Taking iron tablets could damage your DNA, a new Imperial College study has suggested.

Researchers have found that high levels of the mineral can cause DNA damage to cells found in blood vessels within minutes. Tests carried out in laboratory conditions found that cells treated with an iron solution showed signs of damage after 10 minutes.

Dr Claire Shovlin, who led the study at the National Heart and Lung Institute at Imperial College London, used human endothelial cells which line arteries and veins and added an iron solution containing a similar amount of the mineral as a typical tablet prescribed to patients with anaemia.

She decided to carry out the tests after some patients with hereditary haemorrhagic telangiectasia, a genetic disorder causing the abnormal formation of blood vessels, reported experiencing side effects after taking iron tablets.

Her team found that adding the iron activated the cell’s DNA repair systems and they were still activated after six hours.

Dr Shovlin said: “All of the body’s cells have DNA repair systems that can fix all sorts of things. But when we added iron, we saw that these systems had to work harder than normal.”

The research suggests that human cells may be more sensitive to iron than had previously been thought and has led to concerns about doctors routinely prescribing high dose iron tablets.

Research is still at an early stage

But Dr Shovlin said: “We’re not at the stage yet where we would advise doctors to change their approach to prescribing iron supplements. Many people need extra iron – it is crucial to allow our bodies to function properly – and anyone with any concerns about their iron supplements should talk to their healthcare provider.

“However, this study helps to open the conversation about how much iron people take.”

Iron tablets bought over the counter usually contain around 14mg of iron – the recommended daily amount for a woman. But some tablets which are prescribed by doctors can contain as much as 65mg.

DNA is found in the nucleus of most cells and carries genetic information about a person. Damage to DNA will not necessarily cause any problems as it can usually be fixed by the cell’s normal repair processes.

A person’s DNA can tell us a lot about them, including information about their heritage and whether they are biologically related to someone else. DNA testing allows us to find out the paternity of a child where there is doubt over the identity of the father.

It is also possible to store someone’s genetic profile to make the identification of their body easier in the event of an accident. This is something that is often done by people in dangerous or high-risk professions.