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Iron Deficiency and the Chronic Heart Failure Connection--Or, Liver and Onions Anyone?

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Is there anyone out there who still eats liver and onions? My mother loved liver and onions. Every Friday night - come rain or shine, snow or sleet, or nuclear attack - we knew what the menu would be for the evening meal. Unfortunately for us, my siblings and I did not share her love affair with liver and onions and it took some gentle persuasion on her part to convince us that despite protestations to the contrary, we would be eating all the liver and onions set before us. The persuasion generally came in the form of some dessert straight from chocolate heaven which we were only allowed to eat if, and only if, we consumed all the liver on our plates.

Despite the fact that she personally loved liver and onions, my mother had a secondary (and more important) reason for serving us liver once a week. In the days before vitamin supplements were popular, she knew that liver was a food rich in iron. Feeding us liver once a week was her way of ensuring that we had enough iron in our diet to avoid developing an iron deficiency.

Iron deficiency is fairly widespread and common condition (approximately one-third of the population suffers from iron deficiency). It can manifest in a number of different ways. One of the most commonly known symptoms of iron deficiency is iron deficiency anemia. (Many women develop iron deficiency anemia at some point in their lives due to blood loss during menstruation). But an iron deficiency doesn’t stop with anemia; it’s also linked to numerous other diseases, many of which are chronic in nature. Other diseases or conditions linked to iron deficiency include such things as Parkinson’s Disease, restless leg syndrome (RLS), rheumatoid diseases, inflammatory bowel disease, and renal failure. Now, it appears that chronic heart failure (CHF) can be added to the list.

The link between iron deficiency and CHF is not a relatively new concept. Estimates are that somewhere between 20 and 70 percent all persons with CHM also exhibit iron deficiency anemia. However, a recent study conducted by the Medical University of Wroclaw has revealed that as many as a third of all non-anemic patients with CHF also had iron deficiency. According to the lead researcher Dr. Piotr Ponikowski, the presence of an iron deficiency in patients with CHF generally “constitutes an ominous sign of a poor outcome.”

Researchers also observed that CHF patients with an iron deficiency tended to have less tolerance for exercise and had an overall poorer quality of life as a result. The good news was that once the iron reserves were built back up (replenished), the ability to exercise improved as did quality of life. As is typical in many of these types of research studies, the researchers stopped short of concluding that correcting the iron deficiency would benefit CHF patients and indicated that more studies are needed before they can definitely say that eliminating an iron deficiency would benefit CHF patients.

Perhaps the researchers should simply talk to my mother. She knew that our bodies needed iron and that the best thing for us was to keep the iron supply high rather than let it deplete and risk becoming sick. In her own way, that’s just what she did; she kept us (and possibly our hearts) healthy, one serving of liver and onions at a time.

Mary Kyle is a freelance writer, editor, and project manager. She has a Master of Arts in Legal Studies, a Bachelor of Music, and multiple professional certifications in project management. In addition to health advocacy, she is passionate about literacy and volunteers in local schools teaching writing seminars and reading.

Restless Leg Syndrome, 12 Dec 2009, The Mayo Clinic, http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/restless-legs-syndrome/DS00191

European Society of Cardiology (ESC) (2010, September 5). Iron deficiency in heart failure. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 12, 2010, from http://www.sciencedaily.com¬ /releases/2010/08/100831122057.htm

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.