Digestive System Home > Hemochromatosis

Hemochromatosis is a disease in which too much iron is absorbed in the intestines, usually over several years. This condition can take two forms: hereditary or acquired. Early symptoms of hemochromatosis include fatigue, weakness, weight loss, stomach pain, and joint pain. Through phlebotomy (the drawing of blood), a person's iron levels can generally be returned to normal.

What Is Hemochromatosis?

Hemochromatosis (also known as iron overload) is a medical condition in which the intestines absorb more iron than they should over many years. This results in large amounts of iron being stored in organs within the body, with eventual damage to these organs. Organs that are usually affected by the disease include the:
 
  • Liver
  • Pancreas
  • Heart
  • Pituitary gland.
     
Hemochromatosis can happen because of certain medical conditions, such as thalassemia or sideroblastic anemia. But the most common form in the United States is an inherited condition called hereditary hemochromatosis (also known as genetic hemochromatosis). Caucasians of Northern European descent are at highest risk for developing hereditary hemochromatosis. An estimated one million people in the United States have this condition.
 
Without treatment, hemochromatosis can cause organs to fail.
 

Understanding Iron

Iron is an essential nutrient found in many foods. Iron-rich food includes such things as red meat and iron-fortified bread and cereal. In the body, iron becomes part of hemoglobin, a molecule in the blood that transports oxygen from the lungs to all body tissues.
 
Healthy people usually absorb about 10 percent of the iron contained in the food they eat to meet the body's needs. People with hemochromatosis absorb more than the body needs. The body has no natural way to rid itself of the excess iron, so, over time, this excess iron is deposited in the cells of the liver, heart, pancreas, joints, and pituitary gland, leading to diseases such as:
 
Written by/reviewed by:
Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
Last updated/reviewed:
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