also causes your body to produce less hepcidin, the hormone that stunts iron absorption, in turn boosting how much iron your body absorbs. The thing about sugar is that carbs are sugars. So, foods made with iron-fortified flours combined with sugar, like cookies and cakes, are just sugar on sugar and a recipe for iron overload. The best way to deal with that is to cut out as much sugar from your diet as possible, no matter how much you might love it.
One of the best ways to beat iron from building up in your liver is to have enough molybdenum in your system, and the best way in the world to do that is to eat beans regularly, even daily. This trace mineral keeps iron mobilized in your body so it doesn’t get piled up in your liver, but rather gets put to use in your hemoglobin. That’s probably also the reason why studies have shown that people who eat beans on the regularly have cleaner intestines and digestive systems than people who don’t!
Now, this one may be a bit controversial, as some doctors would strongly recommend that having supplementing vitamin C is a recipe for disaster when you’re already dealing with iron overload. So, let’s first clarify why vitamin C matters and how it relates to iron.
Vitamin C is necessary for your body to be able to use the iron it absorbs from your food. Without a sufficient amount of vitamin C, your body can’t really use the iron it absorbs so it ends up just building up in your liver while you become anemic (low on red blood cells). Vitamin C does boost iron absorption but there is only so much vitamin C your body can actually absorb in a given period of time, so the effects are limited in your overall diet.
Vitamin is actually needed for iron to be properly utilized in the body, and it even protects your body from iron toxicity. Without it, your body will undergo both iron overload and anemia at the same time, as weird as that may sound. Even though some doctors caution against high vitamin C intake for fear of increasing iron absorption, vitamin C by itself cannot actually cause iron overload in your body. In fact, kind of like molybdenum, it helps to mobilize it and get it moving in our body instead of sitting in your liver and building up.
A safe amount of vitamin C to take is about 2000 mg and you can increase slowly from there. You know you’re having too much if it gives you diarrhea. Also, you should take it in doses spread out over the course of the day, like two or three times. This is because vitamin C will only remain present in your body for a short amount of time before your body metabolizes it.
Finally, a less conventional and perhaps harder to come by method of dealing with iron overload is a holistic method known as near-infrared sauna therapy. It is essentially sitting in an infrared sauna to trigger your body’s ability to get rid of iron through sweating and releasing it into your hair. If you are fortunate enough to find a spa or clinic that offers this type of treatment, you should do it. It is an excellent way to have your body naturally dump out its excess iron without having to consume anything extra.
The key takeaway here is that iron, though absolutely necessary for your body to be alive at all, can be very toxic and harmful to your skin and health when you have an excess.
Iron overload causes acne in several ways, and there are many ways that we put ourselves at risk of iron overload on a daily basis.
Fortunately, there are ways to cut down on your iron intake and to even get rid of some of the excess iron in your body. These methods include consuming iron-chelators, iron-antagonists and vitamins and minerals that help to mobilize and transport iron to where it needs to be in the body to be beneficial.
With the right healthy choices and a good effort to reduce your existing iron-overload, you should be able to see results that will not only give you better skin, but give you better health as well.
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