Is Iron Causing Diabetes or Metabolic Syndrome?

A recent study suggests that an overload of iron in the blood may be a risk factor for developing metabolic syndrome (pre-diabetes) or diabetes.

Researchers looked at the blood tests of 3,289 Chinese subjects between the ages of 50 and 70. A blood test called serum ferritin, a measure of stored iron, was determined to be an independent risk factor for metabolic syndrome and diabetes. In fact, the group who had the highest ferritin level was more than 300 percent more likely to develop type 2 diabetes and nearly 300 percent more likely to develop metabolic syndrome. This connection held even when the study controlled for other potential risk factors such as obesity, markers of inflammation, adipokines and other risk factors.

What This Means

First, it’s unlikely that iron overload is the primary cause of metabolic syndrome and diabetes. Clearly, the most prevalent cause of type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome is a diet full of refined carbohydrates and a lifestyle devoid of activity. With that said, it’s interesting to see how other factors that are not normally associated with diabetes may in fact play a role with insulin resistance and blood sugar control.

Iron overload can cause problems for the body by causing the production of high levels of free radicals, basically leading to a “rusting” of the cells. This rusting effect may cause important receptors, such as insulin receptors, to lose function.

If you suspect metabolic syndrome or suffer with diabetes, it may be helpful for to have your doctor order a test for ferritin to determine if you have an issue with iron overload. Although it’s uncommon to see this problem, it’s useful to know if your body is retaining excess levels of iron that may require an intervention.

Reference:

Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 2008; 93(12): 4690-4696.

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