By: Vishal Mehta, B.Pharm, RPh

For most of us, ingesting the iron in our diets is not a problem. Our bodies will naturally expel any excess through our bowels. But for one in 300 Canadians with hemochromatosis, it’s a far more complicated and dangerous issue. Hemochromatosis is one of Canada’s most common genetic diseases, affecting those with ancestral heritage from Ireland and the British Isles, earning the nickname, ‘the Celtic Curse.’ It is easily treatable if diagnosed early, but it can be deadly if left unchecked.

Hemochromatosis causes your body to store surplus iron in its organs, causing health problems like diabetes, osteoarthritis, cirrhosis of the liver, and heart failure. Early symptoms may include fatigue, arthritis in the knuckles, loss of libido, or menstrual irregularities. Later-stage symptoms may include abdominal pain and distention, frequent urination, jaundice, bronze or grey sheen to skin tone, or irregular heartbeat. As absorption to dangerous levels takes time, symptoms may not begin to manifest for 20 or 30 years and may take even longer in women as menstruation reduces the amount of iron in their bodies.

Diagnosis for hemochromatosis involves a simple blood test to check for abnormally high amounts of a blood cell protein called ferritin. Additional tests include a liver biopsy or genetic testing to confirm the diagnosis.

One surprising aspect of hemochromatosis is that managing the disease benefits others. Bloodletting through blood donation is beneficial to the patient (and those who need blood). When you give blood, your body replaces it by extracting iron from anywhere it can to make hemoglobin. Using the stored iron reduces the excess that would otherwise cause health problems.

If you have concerns about the Celtic Curse, speak to your doctor. One of our pharmacists would be happy to guide you as well. For information and tips on how you can increase awareness, contact the Canadian Hemochromatosis Society.

Helping you feel better,