Iron Overload: Hemochromatosis and Hypothyroidism

Identifying and Treating This Condition of Excessive Iron

hemochromatosis is more common in thyroid patients

A little-known blood condition—hemochromatosis— is more common in people who are hypothyroid and those 40 to 60 years of age.

Hemochromatosis is also known as genetic iron poisoning or iron overload disease. Hemachromatosis is an inherited disorder, where excessive amounts of iron are absorbed from food. That excessive iron gets stored in organs like the liver, heart and pancreas, where it can cause liver disease, heart disease, and conditions like diabetes.


Hemochromatosis is the most common genetic disease in the US according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In addition to an estimated 37 million "silent carriers" of hereditary hemochromatosis, the U.S. has another 2 to 3 million Americans who are at high risk for having hereditary hemochromatosis.

What are the Risk Factors for Hemochromatosis

There are a number of risk factors for hemochromatosis: 

  • Having 2 copies of the genetic mutation that causes the condition. 
  • Having a parent or sibling with hemochromatosis
  • Being a Caucasians of Northern European descent. (The condition is less common in African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Asian-Americans)
  • Being a man. Women lose iron through menstruation and pregnancy, and build up less iron overload. The risk goes up, however, after menopause, when they no longer menstruate and lose iron. 

This is a tragic health situation, because the effects of hemochromatosis can be devastating, and include: hypothyroidism, chronic fatigue, infertility, arthritis, diabetes, sudden heart attack, primary liver cancer, and liver failure/heart failure resulting in the need for a liver and/or heart transplant.

What are the Symptoms of Hemochromatosis?

You inherit hemochromatosis at birth. But the condition doesn't usually start causing symptoms until after the age of 50 in men, and 60 in women. The symptoms of hemochromatosis include:

  • ongoing fatigue
  • arthritis-like pain in joints, in particular, the middle two fingers
  • loss of libido (sex drive), impotence
  • early absence of menstrual periods
  • changes in skin color, yellowish, bronze, grey, olive
  • weakness
  • redness in the palms
  • abdominal pain
  • shortness of breath
  • heart arrhythmia
  • depression
  • elevated blood sugar

As the condition develops, other signs can include: 

  • Diabetes
  • Loss of lbido/sex drive, and male impotence
  • Liver failure
  • Heart failure

There are two less common types of hemochromatosis: juvenile hemochromatosis, which typically starts between the age of 15 and 30; and neonatal hemochromatosis, which starts developing before a baby is born. 

How is Hemachromatosis Diagnosed?

Hemachromatosis is not easy to diagnose, as it is not revealed in routine blood work. Serum iron, which is a more common test used to evaluate iron levels, is not considered reliable for diagnosis of hemachromatosis. Being told your "iron levels are normal" does not mean that you have been tested properly for hemachromatosis.

Genetic testing for the disease has been commercially available through doctors' offices since 1997, but most patients have never been tested for it.

 Now, however, there are "do it yourself" direct tests for hemachromatosis that may help the many undiagnosed people discover this often hidden condition.

Sandra Thomas, founder and president of the non-profit American Hemochromatosis Society, is recommending family genetic screening for hereditary hemochromatosis (HH).

If you have symptoms of hemachromatosis, or any family history of the disease, you'll want to order a painless hemochromatosis DNA genetic test kit (performed with a swab on the cheek) as well as the iron blood tests-transferrin saturation percentage and serum ferritin tests that diagnose hemochromatosis. No doctor's prescription is required to order these tests.

How it Hemochromatosis Treated?

Hemochromatosis is treated through "bloodletting" or phlebotomy -- basically, the simple process of giving blood -- and is the treatment of choice for the disease.

Who Should be Tested for Hemochromatosis?

If you have symptoms or a family history of the disease, experts suggest that you be tested. Specifically, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, the following testing guidelines should be followed:

  • Siblings of people who have hemochromatosis should have their blood tested to see if they have the C282Y mutation.
  • Parents, children, and other close relatives of people who have hemochromatosis should consider being tested.
  • Health care providers should consider testing people who have severe and continuing fatigue, unexplained cirrhosis, joint pain or arthritis, heart problems, erectile dysfunction, or diabetes because these health issues may result from hemochromatosis.

Hemochromatosis and Your Thyroid

In addition to the genetic component, there are some experts who believe that hemochromatosis has an autoimmune component, which may explain why there is a higher rate of the condition in people who have thyroid disease. If you have symptoms, or any of the risk factors noted above, you should consider being evaluated for hemochromatosis.

Having a thyroid condition also puts you at increased risk of the opposite problem, anemia, a deficiency of iron. For more information, read the article: Iron, Anemia and Hypothyroidism.

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