By the way, doctor: Does removing blood increase the amount of iron in the body?
Q. My brother has been told he has too much iron in his body. I've heard the treatment is removing blood every so often, but his doctor says that will just produce more iron in his blood. Can that be true?
A. The most common cause of having too much iron in the body is a genetic condition called hereditary hemochromatosis. People with the condition have digestive systems that absorb an excessive amount of iron. Normally, iron is stored mainly in red blood cells. But when the body absorbs too much iron, the surplus can't all be stored in the blood, so it builds up in other organs, notably the liver, heart, and pancreas. If the abnormal buildup goes on too long, it can produce disease.
You're right: the most effective and commonly used treatment for iron overload is therapeutic phlebotomy. This involves removing blood regularly — usually once or twice a week — for as long as a year or more. Every unit of blood that is removed eliminates around 250 milligrams of iron. As iron in the blood is taken out, the organs where iron has been stored start to lose that extra iron. If treatment begins early enough, it can prevent disease in the organs with iron overload. Blood (and, hence, iron) should be removed as frequently as possible, but not so frequently that the person becomes anemic.