It should not be surprising to learn that the gradual accumulation of iron in the male body should result in undesirable health consequences. After full childhood growth is achieved males accumulate 1 milligram of excess iron per day, which is largely stored in the liver and attached to hemoglobin in red blood cells. By middle age a male has twice as much stored in in his body than an equally aged female who menstruates to control iron. The result is that a male at age 40 has double the risk for diabetes, cancer and heart disease as female of the same age.
With that said, as men approach middle age they might be losing sex drive and feel terribly fatigued. These symptoms may be due to tired iron-overloaded blood. Testosterone shots may remedy desire but not deal with the root of the problem.
The antidote is blood donation, or alternatively blood letting (sometimes called venesection or phlebotomy). A unit of blood contains ~250 milligrams of iron. For iron overloaded males, a call to the Red Cross to find out where the next blood drive is taking place and three or four blood donations later one’s sex life may reappear.
In one study, among 20 male blood donors tested, 8 had low testosterone. [Alcohol Alcoholism 1987]
In a search of published medical literature, iron depletion via blood donation or blood-letting has been reported to facilitate resumption of normal sexual activity since 1979. [Nouvelle Presse Medicale 1979] Though it is obvious that blood letting was largely practiced through the centuries and reduction of iron stores via blood-letting must have invigorated impotent males despondent over their condition long before such cases were reported in medical journals
Low testosterone is called hypogonadism that produces symptoms such as erectile dysfunction, inability to ejaculate and reduced sex drive (libido).
These symptoms are often seen among diabetics who are oblivious to that fact that both high blood sugar and decline in sex drive are due to iron accumulation. [Journal Sexual Medicine 2008]
Depletion of iron from the body usually resolves glucose intolerance and impotence. [Annals New York Academy Science 1988]
Genetic versus dietary acquired iron overload
Modern medicine considers iron overload to be limited to those who have a genetic induced condition where the body absorbs too much iron, a condition called hemochromatosis. Another condition that leads to iron overload is thalassemia, a blood disorder in which the body makes an abnormal form of hemoglobin (the red pigment that binds to iron in red blood cells).
The Centers For Disease Control says 1 in 100 to 6 in 100 have hemochromatosis. [CDC.gov] But actually every male is at risk for iron overload given their diet (red meat) and health habits (alcohol intake) which hasten its symptoms.
Total body iron load normally ranges from 2500 milligrams in females to 3500 milligrams in males but may increase to 50,000 milligrams! Symptoms rarely appear prior to adulthood because vast amounts of iron are needed to produce new red blood cells. [Hemochromatosis: Clinical Key] Though in some instances, once childhood growth ceases (usually ~age 18-20), cases of hypogonadism have been reported. [Human Genetics 1983]
All hormones may decline
Iron overload not only causes sex hormone levels (testosterone) to decline but many other hormones as well (thyroxin in the thyroid gland, insulin in the pancreas, hormones in the pituitary gland and adrenal glands). Low testosterone accompanied by low thyroid should be a major signal that iron overload may be involved.
Iron overload, age and diet
Symptoms of iron overload usually appear after age 40 in males and later in females as menstruation ceases. [Hemochromatosis: Clinical Key]
Frankly, most middle age males are iron overloaded as measured by the iron storage protein (ferritin) blood test.
The Iron Disorders Institute suggests the ideal healthy range for ferritin is 25-75 nanograms of iron per milliliter of blood. [Iron Disorders Institute] One study shows that by the young age of 27 a significant percentage of seemingly healthy males may already have iron (ferritin) levels ranging from 120-200 nanograms per milliliter of blood. [Journal Pakistan Medical Association 1987]
Ferritin levels drop considerably after blood donation. [Clinical Biochemistry 2015] Regular blood donors have ferritin levels about half that of non-donors. [Nutrition Metabolism Insights 2015] Men who donate blood three times a year are more likely to achieve lower ferritin levels. [Transfusion Apheresis Science 2015]
Red meat and iron overload
Since hypogonadism (low testosterone) is said to affect 40% of men over age 45, a far greater percentage than predicted by genetic predisposition, it can be said that gradual iron overload with advancing age and accompanying low testosterone are largely explained by dietary habits. [Boston College Medical Journal 2011]
Red meat eaters will have even higher iron storage numbers because iron in red meat (heme iron) is absorbed whether the body needs it or not. Iron in plant foods (non-heme iron) is absorbed on an as needed basis. Processed red meat is even more of a problem in regard to iron overload. [Advances Nutrition2013]
Alcohol and iron overload
For regular drinkers of alcohol, iron storage ferritin levels will be predictably even higher. Heavy drinkers who not yet developed liver cirrhosis typically exhibit low testosterone levels. [Drug Alcohol Dependency 1987]
Males who are considered moderate drinkers (two alcoholic beverages per day) increase their iron load considerably. An estimated 24 million Americans, mostly males, consume a lot more alcohol than that. [Washington Post Sept 25, 2014]
If you regularly consume a glass of beer or wine with your evening meal, considered moderate consumption by any definition, you would be consuming more alcohol than 80-90% of Americans. [Slate.com]
Ineffectiveness of iron depletion among older men
Low testosterone caused by iron overload needs to be treated with blood donation or blood-letting as early in life as possible. One report, published in 1993, said there were no accounts of recovery from hypogonadism (low-testosterone) in men over age 40. [Clinical Endocrinology 1993]
It has been reported that men with inherited iron overload (hemochromatosis), with iron storage numbers (ferritin) above 3000 nanograms per milliliter of blood, experience a decline in testosterone. However, middle age (age 54 years) males with much lower ferritin (600-800) and only moderate liver iron stores (and/or high levels of sex hormone binding protein that controls the availability of testosterone) who do not have hemochromatosis may also experience hypogonadism.
In these cases, blood donation to deplete excess iron may not initially result in a return to normal testosterone levels. In one study it was necessary to remove 4 liters of blood to achieve healthy ferritin levels (74 micrograms/liter) and even then, normal testosterone levels were not achieved. [Pediatric Endocrinology Review 2008; European Journal Endocrinology 2011]
There have been reported cases of males with severe genetic iron overload who have achieved normal testosterone levels following aggressive blood letting, though this has largely been limited to younger subjects. [Clinical Endocrinology 1993]
Among males with inherited iron overload (hemochromatosis), excess iron stores leading to a decline in testosterone has been reversed via blood removal in males 24, 25, 36 and 37 years of age with restoration of erectile dysfunction. [Deutsche medizinische Wochenschrift 2000; Fertility Sterility 2005; European Journal Gastroenterology Hepatology 2001; Journal Clinical Endocrinology Metabolism 1987]
But it is much more difficult to restore testosterone to youthful levels among older adult males.
As an alternative to blood removal, chelation (key-lay-shun) therapy by needle infusion over 8-10 hours, 5-7 days a week has also been documented to resolve hypogonadism in a young male. [Journal Formosan Medical Assn. 2001]
An alternative to infused iron chelators is oral chelation therapy. Oral chelation therapy (deferiprone) facilitates excretion of excess iron from the body in urine flow and is less tedious and traumatic and patients are more compliant to this therapy. Oral chelation therapy has largely been confined to use among patients with thalassemia or blood transfusion iron overload. There are serious side effects associated with oral chelation drug therapy. [Therapeutic Advances Hematology 2012]
Natural iron chelators
Natural iron chelators have been proposed as alternatives to synthetic chelation drug therapy. Molecules such as quercetin (found naturally in onion, red apple peel), curcumin (turmeric spice), pine bark extract, ferulic acid (rice bran), grape seed extract, green tea extract (EGCG), and phytic acid IP6 (rice bran), which are also available as dietary supplements, are proposed as safe and effective approaches to iron overload. [Future Medicinal Chemistry 2009]
Phytic acid (or phytate, aka inositol hexaphosphate or IP6) is on a list of safe iron chelators published by the Food & Drug Administration. [Environmental Molecular Mutagenesis 2001] Phytic acid (labeled IP6 in health food stores) is widely available, affordable and considerably underutilized. It works similarly to oral chelating drugs with far less side effects. Up to about 1500 milligrams of IP6 can be absorbed at a time. [Anticancer Research 2005]
Use of natural chelators promotes daily prevention rather than repeated treatment.
Reliance upon the ferritin test
In states of chronic inflammation, infection or malignancy, high ferritin levels may not indicate iron overload but rather the body’s attempt to withhold iron from pathogenic germs or tumor cells that is used for their growth. In this instance, ferritin levels are high but the patient is anemic (lacks bioavailable iron needed to make red blood cells).
It is important to discern whether a high ferritin level truly indicates iron overload or not. In cases of anemia of chronic disease, hemoglobin levels generally do not drop excessively and the total iron binding test, an indirect measure of how much iron is being transferred around the body, is usually low. The Iron Disorders Institute provides further interpretive information about the ferritin test. A consultation with a hematologist may be required for proper interpretation of a ferritin test. [Iron Disorders Institute]
Vitamin D: Another way to boost testosterone
An association has been made between adult onset diabetes with accompanying hypogonadism (low testosterone) and vitamin D deficiency. [Journal Sexual Medicine 2014]
In one published report more than 20% of males with low vitamin D levels had low testosterone. Males with low vitamin D levels are 5 times more likely to have low testosterone compared to males with high vitamin D blood concentrations ranging from 82 to 102 nanomoles per liter of blood (32.0 to 40.8 nanograms per milliliter). [Andrology 2014]
Some studies fail to show that vitamin D supplementation raises testosterone levels, but these studies typically utilize very low doses of vitamin D, not enough to achieve desired blood levels. [Substance Abuse Rehabilitation 2014; Clinical Endocrinology 2015]
The Vitamin D Council says more than 10,000 units of supplemental vitamin D3 daily to achieve the desired blood concentration. [Vitamin D Council]
Boron: Another natural testosterone booster
Boron may be another dietary supplement that boosts testosterone. Supplementation with 10 milligrams every other day has been reported to raise testosterone levels significantly. [Journal Trace Element Medicine Biology 2011]
Don’t let rusty blood deprive you of the prime of your life. Spend your money on flowers for your bedmate instead of Viagra. Donate blood, limit red meat, back away from alcohol, utilize natural iron chelators, and you will spend more time in the bedroom than the doctor’s office.