Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one person dies every 36 seconds in the United States from cardiovascular disease. This is why heart health is so important.
One of the most common complications of heart disease is heart failure. But that doesn’t mean the heart has stopped. When someone has heart failure, the heart muscles weaken and are less able to pump blood through the body. This will cause symptoms like shortness of breath, chronic fatigue, and swollen ankles and legs.
Heart failure isn’t a curable condition. And it’s likely to get worse over time. However, the symptoms can be controlled with proper treatment.
The Importance Of Iron
Iron is a mineral that your body needs for development and growth. It’s used to make hemoglobin, which is a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to all parts of the body.
Iron is also used to make myoglobin, a protein that provides oxygen to muscles. Your body also needs iron to make certain hormones.
If you’re not getting enough iron, the body will use its stored iron in the muscles, liver, spleen, and bone marrow. However, if your stored iron levels get low, iron deficiency anemia will set in. This will result in your red blood cells becoming smaller and containing less hemoglobin. And your blood will carry less oxygen from the lungs throughout the body.
Iron deficiency anemia comes with symptoms like weakness, GI upset, lethargy, and problems with memory and concentration. It makes your body less able to fight off infections and germs, as well as control your body temperature.
Heart Failure & Iron Deficiency
One of the things that heart failure has been known to do to the body is disrupt how iron is metabolized. Because of this, approximately 50 percent of people with heart failure have an iron deficiency.
What we don’t know is if these changes in the body’s processing of iron are harmful or helpful. It’s possible the changes are protecting the heart from more damage. But a new study suggests excess levels of free iron in the heart could actually make heart failure worse.
Excess Levels Of Free Iron Could Lead To Heart Failure
According to the study from researchers, suggested that “excess levels of free iron in the heart could worsen heart failure.” The research—which was done with mice—suggests that in cases of heart failure, when iron is released from stores in heart cells, it may contribute to the death of heart muscle cells.
The release of stored iron in the heart creates highly reactive, oxygen-containing free radicals, also known as “reactive oxygen species.” And these free radicals can damage the heart muscle.
“Iron is essential for many processes in the body including oxygen transport, but too much iron can lead to a buildup of unstable oxygen molecules that can kill cells,” said the first study author, Dr. Jumpei Ito, a visiting scientist at Osaka Medical College.
Safety Concerns About Iron Supplements
The study authors acknowledge that clinical trials have shown that when someone has heart failure and iron deficiency, giving them intravenous iron will improve their symptoms. However, they also claim their research has caused safety concerns about the use of prolonged iron supplements.
“Patients with heart failure who are iron deficient are currently treated with iron supplements, which previous studies have shown reduces their symptoms,” said senior study author Kinya Otsu, a British Heart Foundation Professor of Cardiology at King’s College London.
“While our work does not contradict those studies, it does suggest that reducing iron-dependent cell death in the heart could be a potential new treatment strategy for patients.”
To find out the effect of free iron on heart cells during heart failure, researchers decided to do something that contradicts the usual course of treatment. They investigated what happens when iron remains locked up in the ferritin protein that stores it.
The researchers created mice that lack the gene for making a protein known as nuclear receptor coactivator 4, or NCOA4. This is what triggers the release of stored iron from the ferritin in cells when levels of free iron are low.
Then, they stimulated heart failure in these special mice and in normal mice. And they found that those genetically engineered mice sustained fewer harmful changes compared to the normal mice.
“Our results suggest that the release of iron can be detrimental to the heart,” Dr. Ito concluded. “It can lead to unstable oxygen levels, death in heart cells, and ultimately heart failure.”
The Good News
Luckily, there are drugs that inhibit the release of stored iron from heart cells. Specifically, a compound known as ferrostatin-1.
When the researchers treated their normal mice with this compound, it protected their hearts against the cell death that happens during heart failure.
But since these are just preliminary findings from a mouse study, more research about the process of iron release requires more research. Specifically, on humans with heart failure.