Iron and Acne: Does Excess Iron Trigger Acne?

Does excess iron, from red meat, fortified wheat flour, etc., trigger acne?

I’m going to go out on a limb here…

Is excess iron the hidden acne trigger we’ve all been missing?

Wait a sec. Iron? Isn’t iron good for us? Aren’t many people anemic, or deficient in iron?

Well, true, iron is good for us. In small amounts. But it’s kind of like radioactive fuel in a nuclear reactor. It’s extremely useful to the body – absolutely necessary for life, in fact – but it’s extremely chemically reactive, so your body locks it up tight.

When iron gets out of whack, as it increasingly is in modern times (we’ll explain why in a minute), it may lead to acne.

It’s also true that some people are anemic, but contrary to what most doctors think, it’s usually not due to iron deficiency (I’ll explain more in a bit).

Why is iron necessary for life?

Without iron, you would quickly die, since you wouldn’t be able to move oxygen from your lungs to any of your tissues! That’s because iron is a key component of hemoglobin, the chief oxygen-carrying protein in the human body.

In fact, iron is essential for just about all living organisms, from animals to bacteria to viruses to fungi. It’s used not just for oxygen carrying, but also for DNA synthesis, electron transport, and bodily growth.

Life without iron wouldn’t be life at all!

That said, iron in excess can become quite dangerous indeed. This is true for just about every nutrient – even all the acne-clearing nutrients like zinc, vitamin A, and iodine – but with iron, it’s especially easy to build up a toxic overload, for a number of reasons we’ll get into shortly. Also, iron is extremely reactive, so an overload of it can become a serious problem for the body.

Why is iron dangerous?

What makes iron so useful to our bodies – its extreme reactivity – is also what makes it so dangerous. Iron, unlike other minerals, easily forms free radicals, which can cause widespread damage to all tissues in the body.

(Antioxidants benefit your health primarily by blocking free radical damage, including from excess iron.)

Because iron is so dangerous and reactive, the body locks it up tightly in hemoglobin and ferritin (a protective “cage” protein for storing iron). That’s not a guarantee of safety, though.

When you have excess iron in your body, it’s a lot easier to get pathogenic diseases and infections, such as Candida, rhinoviruses and colds, other viral infections, malaria, other bacterial infections, fungal infections – you name it.[1] [2] [3]

All of these pathogens crave iron, and have evolved clever tools for stealing iron from your body (some can even rip iron directly out of ferritin!).[4]

And cancerous growths, too, also depend on a ready supply of iron; some of the most effective natural cancer treatments (IP-6, for instance) work by chelating and removing excess iron from the body.[5] [6] [7] [8] [9] You’re much less likely to develop cancer if you have low-normal body stores of iron, and much more likely to get cancer if you have excess iron.[10] [11] [12] [13]

Why can’t our bodies just dump excess iron?

Unfortunately, the human body doesn’t have very good mechanisms for dumping excess iron – at least, not at the extreme rate that we load our bodies with iron in our modern diet and lifestyle (more on that in a bit).

It’s true that pre-menopausal women have menstruation, which dumps excess iron monthly, preventing many women from developing iron overload until after menopause. But even so, certain environmental and dietary toxins, iron supplements, iron fortifications in food, stress, and birth control all combine to boost iron intake and absorption by the body, and even overwhelm the rate of iron dumping by menstruation in many women, or stop menstruation altogether – not a good thing for keeping iron levels low!

Women absorb three times as much iron as men do, because their estrogen levels are higher, and estrogen boosts iron absorption from food.[14] [15] So if you stop menstruation via stress overload, birth control, or toxin overload, you’re up a creek without a paddle in a barbed wire canoe. That is to say, you start accumulating iron possibly even faster than men do. (And that may be a recipe for acne, as we’ll soon see!)

Since men don’t menstruate (ha, punny!), they start accumulating iron around age 18, after puberty-fueled growth stops and there’s no more growth to push all that iron into. Except horizontal growth, that is – and yes, excess iron is intimately tied to obesity! (Beer bellies, actually, may be due to the fact that alcohol boosts iron absorption from food, making your body accumulate excess iron, leading to metabolic dysregulation, blood sugar problems, insulin resistance, and eventually some good ol’ barrel gut.)

Over time, your body deposits excess iron in various bodily tissues, causing widespread degenerative disease, like type I and II diabetes, cancer, heart disease, obesity, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Down’s syndrome, and more.[16] [17] [18] [18] [19] [20] [21] [22] [23] That’s because, as we’ve already seen, iron creates free radicals, which cause oxidative damage to tissues all throughout the body, such as the pancreas, liver, muscles, adipose tissue, eyes, and the brain. (It’s worth noting that too little bioavailable iron also can cause serious health problems, such as fatal heart failure, since iron is so critical for circulating oxygen through the body, among other things.[24] [25] My growing sense, though, is that most of such people probably only have a functional or bioavailable iron deficiency, though, rather than a total lack of iron; they have enough iron in the body, but they just aren’t able to load iron into transferrin, due to a copper deficiency, vitamin A deficiency, or ceruloplasmin deficiency.)

Is aging of the skin and body due to gradual iron overload?

Some researchers even hold the opinion that progressive iron overload is the chief mechanism of aging in the body.[25] (As if to illustrate that point, age spots, funnily enough, are made of lipofuscin, a fatty brown mass composed of iron and oxidized PUFA. People with lots of age spots have lots of excess iron. The body doesn’t know what else to do with this toxic iron, having already overloaded its iron storage and removal mechanisms, so it dumps the excess iron into the skin as a last resort!)

How might iron cause acne?

It took me a long time to figure out that iron might be a player in acne. One of the key clues was that lactoferrin helps acne, and lactoferrin binds excess iron. Aha! We’ve got a link!

I haven’t seen any research on iron and acne directly, only one study that found elevated ferritin levels in people with acne[26] . So I’m having to connect some dots here.

Here’s how I think iron might trigger acne:

  1. Lipid peroxidation. This is where iron, being highly reactive, oxidizes delicate polyunsaturated fats (PUFA) in the body, forming lipid peroxides, which break down into toxic compounds like malondialdehyde (MDA), which can cause widespread damage to all tissues in the body. Think of these toxic compounds like small shards of glass, damaging cells, mitochondria, DNA, membranes, all kinds of things.

  2. Gut inflammation. Excess iron in the diet (or via iron supplements) feeds pathogenic gut bacteria, such as E. coli, C. diff., Salmonella, and Shigella, which leads to gut inflammation.[27] [28] [29] [30] These bacteria create a toxin called lipopolysaccharide (LPS), which is bound up in their cell walls, and gets released into your gut lining as these bacteria complete their life cycle and die. That LPS triggers strong gut inflammation, which cascades into inflammation elsewhere in the body. (These pathogenic bacteria have adapted to thrive in the presence of rather toxic excess iron in the gut, crowding out the more beneficial, more delicate bacteria you’d find in a lower-iron, healthy human gut.[31] )

  3. Insulin and blood sugar problems. It’s been well established that higher iron levels in the body are strongly correlated with insulin resistance, poor insulin production by the pancreas, and resultant type I and type II diabetes. Excess iron appears to damage and destroy ß-cells in the pancreas (which produce insulin),[32] leading to a smaller pancreas that’s not capable of producing enough insulin to handle blood sugar spikes.[33] Excess iron also makes cells throughout your body resistant to insulin, further compounding the problem. As we’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, insulin resistance and chronically high blood sugar can lead to elevated sebum production, which tends to create more acne. (Conversely, if you have lower body iron stores, you’ll have a larger pancreas, meaning more insulin production when you need it, and better insulin sensitivity, meaning you will handle carbohydrates better, and won’t get the same blood sugar swings, carb crashes, excess sebum production, and acne.)

  4. Liver damage. When you have excess iron in your body, your liver attempts to store this iron, to protect your heart and pancreas from iron-induced damage. But over time, your liver runs out of storage space for iron; on top of that, all those iron deposits hurt your liver, by creating free radicals and causing oxidative damage. This impairs your liver’s ability to filter out toxins, pesticides, heavy metals, etc. from your blood, leading to a massively increased toxin load throughout the body (which you can bet would trigger acne).

  5. Feeding Candida overgrowth. Excess iron stores in the liver and elsewhere in the body feed Candida fungi.[34] [35] [36] One study in Candida-overloaded mice found that removing excess iron from the body with iron-chelating drugs cured the systemic Candida infection.[37] Essentially, excess iron feeds Candida fungi, and makes it very difficult for your innate immune system to function properly. Removing this excess iron reverses the situation, making your body inhospitable to Candida overgrowth.[38]

There are probably other ways in which excess iron leads to acne, since it’s a potent source of reactive oxygen species (ROS), and can cause oxidative damage throughout the body when it gets out of control, and also leads to all types of pathogenic overgrowths – bacteria, viruses, fungi, and cancerous growths.[39]

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Why have I never heard about this before?

This still baffles me, and is a testament to the power of story in blinding us to the truth. The story here? “Iron is good.” The medical establishment still takes as gospel the dominant story that anemia is a major problem, and is a result of iron deficiency (wrong – we’ll debunk this below), and that people, in general, need more iron. Iron is widely considered a “good,” “safe” and “beneficial” mineral. Which it is, in very small amounts, but it’s almost impossible to be truly deficient in iron if you eat enough calories, since iron is almost universally present in sufficient amounts in nearly all foods. The risk of iron overload is extremely high given our modern diet world (and supplements), is extremely dangerous, is very likely to cause acne (as well as early death!), and is rarely talked about.

How is PCOS related to iron?

Women with PCOS tend to have iron overload issues. Some researchers think that’s because of elevated insulin levels in PCOS, due to insulin resistance (forcing your pancreas to pump out more insulin).[40] Insulin boosts iron absorption from food. It may also be due to the fact that hepcidin levels drop in PCOS[41] [42] – hepcidin is a hormone that blunts iron absorption from food, so when hepcidin levels drop, you start abasorbing more iron.

However, these researchers may have causality backward here. It’s also possible that iron overload causes PCOS. To really prove this, you would have to design a study that gave half the women iron supplements for a number of years, and half the women a placebo, and then measure how many women developed PCOS. I haven’t seen any studies like that yet, so we have to guess.

Either way, PCOS is strongly associated with iron overload. So it makes sense to reduce your iron levels if you have PCOS, as that may fix the problem, and get your hormones back to functioning normally. (And improve your skin, too!)

How are antibiotics related to iron?

This was a big surprise for me to discover. It turns out that tetracycline-family antibiotics (minocycline, doxycycline, etc.) strongly chelate iron, meaning they bind it up and remove it from the body. This may be the main reason why antibiotics tend to help acne (at least for a while). Over time, they may damage your gut flora so much that you start getting acne again – I’m very much speculating here.

How does birth control lead to iron overload?

Hormonal birth control reduces or stops your period flow by preventing buildup and shedding of the uterine lining, which makes you stop dumping as much iron, and start accumulating excess iron.[43] [44] [45] [46] That’s not good! Women already absorb three times as much iron from food as men do, due to higher estrogen levels, so taking birth control

Aha! I think I just figured out why going off birth control suddenly gives you bad breakouts! Here’s how it goes: Birth control makes you accumulate excess iron, by reducing your period flow. But birth control also prevents acne while you’re taking it, due to the high progesterone dose, which is strongly skin-clearing. However, when you stop taking the pill, or get your IUD taken out, you suddenly lose that protective effect of progesterone, and the excess iron you’ve accumulated rears its ugly head and gives you bad breakouts! Whoa. This has been a mystery for me for a long time, and now we finally have a plausible explanation for this big bummer of a problem.

How to fix that? If you go off birth control, take steps to reduce your iron levels, and to blunt the toxic effects of excess iron (see below!).

How do people get iron overload?

There are a bunch of weird quirks of our modern diet, lifestyle, and environment that lead to widespread iron overload. Here are a few of them:

    Excess red meat consumption leads to iron overload. Guaranteed.

  • Excess red meat consumption. Red meat has lots of bioavailable heme iron, which is quite easy to absorb. Worse, there’s no shut-off mechanism for absorbing heme iron like there is with plant iron – your body always absorbs as much heme iron as it can, even if you already have an iron overload problem (possibly due to evolutionary adaptation to meat being quite rare in the diet, historically). Even worse, when you eat meat, you get a lot of the amino acid methionine, which increases your absorption of iron from other foods, even plant iron. And us modern humans eat a lot of meat! The more “modern” a society becomes, generally, the more red meat people eat, and the sicker they get. Bizarrely, at least in America, we like to eat mostly muscle meat – ground beef and steak! Woot! Fail. Traditional cultures around the world, by contrast, eat “nose-to-tail”, including lots of bone-in cuts, bone marrow, broths, etc., which contain less heme iron, and also contain calcium – and calcium inhibits iron absorption. When you only eat muscle meat, though, you get a big iron dose with nothing to counteract it. How much meat to eat, then? Keep reading, I’ll get to that soon!

  • Red wine helps block iron absorption.

  • Not enough iron antagonists in the diet. Iron antagonists include things like red wine, raw dairy, turmeric, cocoa, bitter herbs, green tea, black tea, white tea, cranberries, dark purple veggies, calcium-rich foods like bone marrow and bone broth, etc. Modern American cuisine, at least (I don’t have the authority to speak for others!) doesn’t feature these very much. French cuisine does, though! Is that why the French don’t have the rates of modern disease that Americans do?

  • Iron-fortified wheat flour may be a potent acne trigger.

  • Iron-fortified refined wheat flour. This is a huge problem. Many countries around the world, including the US, UK, and Australia, require iron fortification of refined wheat flour. Breakfast cereals, bread, cookies, crackers, cakes, white flour for baking, pasta, you name it – it’s probably got “reduced iron” in it. This form of iron is very absorbable, unlike the iron naturally found in whole foods. So if you eat bread made from fortified white flour, you will absorb much more iron than from non-fortified whole wheat flour. Some countries fortify rice with iron, too, and perhaps other foods. (I ate 4+ bowls of iron-fortified cereal daily when I was a kid. Did this contribute to my acne back then?)

  • Pasteurized dairy instead of raw dairy. The calcium in pasteurized dairy isn’t as bioavailable as the calcium in raw dairy, because during the heating process, the calcium gets complexed with Maillard compounds. Traditional non-germophobic societies eat raw dairy, which has more bioavailable calcium, and hence more iron-blocking ability. I haven’t seen direct research on the iron-inhibiting capacity of raw milk vs. pasteurized milk, so I’m connecting a few dots here. (I drank only pasteurized milk as a kid, which may have worsened my acne by not inhibiting the absorption of fortified iron from my 4+ bowls of breakfast cereal per day.)

  • Xenoestrogens. Xenoestrogens, or foreign estrogens, include a variety of estrogen-mimicking synthetic chemicals like bisphenol-A and other plasticizers. These estrogen-mimicking chemicals interfere with hemoglobin production in the bone marrow.[47] So you can run into a situation where you have both a) low hemoglobin levels, or anemia, and b) excess iron floating around the body.[48] [49] [50]

  • Fluoride. Fluoride, found in fluoridated drinking water across the world, non-stick Teflon pans, fluoridated toothpaste, fluoride dental treatments, fluoride pesticides and fumigants sprayed on crops worldwide, and several other sources, destroys vitamin A in the body. That’s a problem for iron overload, because vitamin A is required to make ceruloplasmin (copper-binding protein), which in turn is required in the liver to load free iron into transferrin. So without enough vitamin A, you get a ceruloplasmin deficiency, and even though your body keeps taking up iron, you can’t load it into transferrin properly, so it sticks around in your liver. (Did this contribute to my acne as a teenager? I drank loads of fluoridated tap water back then, got many dental fluoride treatments, used fluoridated toothpaste, and ate lots of fluoride-pesticide-ridden foods like non-organic raisins. Ouch.)

  • Dietary deficiency of vitamin A. Retinol-form vitamin A, found in abundance in animal foods like liver, egg yolks, and grass-fed dairy (and in precursor carotene form in orange and dark green veggies), works to prevent acne in the skin, and also is needed to create ceruloplasmin, as noted in the above bullet.

  • Lack of zinc and copper in the diet. Zinc and copper are sorely lacking in modern soils due to over-farming and strip-mining the topsoil, without replenishing trace minerals. That’s bad because zinc and copper compete with iron for absorption. So when you have lots of iron in your food (there’s plenty of iron in the soil still), combined with insufficient zinc/copper to inhibit iron, you get worse iron overload. (Copper is also required to load iron into transferrin, and so to make hemoglobin, so copper deficiency can make you anemic.)

  • Molybdenum deficiency. Molybdenum is a trace mineral that prevents toxic iron buildup in your liver, instead mobilizing iron so it can be put into hemoglobin.[51] [52] [53] If you don’t have enough molybdenum, you can’t use iron properly, and it builds up to toxic levels in your liver. Best source of molybdenum? Beans and lentils (see more below). (Quick self-check for deficiency: if you have sulfite intolerance, e.g. red wine headaches, that may mean you have a molybdenum deficiency, since molybdenum is required for the enzyme that breaks down sulfites.)

How can I get tested for iron overload?

The most accurate way is to get a liver biopsy or liver MRI, since your body starts accumulating iron in the liver before it can damage other tissues in the body. However, these procedures are quite invasive and expensive. There’s got to be a good and cheap method, right?

You got it! Here are a few markers of iron overload:

  • Ferritin levels above 60 for men and non-menstruating women, or above 30-40 for menstruating women.[54] (I got mine tested recently, and it was 267. Yikes! You better believe I’m taking steps to reduce my iron levels after seeing that.)
  • Transferrin % saturation above 35%.[55]
  • GGT levels higher than 25 U/L for men, or 18 U/L for women (ideally, they should be below 16 for men, and below 9 for women). GGT is a liver enzyme that, when elevated, is correlated with iron overload. (Makes sense, right? Since iron overload damages your liver.)
  • A hair iron level greater than 2.0 mg%, or less than 1.2 mg%, on a hair mineral analysis from Trace Elements, Inc. or Analytical Research Labs.[56]

How can I remove excess iron?

  • Bloodletting. Leeches to the rescue! Or, the modern alternative: blood donation. Seriously, based on the studies showing how effective blood donation is at reducing the risk of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes,[56] [57] [58] leeches were probably quite effective at improving health by reducing excess iron stores in the body. However, I can’t wholeheartedly recommend leech therapy or frequent blood donation if you’re dealing with acne, since you’ll be dumping lots of beneficial minerals as well (like zinc, copper, etc). Such minerals are paramount to clearing up your skin, and you don’t want to dump them, as you’re possibly deficient already.

  • Chelation. Iron chelators (kee-lators) bind up iron and help remove it from the body. Perhaps the most effective, natural iron chelator is IP-6, or inositol hexaphosphate, which is really just phytic acid isolated from rice bran. IP-6 has been shown to kill cancer cells very effectively,[58] [59] [59] likely due to its ability to bind up iron (which is required for cancer cells to multiply). The problem with IP-6 is that it also can bind to zinc, magnesium, copper, and other critical minerals, so you must take IP-6 away from meals. One approach is to take it first thing in the morning, then wait 30-60 minutes to eat breakfast. This way it won’t chelate beneficial minerals from your food! Another good iron chelator is lactoferrin, which is readily available in supplement form, and can also be found in raw milk or colostrum. (We recommend only drinking raw, grass-fed A2 milk, so you avoid the insoluble calcium from pasteurized milk, the nutrient loss from grain-fed milk, and the allergenic and gut-inflaming A1 beta-casein protein from most modern-bred cows.)

  • Turmeric and other bitter-tasting herbs and spices reduce iron absorption and toxicity.

  • Eat iron inhibitors. Whenever you eat meat, or other iron-rich foods like iron-fortified wheat, make a point to eat or drink some iron inhibitors at the same time, such as white, green, or black tea; coffee; eggs; red wine (ideally organic, to avoid fluoride from pesticides); turmeric; and many other bitter herbs and spices. You’ll notice that many ethnic cuisines around the world include many such foods along with meat-rich meals – red wine with red meat; turmeric-rich curry with lamb; rosemary and tarragon with oxtail stew. It’s probably a good idea for you to follow their lead!

  • Avoid iron-fortified foods. Avoid all sources of iron-fortified white flour. In iron-fortified countries, this includes anything made from white flour, unless organic. You really just have to always check the ingredients for “reduced iron” or “ferrous sulfate” or similar, and avoid like the plague!

  • Reduce your meat intake to reduce iron overload acne.

  • Reduce meat intake. Eating less meat is a very effective, direct route to reducing your iron intake. To prove that, one study found that vegetarians had lower body iron levels, and consequently much better insulin sensitivity, than meat-eaters.[60] Does this mean you should go vegetarian? Not necessarily. There are lots of beneficial skin-clearing minerals in meat and seafood, such as zinc and copper, which are harder to find in plant foods. However, due to the iron problem, I think it’s a wise idea to eat or drink iron chelators whenever you eat meat, such as red wine, coffee, green/white/black tea, turmeric, bitter herbs, bee pollen, bee propolis, and raw grass-fed dairy (the calcium in raw dairy is more bioavailable than in pasteurized dairy, and thus more effective at blocking iron absorption).

  • Beans are the richest food source of molybdenum, which prevents toxic iron buildup in the liver.

  • Eat a cup of cooked beans daily. – Beans are the world’s best food source of molybdenum, a trace mineral that prevents iron from accumulating in your liver, instead mobilizing it so it can be put into hemoglobin. That’s an excellent thing for us, and should reduce the acne-triggering effects of iron overload (and can help anemia, too!). (To avoid farts from eating beans, simply soak dry beans for 24-48 hours, rinse well, and cook with a piece of kombu seaweed for alkalinity.)

  • Limit added sugar. Sugar boosts iron absorption from food (by downregulating hepcidin), so avoid added sugar as much as possible to reduce your iron absorption. A really bad combination? Baked goods made with refined, iron-fortified wheat flour, with lots of added sugar. That’s a recipe for major iron overload. Combine that with seed oil PUFA – like in doughnuts or most packaged foods – and you’ve got an iron + lipid peroxidation acne bomb.

  • Take vitamin C. As mentioned above, vitamin C helps transferrin take up iron properly. Without enough vitamin C, you can become anemic, and can’t use the iron you absorb from food, leaving it to get deposited in your liver (not good). Now, most doctors will tell you to avoid vitamin C supplementation if you have iron overload, since vitamin C boosts iron absorption. However, the effect is only strong in studies that look at single meals, and gets much weaker when you look at the overall diet over time.[61] [62] [63] Here’s what I think: Vitamin C is required for proper iron utilization in the body, and protects against the toxicity of iron. Getting enough vitamin C is critical. Without enough vitamin C, you can get the double whammy of anemia and iron overload. Getting lots of vitamin C will not, by itself, give you iron overload, and shouldn’t worsen an existing iron overload problem. If anything, it will improve things, since it helps you mobilize iron from your liver, so your body can do useful things with it like make hemoglobin (and eventually get rid of it). How much is enough? Possibly several grams a day. Some sources say start at 2,000 mg per day, and increase by 500mg per day until you start getting diarrhea, then back off by 500mg. (Or increase until you start feeling the benefits of it, and stay at that dose.) It’s important to spread out vitamin C intake over the day, over 2-3 doses, since it only lasts in your body for a few hours.

  • Near-infrared sauna therapy. Dr. Lawrence Wilson, a hair-mineral-analysis-based holistic healer and champion of infrared sauna therapy, describes in his book Sauna Therapy how, despite years of holistic healing methods on himself, he still had iron overload problems. When he started near-infrared sauna therapy, his iron levels dropped dramatically, as he began to dump iron in his hair and sweat.[64] This iron dumping really appears to require infrared sauna therapy as a trigger; it doesn’t happen to very large degrees naturally. Dr. Joseph Mercola reports the same experience – he was able to lower his ferritin levels significantly with infrared sauna therapy, much lower than he was able to achieve with phlebotomy.[64]

What is anemia, if it’s not actually due to iron deficiency?

Anemia is a lack of oxygen-carrying capacity in the blood, usually due to low hemoglobin. Not low iron. Plain and simple.b

A lot of doctors confuse these, and recommend iron supplements for anemia. While this sometimes helps, it often causes more problems over time than it solves, since it can lead easily to iron overload issues (and toxic iron storage in the liver, kidneys, eyes, brain, and elsewhere in the body).

It’s been known since at least 1931 that supplementing copper is actually more effective in treating anemia than iron (and much safer).[65] More on that in a minute.

Anemia is rarely due to a lack of iron in the body. Rather, it’s due to a lack of hemoglobin, which can be due to many factors:

  • Ceruloplasmin deficiency (ceruloplasmin is a copper-binding protein produced in the liver, which is responsible for loading iron into transferrin, which must happen first before you can make hemoglobin with that iron)
  • Copper deficiency (since copper is required to make ceruloplasmin)
  • Adrenal burnout (your adrenals are what signal your liver to produce ceruloplasmin, so adrenal burnout can hurt your ceruloplasmin levels, making it difficult to make enough hemoglobin)
  • Retinol-form vitamin A deficiency (because vitamin A is required to make ceruloplasmin)
  • Fluoride toxicity (fluoride inhibits vitamin A in the body, which can damage your ability to make enough ceruloplasmin)
  • Vitamin C deficiency[66] [67] (vitamin C signals transferrin to take up iron[68] , so without enough vitamin C, you can’t use iron properly, and it gets stored in your liver – BAD.)

If you have anemia, it’s likely due to a deficiency of copper, vitamin A, or vitamin C; adrenal burnout; and/or perhaps fluoride toxicity. These are much more effective and safer avenues to address than taking iron supplements (and much safer for your skin, too, as all these problems are intimately involved in acne as well).

Why are iron supplements bad, especially for pregnant women?

Taking iron supplements is almost always a bad idea – especially for pregnant women, who are almost always prescribed iron supplements.

You may find this hard to believe, but the research is out there already. Iron overload in pregnant women, due to iron supplementation, may contribute to gestational diabetes[69] [70] [71] [72] [72] [73] and SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).[74] [75]

One study, for example, measured the amount of iron stored in the liver of babies who had died of SIDS, and found it to be three times as high, on average, than in babies who lived.[76] Read that again.

Are we killing little ones by giving iron supplements to pregnant mothers, causing babies to be born with extreme liver iron overload, thereby causing liver failure and sudden death? Egads…

I’ve been sharing this information recently with a midwife friend of mine, and she confirms that this is absolutely not widely known in the birthing world, even the “natural” home birth world. Pregnant women are still widely prescribed iron supplements. What are we doing, messing around with this highly toxic metal?

The Blue Zones: how to reduce iron levels and live to 100+?

As a testament to the longevity-boosting power of keeping your iron levels low, the Blue Zones – the little pockets around the world with the longest-lived people – have diets that limit iron accumulation in the body.

How do they do this?

  • They only eat 4-6 ounces of meat per week. That’s not much heme iron intake. (In my high-meat Paleo days, I ate 8-16 ounces of red meat per day – 14 times as much as the Blue Zones folks eat – and gave myself a serious iron overload problem that I’m just now figuring out how to fix.)
  • They have high levels of calcium in their drinking water. This blocks iron absorption.
  • They eat lots of iron chelating foods like red wine, chocolate, tea, coffee, bitter herbs, etc. (see above for more).
  • They eat a cup of cooked beans daily. As explained above, beans contain loads of molybdenum, which helps mobilize iron from your liver, so you can make hemoglobin with it (and helping to prevent toxic liver buildup of iron).

Key Take-Aways

  • Almost everyone in modern society probably has an iron overload problem (even if they’re anemic).
  • Iron overload leads to acne, as well as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, MS, and other diseases.
  • Iron triggers acne by oxidizing PUFAs in the body, creating toxic lipid peroxides and inflammation in the skin.
  • Iron destroys your gut bacteria balance, favoring overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria, Candida, and other infections that can worsen acne.
  • You get iron overload by eating iron-fortified wheat, added sugar, lots of meat, multivitamins with iron, iron supplements, vitamin A deficiency, vitamin C deficiency, and a number of other methods.
  • Anemia is not usually due to a lack of iron in the body, but rather to a deficiency of copper, vitamin A, or vitamin C.
  • You can reduce your iron levels by limiting meat intake to a couple times per week, taking iron-chelating supplements like IP-6 and lactoferrin, eating iron-chelating foods daily (see above for a list), eating a cup of cooked beans daily, and ensuring adequate retinol-form vitamin A and vitamin C intake.
  • Optimizing iron alone won’t necessarily fix your acne – you also may need to reduce PUFA, remove fluoride, optimize iodine, boost vitamin A intake, and many other tweaks in order to get clear (and that’s what our book is all about!).

If you’d like to be walked through the whole process of tweaking your diet for clear skin, we’ve written an ebook that does just that. It’s called “Clear Skin Forever” (surprise, surprise!).

For this complete guide to taking an all-natural, diet-based approach to getting rid of acne and having clear skin for life (no kidding!), go here.

Sources (click to expand)

  1. Ganz T. Iron and infection. Int J Hematol. 2017; (link) ^
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{ 19 Comments }

  1. Claudia Burlotti says

    Hello Devin, thank you for this article it was really good to read about iron PCOS and acne all in one place.
    I recently discovered i’m Homozygous H63D mutation. My ferritin is pretty normal though it varies from 36 to 44. My Serum iron levels are always pretty high 217 (30-160) and my saturation is around 60%.
    I have high cholesterol too 6.5 (0 – 5.2) with HDL 2.76 (0.9-5.2) and LDL 3.28( 0-4.5).

    My neutrophil count over periods of time goes down quite a lot 1.1 or 1.5 (2-7.5)

    After 10 years without birth control I started again Dine/Dianette (I have mild PCOS) 6 months ago because of my skin and a huge and constant hair loss.
    I’m a mum of 37 years old I eat well (very low sugars , white carbs and red meat).
    My skin got a bit better with Diane but my hair went even thinner and it doesn’t stop falling out.

    Ten years ago I stopped taking birth control because my skin was bad and my hair was falling in a telogem effluvium kind of way for over two years.
    When I stopped After a year or so I had tetracycline for three months.

    My question:
    Why my serum iron is always so high? Shall I take something like lactoferrin to chelate iron and maybe help my neutrophils?

    Or should I take something rich in vitamin b and non heme iron like Chlorella to get my ferritin levels higher? In case i’m Loosing hair for that reason.

    Birth control is definitely not the answer for me, it helped the hormonal spots but I still have tiny white dots every night which makes me think it’s more down to bacteria that like the iron circulating in my body?

    Maybe my body is trying to get rid of circulating iron through the skin and hair?

    Tetracycline helps chelate iron so maybe that why it worked wonders for my skin in the past and maybe also helped my hair.

    I’m a bit confused on what to try next, I don’t have an infrared sauna near by.

    Thanks for your time

    Ciao
    Claudia

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Claudia! Sorry for the delay on this, my apologies! Let’s see… this might be a bit over my head but I’ll try to offer a few thoughts. I wouldn’t be surprised if your body was trying to remove iron through your skin and hair. Though from studying Dr. Lawrence Wilson, it seems as though a LOW hair iron level can actually be an indicator of being a “poor eliminator” of iron. It can store up as lipofuscin in your body, which is a “brown fatty mass” of oxidized PUFA mixed with iron. That’s what age spots are, I believe!

      Iron is very toxic in the body when it’s not properly bound, and especially if you have a lot of PUFA floating around your body from years of PUFA exposure in your diet. PUFAs like DHA are used in healthy cells, as well, making them pretty susceptible to iron damage.

      I would not recommend chlorella or any other iron-rich source until you figure out what’s going on with your iron levels. I wouldn’t be surprised if you had toxic iron buildup combined with a functional iron deficiency, which can be due to many factors, some of which I mentioned in the article briefly.

      Interesting about tetracycline! That jives with my research. Definitely would not recommend antibiotics for acne, though, since they cause widespread damage to beneficial bacteria.

      I haven’t studied hair growth / hair loss much, so I’m pretty uninformed on that topic I’m afraid!

      Does red meat taste good to you, or not so good? Does it taste strongly of iron in a bad way? When I had the worst of my iron overload issue, liver tasted absolutely terrible. Interestingly, I got onto another health writer, Aajonus Vonderplanitz, who wrote that toxic iron buildup only happens from *cooked* iron (cooked meat or plant foods), and that eating raw meat can actually help detoxify stored iron. I haven’t been able to find any outside confirmation of that, but I have been experimenting with eating raw red meat (usually grass-fed lamb) for about 3 months now and it seems to do really well for my body. I haven’t had an iron test in over a year, so I have no idea where I’m at. I’ve also been drinking TONS of raw A2 milk, which has a high anti-iron activity due to lactoferrin and calcium. So maybe that’s helping too?

      What’s your diet history? What about iron-containing supplements or multivitamins?

      What’s your current diet? And supplements?

      What kind of water do you drink? Tap, well, etc.? Do you know if your water is high in iron?

  2. SunnySky says

    Hi, Devon. I figured the perioral dermatitis experienced last spring, 2017, is definitely due to my high iron that I’ve been working to get down since summer, 2016. I’m still at it–by donating blood every 56 days, unless labs are planned–then I prefer at least four weeks after blood donation before a full iron panel.

    I recently shared this website and also said:

    “One of the key clues was that lactoferrin helps acne, and lactoferrin binds excess iron. Aha! We’ve got a link!”

    “It turns out that tetracycline-family antibiotics (minocycline, doxycycline, etc.) strongly chelate iron, meaning they bind it up and remove it from the body. This may be the main reason why antibiotics tend to help acne (at least for a while).”

    Some may or may not know I’ve been dealing with high iron since 2016, and felt it was the trigger for last year’s Perioral Dermatitis outbreak. Yes, doxycycline has an anti-inflammatory effect… but high iron also can be the trigger for fungal issues as well (and more!). No wonder clotrimazole helped….. along with doxycycline. I definitely double- and triple-dosed probiotics while taking doxy.

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey SunnySky! I love putting together connections like this. 🙂 How high was your iron when you first noticed the problem in 2016?

      • SunnySky says

        Long story, but part of a FB group since 2012 or 2013, https://www.facebook.com/groups/MagnesiumAdvocacy/
        I’ve had iron panels before and while reading Morley Robbins 60+ articles about iron toxicity, I resumed blood donation beginning Aug 2016 & October 2016; I previously donated two to three times a year, but stopped June 2013—ya see, I THOUGHT my ferritin should be higher than 32 for NDT to work for hypothyroidism.

        Anyhow, here’s what you requested:
        12/8/16 (& this was AFTER two prior blood donations!)
        SI Tot 226 (27-159)
        TIBC 317
        Sat% 71_
        UIBC 91 (131-425)
        Ferritin 112
        RBC 5.24

        I continue to donate blood every 56 days, or close, but being mindful of labs and that I want at least four weeks after blood donation until an iron panel.

        11/10/2017:
        RBC Mag 4.2 mg/dL (4.2-6.8)
        Copper 159 ug/dL (72-166)
        Ceruloplasmin 36 mg/dL (19-39)
        Iron, serum 170 ug/dL (50-170)
        TIBC 373 mg/dL (165-497)
        Sat % 46 (15-50)
        RBC 5.62 (3.8-5.1)
        HGB 16.1 (11.6-15.5)
        Ferritin 39ng/ml (7-270)

        I left a few other labs there ⬆; also, zinc is still low at 86 ug/dL (56-134), but a little higher than it has been.

        Other minerals are negatively affected by too high iron…. so I’m s-l-o-w-l-y improving. I really need to get back to using rice bran and some other iron chelators to get iron further reduced rather than just relying on blood donation.

        • Devin Mooers says

          Ah! Good to know you’ve been reading through Morley Robbins’ stuff. He’s one I investigated fairly thoroughly when I first discovered my iron overload issue (ferritin at 276!). My RBC mag was around 6 at the first test, as I’d been supplementing 400-500mg mag glycinate for a couple years by then and had no mag issues (hair test confirms it’s in a good range). So I’ve been doing a lot of other things to try to reduce my iron, including trying IP-6 for a month or so, but I discontinued that as I started to get worried it would cause collateral damage by chelating other beneficial minerals. Have you tried infrared sauna therapy at all? Dr. Mercola and Dr. Wilson both personally were able to reduce their iron overload problems into a healthy range by using this. Mercola says in one article that blood donation only reduced his ferritin so far, but the IR sauna helped him get the rest of way (even after stopping phlebotomy). I’m guessing it’s because it helps mobilize iron directly from the liver, but that’s 100% of a guess, not based on anything concrete.

          Personally, I’ve been avoiding red meat 100% for about a year, as well as trying to emphasize vitamin C, vitamin E, molybdenum (via beans), vitamin A, and iron chelators like coffee/tea/turmeric.

          Have you gone the hair test route yet? AFAIK blood markers of zinc, mag, etc. aren’t always the greatest indicators of total body mineral status.

          How low ar you trying to get your ferritin? 39 seems like a pretty decent range! (I’m still around 200, coming down slowly over the past year. I’ve fainted on larger blood draws for lab tests, which aren’t even close to the volume for a full blood donation, so I’ve avoided that route.)

          Also curious why you want to go the NDT route for thyroid support instead of just supplying adequate iodine via kelp, nascent iodine, Iosol, etc.? Have you been detoxing fluoride/bromide at all, to remove their thyroid inhibition effects? (I’ve been detoxing this stuff for over a year now with iodine/kelp/boron/tamarind/etc., still get occasional headaches!)

    • Devin Mooers says

      Based on some quick research, beef has a little more than 2x the iron of salmon. I’m not sure what the heme vs. hon-heme breakdown is, though. Beef may have a higher percentage of heme iron, but not sure. Definitely safer to eat fish on the iron score than beef, though there is some risk of general contamination from ocean pollution (SO sad and terrible).

  3. guest says

    Hi, I have a question. I was just eating dark chocolate while reading this article and decided to look up iron levels in cocoa. Apparently it’s pretty high? But in the article it says at some point that chocolate is ‘iron-chelating’, so it removes iron from the body. Could you explain how that works? Thank you.

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey! So the polyphenols in chocolate are effective at reducing iron absorption, and also, I think, help to detoxify iron in the acidic environment of the stomach (where iron tends to form lipid peroxides from fats). And your body can stop absorption of plant iron when you have enough iron (provided this iron-repletion signaling is working correctly), unlike with heme iron from meat. I think iron from chocolate is probably fine, though it’s not a bad idea to keep your intake moderate, and also include some other iron-blocking foods regularly in your diet!

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey John! Yep, definitely. This is on the newer side for me, last 6 months or so, based on my research into iron. I’m currently taking 3-6 grams daily of ascorbic acid, sometimes mixing that with some food-based vitamin C like camu camu or rosehips (whatever I have on hand). Vitamin C is incredibly safe and has a wide array of potential benefits – it’s one of those insurance policies that just really makes sense to do.

      • John says

        Hey, I’m asking because in the Lactoferrin article it says: “Also avoid things that increase your iron absorption, like high doses of Vitamin C“. Also I read that high doses of vitamin C can rise blood sugar. I’d like to hear your opinion on this. 🙂

        • Devin Mooers says

          Hey John! Might be worth re-reading the vitamin C section in the iron article, it’s a somewhat different stance than that bit in the lactoferrin article (which I will now go and update). Found some new research that changed my thoughts on this. I tried to explain in this iron article how studies on single meals find that ascorbic acid boosts iron absorption, but the effect mostly disappears when considering the whole diet over time, so such studies are misleading. I think adequate vitamin C is necessary for proper utilization of iron, so it doesn’t just get piled up in your liver.

          Haven’t seen anything about vitamin C raising blood sugar, do you have any references on that?

        • Devin Mooers says

          Also, I looked up the article reference in the lactoferrin post to say that vitamin C boosts absorption of iron, and here’s what it says:

          “Vitamin C significantly increases the absorption of iron by making the duodenum more acidic, therefore driving iron to be absorbed more efficiently. A multivitamin with vitamin C is probably fine, but doses of more than 1 g per day, for example, generally should be avoided in patients with iron overload.”
          https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5193089/

          I’m not sure about the above statement that vitamin C makes the duodenum more acidic – this seems more likely to me:

          “Ascorbic acid facilitates iron absorption by forming a chelate with ferric iron at acid pH that remains soluble at the alkaline pH of the duodenum.”
          https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6940487

          The thing about plant iron is that your body can shut off absorption of it when you have enough iron stored up, by increasing hepcidin synthesis. So even if vitamin C increase plant iron absorption in single-meal studies, the effect should be moderated/controlled long-term by your body’s ability to shut off plant iron absorption when it has enough iron. (Not so with heme iron – your body just keeps absorbing it. That’s how I developed my iron overload problem, by eating super-high-red-meat for years while eating Paleo.)

          • John says

            Hey, I also toned down my meat consumption to 2-3 days per week.

            https://www.diabeteshealth.com/high-doses-of-vitamin-c-supplement-increase-blood-glucose-levels/ heres the article about vitamin C and blood sugar. It’s pretty old and I’m not sure how accurate this is but it got me concerned.

            Also I have one last question. You recently started to recommend vitamin A palmitate. In my country pure encapsulations only sells vitamin A acetate and it’s more expensive. Do you know if theres a big difference between those two sources? I’m following your site since years, keep up the good work! 🙂

          • Devin Mooers says

            Interesting clinical perspective on high vitamin C causing hyperglycemia in one patient! Curious about what the mechanism would be there. I’ve never seen any studies about this phenomenon so really have no idea! I think whole-food vitamin C is the best source, since it contains a matrix of other nutrients that assist with proper utilization of ascorbic acid. I’m trying to get lots from citrus, moringa leaf, camu camu, rosehips, or whatever else I can find with naturally high levels of C, and filling in the gaps with ascorbic acid.

            AFAIK vitamin A acetate is fine – I believe it just gets converted in the body to the active or storage form of vitamin A, just like palmitate does.

  4. Christine says

    I’m curious if you know much about using cast iron skillets and whether or not they will give you too much extra iron in your diet? Thanks!

    • Devin Mooers says

      Great question, Christine! We have totally stopped cooking in cast iron for this very reason. It adds iron – also in the form of rust – into your food, and that’s really not a good thing in my view. Stainless, glass, or ceramic cookware is what I’d recommend.

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