Can Iron Deficiency Cause Psychological Problems?

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The link between iron stores and your physical energy stores has been understood since the 1950's. Iron, the mineral that is responsible for helping your red blood cells to store and transport oxygen to cells, is a critical component for allowing your body to receive the food it needs for optimal function. Athletes and menstruating women are particularly aware of its importance. However, as a potential link between too much iron and heart attacks or cancer has had us back off iron as an all-purpose wonder mineral, the question remains about the effect it has on brain function.

Iron levels and Psychological Symptoms
Lack of iron has been linked to a number of psychological complications in people. In addition to bringing oxygen to the brain, iron is an important ingredient in myelin (the protective coating around nerve cells) and many neurotransmitters, which are the chemicals produced that allows the brain to send messages. Lack of iron in ADHD children is very common. It is also shown to be crucial in fetal brain development. There is a strong link between iron deficiency, apathy and depression, which is believed to be one of the underlying reasons for menstruation-based depression symptoms.

Iron Levels and Cognitive Function
The presence of iron in regard to brain function is another critical part of how iron can affect mental function. A clinical study measured iron levels before, during and after a series of challenging exams. Some of the subjects were given iron supplements during the series of exams, while others were given placebos. The people who performed the most poorly and had the biggest increase in performance improvement were those who started with low iron levels and were supplemented with iron. Those who started with adequate iron did not show improvement by supplementing above normal levels. Even a slight decrease in iron levels was shown to cause a decrease in mental function.

Achieving Proper Iron Levels
Iron can, for some, be a difficult thing to supplement in sufficient levels. It is not always readily absorbed, and is best taken on an empty stomach combined with vitamin C. Foods like red meats and organ meats have a very readily available form of iron, but it is not easily turned into supplements. The inorganic mineral form is very common as a supplement, and may be the only option for vegetarians. This is when choosing the time to take a supplement and the things to take with it are especially important. It is always best to work with a medical professional who can gauge your iron levels and recommend a safe strategy to supplement them only to full levels. Because of the cardiac risks of too much iron, knowing when you've had enough is especially important.

Cite this page: N., Sam M.S., "Can Iron Deficiency Cause Psychological Problems?," in, January 9, 2016, (accessed August 17, 2022).