Brain Science By NHI Newsroom / July 26, 2016 Share Tweet Pin Share A mineral that many people take as a supplement every day might actually be dangerous for your brain… especially if you are an adult male or postmenopausal woman. Read on to discover how this essential nutrient affects your brain… and how to ensure you don’t get too much of a good thing. Iron is essential for creating hemoglobin (the protein that allows red blood cells to carry oxygen) and for supporting energy metabolism. It’s also important for keeping your brain sharp and your neurons firing rapidly. Iron is found in its highest concentrations in myelin, the fatty tissue that coats the neurons in your brain. This coating acts as an insulator for speedy electrical messages between neurons. However, most people aren’t aware that excess iron doesn’t get flushed away, like vitamin C or B12. It can actually build up in your body if you consume too much… leading to joint pain, fatigue, diabetes, increased risk of heart disease and a long list of many other illnesses. And now, that list includes Alzheimer’s disease. Here’s how it works. Iron is a key catalyst for oxidation. So, the more iron in your myelin, the more free radicals end up bouncing around in your brain like red-hot BBs. That oxidation—combined with poor diet and aging—starts to wear down the myelin. This causes delays and distortions in electrical messages, producing the classic clinical signs of Alzheimer’s dementia. Dr. George Bartzokis and his team at the UCLA School of Medicine were finally able to prove this theory. In their study, the MRIs of 31 patients with Alzheimer’s disease were compared to those of 68 healthy participants. They measured for iron accumulation and tissue damage in the hippocampus, the first region of the brain that Alzheimer’s affects, and the thalamus, which stays healthy until the very latest stages of the disease. Sure enough, the AD patients had high iron levels and a damaged hippocampus. Healthy patients showed no iron build up and little tissue damage. (1) How Do You Get Excess Iron? Eating foods high in dietary “heme” iron, most notably red meat, can cause excess iron build-up. I was surprised to find that, generally, “nonheme” iron supplements and vegetable sources are not as much to blame. Only 5% of nonheme iron is actually absorbable, while 15% – 30% of heme iron can be taken in. Other sources rich in heme iron include oysters, clams, and chicken liver – but other chicken parts, fish and ham are also relatively high in the substance. Hereditary hemochromatosis—a condition that causes your body to absorb too much iron from food—can also give your iron levels a jump. According to the Centers for Disease Control, as many as 1 in 200 people have it. And it turns out, adult men and postmenopausal women are more likely to have excess iron… not an iron deficiency. The 2001 Framingham Heart Study showed that nearly 13% of men and women aged 67 to 96 had iron build-up. (2) What To Do About Iron Build-Up The next time you’re in your doctor’s office, ask for a serum ferritin (SF) test to check your iron levels. If they’re high, there are a few things you can do… Consider donating blood regularly. Literally removing blood forces your body to use extra iron to replace lost hemoglobin… plus, blood banks are always in need! Reduce your intake of red meat and alcohol, which are high in iron. Increase your intake of whole grains. A follow-up to the Framingham study showed that participants who enjoyed seven servings of whole grains per week had lower iron levels. (3) Drink tea with meals. Tea both reduces iron absorption and provides powerful antioxidants that fight oxidative brain tissue damage. Of course, you should be sure to check with your doctor first. Raven EP. Increased iron levels and decreased tissue integrity in hippocampus of Alzheimer’s disease detected in vivo with magnetic resonance imaging. Journal of Alzheimers Disease. 2013 Jan 1;37(1):127-36. Fleming DJ. Iron status of the free-living, elderly Framingham Heart Study cohort: an iron-replete population with high prevalence of elevated iron stores. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2001 Mar;73(3):638-46. Fleming DJ. Dietary factors associated with the risk of high iron stores in the elderly Framingham Heart Study cohort. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2002 Dec;76(6):1375-84.