Iron and Copper Overload


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Rebecca Lavie is a former special education teacher who was forced to give up her career after being stricken with an unidentified disabling illness. After 12 years of going from doctor to doctor, she was finally diagnosed with iron overload and elevated levels of aluminum, lead and copper by Dr. Paul Cutler of Niagara Falls, New York. Following her treatment and recovery, she began researching the scientific literature on the subject of iron overload, a potentially lethal, but underdiagnosed and undertreated medical condition. Her book Iron: A Double Edged Sword is written under the pen name of Adeena Robinson.

HEMOCHROMATOSIS AND ACQUIRED IRON OVERLOAD There are basically two types of iron overload, the hereditary kind known as hemochromatosis, and the acquired form. The average north American diet is overloaded with iron, and research shows that iron levels tend to rise with age. Once you absorb too much iron it stays with you for life. We lose only one mg. of iron a day through perspiration, urinary and fecal excretion. There is no easy exit except through phlebotomy (bleeding), giving blood, or medical treatment like chelation.

RISK FACTORS FOR IRON OVERLOAD The risk factors for acquired iron overload are: excessive ingestion of red meat; iron supplements or injections when you don't need them; foods that are iron fortified; iron cookware; tap water (use a water purifier or reverse osmosis to remove it); alcohol; cigarette smoking; oral contraceptives; lack of exercise (we lose iron when we sweat); too many blood transfusions (you not only get somebody else's bacteria and viruses, you also get the iron to feed them, and they flourish on iron); taking vitamin C with foods can increase iron absorption.

DIAGNOSIS OF IRON LEVELS Most doctors will treat the disease caused by the iron overload and not the iron overload itself. Too many medical doctors are misdiagnosing women as being iron deficient and prescribing iron when it is not really necessary. Iron overload is not really a rare disease but a correct diagnosis is rare. The blood test alone can often be misleading.


Hemoglobin and serum iron are the tests usually performed by doctors when they are testing your iron levels. This is usually reliable if the iron test results are elevated, but if it is low or normal, these tests can be misleading. Low hemoglobin does not always mean iron deficiency because there are many different kinds of anemias, and hemoglobin may be low for reasons other than iron deficiency. In Sideroblastic Anemia, iron is low in the blood but high in the tissues. When your hemoglobin goes down below 10 you may have iron deficiency anemia, but you have to do the other tests as well to get the complete picture.

Serum iron becomes low during infections and certain disease states like inflammations and cancer, or if you are losing blood as in a gastrointestinal bleed which you may not even be aware of. The lowering of serum iron levels is the body's defence mechanism to remove iron from the blood stream by transferring it deep within the tissues. This keeps it away from foreign invaders like bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites and cancer cells which all need iron to survive. By taking iron supplements, you are just feeding them and perpetuating the problem.

Not all doctors test for serum ferritin. Serum ferritin is actually just a storage bin which can hold a large number of iron molecules. In an infection, the iron will go into ferritin where it is safer than if it gets into the cells where it can cause more damage. The normal level of serum ferritin shouldn't go above 50. Some people can get sick when it's as low as 50. At the level of 80, there is an increased risk of heart attack.

Transferrin saturation is another test. Transferrin transports iron to different parts of the body where it is needed. It is usually low during an infection.

One of the most reliable tests is the deferoxamine challenge. This test is not affected by any disease states. It measures intracellular or free iron which is a very dangerous kind of iron. You can have a low ferritin and yet have very high intracellular iron. Deferoxamine also measures and removes excess aluminum, copper and small amounts of mercury. It can be used as a treatment as well as a test.

Don't rely on hair analysis for testing iron. It is just as likely to be wrong as right. According to Drs. Richard Passwater, Ph.D. and Elmer Cranton, M.D. who are experts in hair analysis, there is no real correlation to the actual iron values. Copper levels are more likely to be correct in hair analysis unless you have liver problems which cause it to be low.

Interro, Vega and kinesiology are not reliable tests for excess iron, copper and other metals. Some people who have actually had high levels of metals have been incorrectly diagnosed using these methods.

EXCESS IRON INCREASES OTHER METALS Excess iron can cause other metals such as copper, calcium and manganese to accumulate in the body by binding with them, and they become deposited in the wrong places and cause harm. Copper is notorious in this respect, especially if the liver is compromised. Manganese can also accumulate in the liver and brain. Calcium can build up in the arteries this can be removed by deferoxamine and EDTA. Many women with breast cancer have calcium deposits in their breasts and only chelation can remove it (Anticancer Research, 1994). Copper tends to antagonize other minerals like zinc, manganese, vitamin B6 and molybdenum.

COPPER OVERLOAD The late psychiatrist, Dr. Carl Pfeiffer of Princeton University, reported in the Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine in 1987 that 64% of his female patients and 37% of males had elevated copper. Women tend to have higher copper levels than men because of their higher estrogen levels. Dr. Pfeiffer correlated high copper levels with high blood pressure, hair loss, PMS, insomnia, tinnitis, depression, schizophrenia, learning disability, autism and hyperactivity.

RISK FACTORS FOR COPPER OVERLOAD Excess copper could be in your drinking water or it could be caused by your plumbing. Well water often has high copper levels. Back in May 1997, hydro admitted that they dumped about 20 tons of copper into Lake Ontario; They started doing it in the 70's and continued well into the 80's. Chocolate, peanuts, shellfish, mushrooms, wheatgerm, liver, citrus fruits and dairy are all sources of copper. Smoking, clothing dyes (especially dark ones), copper pots, the new high copper amalgam fillings, and herbicides and pesticides can increase your copper. Animal feed contains copper because animals grow faster and gain weight when they are fed copper. This suggests elevated copper may be a factor in weight gain.


With the correct treatment, the prognosis may be good even in advanced cases.

PHLEBOTOMY is the mainstream treatment. It is like giving a blood donation and is the orthodox method of reducing iron. The phlebotomy will cause you to become mildly anemic, and the body will draw upon the iron overloaded organ to replenish what has been lost. This will remove the iron but not the other metals. Phlebotomy does not remove metals from the brain.

DEFEROXAMINE Deferoxamine is an intravenous chelating agent approved in Canada only to treat severe iron poisoning, and certain medical conditions which require multiple blood transfusions such as thalassemia. Deferoxamine isn't really a drug; it is just a culture of bacteria which ingests and removes the iron and aluminum and some of the copper and mercury. It can remove intracellular iron, and can also cross the blood-brain barrier and remove toxic metals from the brain. It may be used for arthritis, diabetes, atherosclerosis, cancer and mental illness. It has to be taken intravenously or intramuscularly. In the hands of a trained clinician, deferoxamine is a very safe and effective treatment. Deferoxamine and phlebotomy can be combined.

D-PENICILLAMINE D-penicillamine is an oral prescription formula which removes mainly copper and a little of the iron and some lead and mercury. D-penicillamine is a substitute chelator, but it has more side effects than deferoxamine. Research has demonstrated that D-penicillamine can cause damage to certain organs. Deferoxamine is much safer.

EDTA EDTA is an intravenous chelator which removes mainly copper, lead and cadmium, but only some of the iron. EDTA is not suitable for people with liver problems.

ORAL CHELATION FORMULAS Oral chelation sold over the counter is a misnomer. It will delay the symptoms of iron overload because it contains anti-oxidants which delay the symptoms, but it doesn't chelate the iron or remove the metals. Unfortunately some of these formulas have iron and copper in them which will neutralize the benefits of the antioxidants which generally work better when the levels of toxic metals are low. Real oral chelation formulas like D-penicillamine and DMPS are available only by prescription.

ANTIOXIDANTS Antioxidants such as vitamin E and beta carotene will help to neutralize the free radicals generated by excess iron, and sometimes they can delay the symptoms for a very long time but they don't chelate the iron or other metals.

HIGH FIBER DIETS help to decrease iron absorption. Also iron is better absorbed from animal sources, so it is no coincidence that people with cancer and other diseases get better when they eat a vegetarian or macrobiotic diet.


Excessive levels of iron and copper promote production of free radicals in your body and may cause heart disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, depression, memory loss and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Iron will accumulate in your most vulnerable and weakest organs. To some extent this is hereditary: in identical twins, the target organs are generally the same.

HEART DISEASE In the early 1980's, Dr. Jerome Sullivan established a correlation between heart disease and iron levels [Lancet, 1981). He found that after menopause, heart attacks in women rise and approach those of men. Women on oral contraceptives also have an increased risk of heart disease because they bleed less, and iron can build up over time. Patients with high blood pressure may also benefit from phlebotomy to lower iron levels.

CANCER Iron can reactivate a latent infection or tumour. In one experiment they put rats on severely restricted low calorie diets and these starved animals lived a lot longer than those on normal diets. The iron content of the food was subsequently identified as the major life-shortening factor rather than calories. In a study in Carcinogenesis, 1991, three groups of rats were given iron deficient, regular or excess iron diets, then injected with a carcinogen. The rats on the low iron diet developed a lower rate of cancer, and the rats on the elevated iron diet had higher rates of cancer. When the iron in their diet was removed, their cancer rate decreased. Iron feeds cancer cells and causes them to metastasize. Many studies have shown that up to 88% of metastasized breast cancer patients have elevated serum ferritin. Cancerous breasts have three times as much iron as normal breasts.

Excessive copper is often involved in cancer and may be a risk factor in estrogen-dependent cancers. Research has shown that there is a 72% increase in the copper content of malignant tumours of the ovary, uterus and cervix (Cancer, Sep 1983). Other studies have shown similar high copper contents in breast cancers. Estrogen increases copper absorption, causing your copper levels to rise. This may occur when you take birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy (Journal of Fertility and Sterility, Nov 1979).

INFECTIONS Dr. Randal Lauffer of Harvard University and other experts believe that mild iron deficiency may be beneficial in some disease states. People who are malnourished may be more resistant to infectious diseases than well-nourished people. It has been noted in times of famine that infectious illnesses such as tuberculosis and malaria are suppressed during starvation and reactivated when refeeding programs are instituted. They began testing iron levels and found that when iron levels rose, infections increased. This was reported in the Journal of Perspectives in Biology and Medicine (Summer, 1977).

MENTAL PROBLEMS AND HEAVY METALS Iron and copper can interfere with brain chemicals, the neurotransmitters, which can result in depression, anxiety, aggressive behaviour and memory loss. Research shows that learning disabled, hyperactive, retarded and autistic children almost all have elevated copper, and the ones who don't have elevated lead levels (Psychopharmacology Bulletin, 1978). Violent children tend to have high levels of copper compared with those who are not violent (Medical Post, Feb 1995). Dr. Yiu at the University of Western Ontario found that patients who suffered from depression and mental illness had high iron and copper levels. Dr. Cutler did pioneering work in the treatment of psychiatric illness using deferoxamine which can cross the blood-brain barrier and remove these metals (Can J of Psy, 1994).

LIVER DISEASE Many people with excess iron develop liver dysfunction which can develop into an enlarged liver, jaundice, and lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer. Note that liver dysfunction often causes high ammonia in the bloodstream which can produce symptoms that mimic mental illness.

THYROID DISEASE Copper may be either too high or too low, and iron may be too high.

RHEUMATOID ARTHRITIS There is almost always excess iron and high copper. A small segment of patients have low copper and these people will benefit from wearing copper bracelets.

OSTEOPOROSIS Excess iron may lead to osteoporosis because it antagonizes calcium, manganese and other minerals. Also, if copper levels are either too high or too low, it may cause osteoporosis. Unfortunately, some formulas for osteoporosis contain high levels of copper and this can cause problems if your copper levels are too high.

CANDIDA There will often be high iron and excess copper.

FIBROMYALGIA There will be high iron, and sometimes high copper, lead, cadmium and mercury. The immune system is suppressed by all these metals.

ALZHEIMER'S DISEASE Research shows that when excess iron enters the brain and damages it, it opens up the pathway for excess aluminum to enter and cause even further damage.

PARKINSON'S DISEASE High levels of iron and aluminum are found.

MIGRAINE HEADACHES are a common side effect of birth control pills. Studies show that high copper foods will trigger migraine headaches.

POST-PARTUM DEPRESSION During pregnancy, copper levels rise. This allows relaxation of pelvic ligaments and joints to facilitate the birth process. If the levels do not fall within a few weeks after childbirth, especially if zinc is low, you may have postpartum depression and possible psychotic states.

INFECTIONS AND CANCERS IN INFANTS Some experts believe pregnant women are being prescribed too much iron. Blood volume expands during pregnancy and it may give a false low hemoglobin reading. Some researchers are concerned that excess iron can cause increases in childhood cancers and may be a contributing factor in Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) because it increases the rate at which botulism grows. In one study, pregnant women were given iron injections near the end of term. When the babies were born, they had a lot more severe and frequent infections than the group who didn't get iron. In a New Zealand study, babies given iron injections soon after birth developed severe infections. There were many deaths and they had to discontinue the practice. In a study of children who were not iron deficient, half of the children were given iron supplements, and half were given a placebo. After four months, the iron supplemented group showed retarded growth compared to the placebo group (Lancet, May l994).

Why are we enriching baby formulas with iron? Not all babies need it. Breast fed babies are healthier and have fewer infections. Human breast milk contains a protein called lactoferrin which separates iron from the harmful microbes. Human breast milk has up to ten times more lactoferrin than cow's milk. Soya formulas do not contain any.

Consumer Health Organization of Canada.


By Rebecca Lavie

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