Updated September 03, 2013.
Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.
How a Build-Up of Iron Can Cause Diabetes:
Hemochromatosis, sometimes referred to as hereditary hemochromatosis, is a disease that is caused by an excessive build-up of iron in the body. If the accumulation of iron in the body becomes too much, it can damage the pancreas and actually cause the onset of diabetes.
Iron is an essential nutrient for healthy functioning of our bodies. It helps to carry the oxygen from the lungs throughout the body and performs many vital tasks that we depend on.
What causes hemochromatosis?
It is often called hereditary hemochromatosis because it is linked to a defective gene called HFE, which is supposed to regulate the amount of iron that is absorbed from food. The mutation of this gene causes extra iron to be absorbed by the intestine and the body is unable to excrete the excess iron that is taken in. Over time, iron will accumulate and remain in the tissues of the body, such as the pancreas, heart, and liver. Excessive amounts of iron can eventually damage these organs and, as it pertains to the pancreas, could result in diabetes.
If a person inherits the defective HFE gene from both parents, they are at risk of developing hemochromatosis. Virtually all of those who inherit the defective gene from both parents will go on to have increased iron levels, but only about half will actually develop complications from the high iron levels. If only one parent passes on the defective HFE gene, the child is a carrier and will likely experience higher than normal levels of iron but usually does not develop hemochromatosis.
How common is hemochromatosis?
Hemochromatosis is a common condition that affects 1 in every 200-300 people. It affects both men and women, but men are more likely to be diagnosed with this condition because they do not have a natural means of excreting the excess iron in the blood as women do through menstruation. It most commonly strikes men between the ages of 30 and 50 and women over 50.
What are the symptoms of hemochromatosis?
Sometimes the first symptom is a discoloration of the skin that appears a dark gray or a bronze color. This discoloration of the skin results from the build-up of iron in the body. This explains why some refer to hemochromatosis as “bronze diabetes.”
Additional symptoms include:
- Joint pain
- Fatigue or lack of energy
- Abdominal pain
- Loss of sex drive
How is hemochromatosis diagnosed?
Once symptoms become apparent, the emphasis is often placed on treating the outcomes of the condition, such as diabetes or liver disease. As a result, many people are misdiagnosed because hemochromatosis is not suspected by many medical professionals as the potential cause. Yet one of two simple blood tests (a transferrin saturation test or serum ferritin test) can assess the amount of iron in your body to determine whether it is too high.
How is hemochromatosis treated?
The good news is that once it is correctly diagnosed, it can be effectively treated. The typical means of treatment is to remove some of the iron that has accumulated in the body through bloodletting. This means that once a correct diagnosis has been made, the person will give a pint of blood once or twice a week for a period of several months until the iron in the body comes down to a normal range. After this, the person will be monitored and continue to give blood but only once every 2 to 3 months.
If the treatment begins before permanent damage is done to organs, such as the pancreas, the onset of diabetes can be prevented. Even in cases where there has been some pancreatic damage, there is usually improvement in blood sugar levels once treatment begins.
American Diabetes Association. "Hemochromatosis.”