Hemochromatosis a Neolithic adaptation?

Hemochromatosis is a genetic disorder caused by one of several mutations related to double-than-normal iron absorption, which increases susceptibility to iron overload (1). Although the disorder affects about one in 200 in the U.S., it’s still largely unrecognized and can lead to deposits in organs—such as the liver—leading to organ damage and failure if not treated early enough (2-4).

Because the disorder is most prevalent in males of Northern European ancestry, particularly Celtic (5), it was hypothesized as recently as 2007 to be a possible Neolithic adaptation (6). The Neolithic period marked an early European dietary transition from high intake of meat to cereal grains (6).

Whether or not this hypothesis is correct, the state of the disorder suggests potential dietary management through eating primarily vegetarian foods such as the one eaten during the time of these early ancestors—cereal grains, little red meat, and limited vitamin C intake. This low-iron diet to prevent to iron overload, according to the Hemochromatosis Management Working Group, can help to “decrease the frequency and severity of iron overload,” thereby preventing many of the detrimental effects of the disorder (4).

Reference List

1. Gropper SS, Smith JL, Groff JL. Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2009.
2. Borgaonkar MR. Hemochromatosis. More common than you think. Can Fam Physician 2003;49:36-43.
3. Dolbey CH. Hemochromatosis: a review. Clin J Oncol Nurs 2001;5:257-60.
4. Barton JC, McDonnell SM, Adams PC et al. Management of hemochromatosis. Hemochromatosis Management Working Group. Ann Intern Med 1998;129:932-9.
5. Pozzato G, Zorat F, Nascimben F et al. Haemochromatosis gene mutations in a clustered Italian population: evidence of high prevalence in people of Celtic ancestry. Eur J Hum Genet 2001;9:445-51.
6. Naugler C. Hemochromatosis: a Neolithic adaptation to cereal grain diets. Med Hypotheses 2008;70:691-2.

Published by David Despain, MS, CFS

David is a science and health writer living on Long Island, New York. He's written for a variety of publications including Scientific American, Outside Online, the American Society for Nutrition's (ASN) Nutrition Notes Daily, and Institute of Food Technologists' (IFT) Food Technology magazine and Live! blog. He's also covered new findings reported at scientific meetings including Experimental Biology, AAAS, AOCS, CASW, Sigma Xi, IFT, and others on his personal blog "Evolving Health." David is also an active member of organizations including the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the American Society for Nutrition, the Institute of Food Technologists, and the National Audubon Society. David has a master's degree in human nutrition from the University of Bridgeport, and a bachelor's degree in English from University of Illinois at Springfield. He also earned his Certified Food Scientist credential from the Institute of Food Technologists.

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