Feature Archive

Too Much Iron in Your Blood?

Then donate a pint. It may protect you against heart disease.

WebMD Feature

May 1, 2000 (Atlanta) -- At a time when blood banks report dangerously low supplies, the best argument for rolling up your sleeve is still to do someone else some good. But if University of Florida researcher Jerome Sullivan, MD, is right -- and there's new evidence to suggest he is -- giving blood could also save your life.

Here's why. Each time you give blood, you remove some of the iron it contains. High blood iron levels, Sullivan believes, can increase the risk of heart disease. Iron has been shown to speed the oxidation of cholesterol, a process thought to increase the damage to arteries that ultimately leads to cardiovascular disease.

Sullivan has long suspected that blood iron levels help explain why a man's risk of heart disease begins earlier than a woman's. Women lose blood -- and lower their iron levels -- each time they menstruate. Men, on the other hand, begin storing iron in body tissues starting in their twenties, which is just about the time their heart attack danger begins to climb. According to Victor Herbert, MD, a hematologist at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, there are normally about 1,000 milligrams of iron "stored" in the average adult man's body but only about 300 milligrams in a premenopausal woman's. Once women stop menstruating, however, their iron levels -- and their heart disease risk -- begin to climb, eventually matching that of men.