fruits and vegetables

Usually, people wonder if they are getting enough iron. But those with hemochromatosis need to be concerned about getting too much iron. This condition leads to iron build-up in organs such as the liver. Hemochromatosis may have provided Neolithic farmers in early Europe with a survival advantage as they switched from hunting and eating big game to a low-iron diet based on grains and dairy products (McCullough et al, Human Biology, Jan. 2015). But like so many genes that offer advantages in one context, the HFE and C282Y genes that cause hemochromatosis can be lethal when diets are rich in iron. Can diet help control hemochromatosis?

Could Eating Cabbage Control Hemochromatosis?

Q. I’ve had hemochromatosis for more than two years. Before that I had been diagnosed with fructose intolerance.

I began eating more pickled krauts and other probiotic foods to help with my fructose intolerance, and I noticed the time between my phlebotomies were increasing. Yesterday my scheduled phleb was cancelled because my ferritin was mid-range. I haven’t had a bloodletting in five months now.

If cabbage chelates iron, then I’m all in. For the past month or so, I have been making raw cabbage salads or mixing it in with greens almost every day. Usually one serving per day, often more. I think there is something to this.

What Is Hemochromatosis?

A. Hemochromatosis is a condition of excessive iron accumulation in the body. It is often hereditary. Symptoms can include painful joints, fatigue and abdominal discomfort.

If iron levels get too high for too long, people can develop liver disease, heart problems, diabetes, damage to the pancreas and erectile dysfunction in men. That’s why treatment should be supervised by a hematologist.

Blood-Letting as the Primary Treatment:

The normal treatment involves removing excess iron through regular phlebotomy (blood letting). Although it would seem logical to give blood regularly as a way of benefiting others as well, the American Red Cross does not accept blood from donors with hereditary hemochromatosis. Doctors may also recommend a medication that chelates iron to remove it from the blood stream.

What Is the Story on Cabbage?

Several years ago we heard from a reader that eating cabbage lowered his ferritin levels. Ferritin carries iron in the bloodstream and is elevated in hemochromatosis. Others have also reported some success with this dietary approach, though it cannot substitute for expert medical care.

The usual dietary recommendations for people with hemochromatosis include avoiding iron supplements or iron-containing vitamin pills; avoiding vitamin C supplements with meals; drinking coffee or tea with meals; taking a calcium supplement at mealtime and eating lots of fiber; avoiding extra sugar, especially blackstrap molasses; limiting red meat; steering clear of raw shellfish; not cooking in cast iron pans; and eating lots of fresh produce, both fruits and vegetables. Cabbage certainly fits into that latter category. The phytic acid that is abundant in many whole grains and vegetables may be helpful in reducing iron overload (Hatcher et al, Future Medicinal Chemistry, Dec. 2009).

Readers Offer Their Stories:

One reader offered this:

“Our family gene pool has had hemochromatosis in it for CENTURIES. Yet we all, except one that we can determine by known history, have lived into our 80s and 90s. Now my age is 79, and my oldest brother is 89. ONE of our siblings died of lung cancer at age 86.

“We lead a diet controlled life and blood-letting when needed, usually 6 or more months apart. Cabbage is a regular part of our diet: coleslaw, boiled cabbage, in salads, and a raw wedge even. By the way, we can trace our known family history into the 1500s and back to 777 A.D.”

Women can also have hemochromatosis. One woman wrote:

“I was diagnosed with hemochromatosis late last year. I juice a serving of cabbage with apple, celery and carrot (whatever there is) every day. I’ve had four venesections to date and my levels have come down from 1556 to 404.”

Another reader was surprised by the diagnosis:

“I am 36 and have been diagnosed with the C282Y mutation. Apparently my liver is still able to break down iron, but only half as efficiently as it should. My ferritin was surprisingly high at 1250. It. It did come down to 897 after 3 blood donations. I go every six weeks.

“Further my father was tested last week. He is 65, and his ferritin is over 6000. My wife is a doctor, and we found that the older doctors around these parts are not really testing people for iron overload.”

Chelating Iron with Foods:

Both black and green tea contains natural iron chelators and may also be a helpful addition to the diet (Mandel et al, Journal of Neural Transmission. Supplementum, 2006). Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, also chelates iron (Badria et al, PLOS One, July 31, 2015). So does rosemary when it is added to food as a spice (Samman et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, March 2001).

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  1. G

    Thank you for this very informative info on diet. Not many doctors can tell you what to eat or not to eat for any kind of condition. I am male age 63 with both hemochromatosis and anemia and have been having weekly Procrit injections for the anemia since January 2013. My current ferritin count is 1660, but has ranged from 990 to 2400. My hematologist won’t do blood letting bc he did it for another patient with the same two conditions and her hemoglobin counts never recovered. I have a liver doctor who has a yearly abdominal ultrasound done. Had a liver biopsy done a few years ago to establish a base point for future reference. I’ve also had a fibroscan done in the liver doctors office which is like an ultrasound and will show if there’s any scarring on the liver. Am cancer free and have no scarring of the liver.
    When I’ve had the ultrasound done, have asked the technician if it’s really necessary for them to press down really hard bc I have some internal abdominal bruises from past ultrasounds which haven’t healed. The last tech told me he could take it easy but the results wouldn’t be as good without his pressing down hard and if it hurt really bad that I should raise my hand to signal him to stop.

  2. Michele
    North Carolina

    My husband had to have his blood taken out every six weeks for many years. It coincided with bouts of the skin condition porphyria cutanea. Once I switched him to a whole food plant-based diet (no meat, dairy or processed foods) his skin condition cleared up and his ferritin levels are normal again.

    There is a difference in how our bodies process heme iron from meat and dairy, and non-heme iron from plant products.

  3. Cheryl

    I have Hemochromatosis and I think it is ridiculous that the American Red Cross does not utilize the valuable whole blood that is trashed when patients do frequent bloodletting. This is high iron blood. I have been an RN for 45 years and have seen patients die from shortage of available blood. I have been asking this question for years and no one can give an answer.

  4. Pat

    My husband was diagnosed about 20 years ago. He controls it with blood donations. When he was first diagnosed the Red Cross would not take his blood; but that rule was changed several years ago. It seems that they seek out people with the diagnosis to be platelet donors. We are cautious with foods that contain a lot of iron. Was not aware of the chelating value of foods mentioned in the article though we do follow a Med diet that includes many of the recommendations above.
    It seems that many M.D.’s miss the increase in blood levels and don’t follow up with storage levels. His gastroenterologist told him that many patients are in liver failure before they are diagnosed. In the old days it was called Copper Diabetes because of the brown iron deposits in victims legs.

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