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What Are Porphyrins?

Heme is a porphyrin that creates the red color of red blood cells.
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  • Written By: Jennifer Long
  • Edited By: Allegra J. Lingo
  • Last Modified Date: 08 September 2014
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There are many naturally occurring substances in the body that play important roles in vital functions. Porphyrins are naturally occurring chemicals found to help the production of hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the protein in red blood cells that are responsible for carrying oxygen in the blood throughout the entire body.

More than just helping to create hemoglobin, porphyrins have another influence on blood. Heme is a type of porphyrin that produces the red coloring of red blood cells. All aspects of blood, from the color to the oxygen it carries, are crucial to proper bodily function.

Porphyria is a condition that affects the red blood cells. This condition occurs when the body has a deficiency in one of the enzymes that are a part of the process which controls the creation and regulation of porphyrins. The result is an abnormal porphyrin build up in the body. While there are several different types of porphyria, two occur more commonly than others and are used to broadly classify the forms of porphyria.

The nervous system is typically affected by acute porphyria. Acute intermittent porphyria is the most common occurring type in this category. This condition produces symptoms such as neuropathies, constipation, and abdominal pain. Some patients have also experienced blindness without visible eye damage.

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Porphyria cutanea tarda (PCT), also called cutaneous porphyria, is the second common type of porphyria. Many of its symptoms are similar to acute versions. The distinguishing difference is that PCT also presents a rash or blistering of the skin. People with PCT may also experience chronic liver problems, such as scarring and inflammation.

With normal production and regulation, porphyrins keep red blood cells as they need to be. When problems like porphyria cause an imbalance, things change. The creation and regulation of porphyrins must be maintained to allow heme and hemoglobin to continue their jobs.

The treatment of porphyrin problems will depend on the specific problem. Each form of porphyria affects a different enzyme. Blood tests can help doctors identify which type of enzyme deficiency is present. From there, a treatment plan can be created that not only contains prescription medications but also other measures.

In addition to antimalarial and other prescription medications, people with porphyrin problems should also make overall lifestyle changes. Alcoholic beverages, direct sunlight, and iron supplements should be avoided. If Hepatitis C has been found, comprehensive treatment of this disorder can also help to treat the accumulation of porphyrins.

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