Too Much Iron Can Cause Problems

What's New, from the 8th Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections

Iron is a nutrient that the body needs to help build red blood cells. Foods rich in iron include meat, liver, peas, beans, spinach, whole grains, and eggs. Too much iron in the body, a condition called iron overload, can cause serious problems, including liver damage. Iron overload has been found in the following situations:

  • Vitamin C deficiency

  • Substance abuse

  • Cancer

  • Hepatitis

To find out if iron overload occurred in people with HIV/AIDS, researchers in Miami enrolled 90 HIV positive subjects (40% female, 60% male) who were drug users and who had the following profile:

  • Average CD4+ count -- 372 cells

  • Hepatitis B positive -- 65%

  • Hepatitis C positive -- 43%

The following proportion of subjects used the drugs indicated:

  • 70% -- marijuana

  • 61% -- cocaine

  • 57% -- crack

The researchers defined iron overload as cases where iron levels in the blood were greater than 150 micrograms (mcg)/dL. Using this measure as a guide, the researchers interpreted lab results from subjects in the following manner:

  • 73% had normal iron levels

  • 19% had less-than-normal levels of iron

  • 8% had too much iron -- iron overload

The researchers could not find any link in their study between iron overload and subjects having the following conditions:

  • Malnutrition

  • Being overweight

  • Liver damage

The research team did, however, find a link between iron overload and high levels of sugar in the blood. Analysis of the data suggests that those subjects with iron overload were 22 times more likely to have high blood sugar than subjects without iron overload. Interestingly, all subjects with iron overload were receiving highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART). As a result of their findings, the researchers suggest that iron overload may be a problem that is not usually recognized in HIV positive drug users taking HAART. Doctors caring for such people may wish to monitor iron levels in case iron overload develops.

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