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013 - Dietary Iron & Attention Issues

posted Nov 11, 2015, 10:19 AM by Doug Muha   [ updated Nov 11, 2015, 12:42 PM ]

Counselor Notes 13

December 9, 2013

Dietary Iron & Attention Issues

The issue of dietary iron has come back into the news for its possible connection to attention disorders in children.  On December 2, http://healthyliving.msn.com/diseases/adhd/low-iron-in-brain-a-sign-of-adhd reported a new MRI scan called “magnetic field correlation” could pick up low iron levels in the brains of children with attention disorders.  Earlier MRI’s (“MRI relaxation rates”) as well as blood tests of iron levels were not able to find this deficiency. 

This is important as there is a possible connection between iron and ADHD.    Specifically it seems that:

Low iron levels in the brain are known to alter the activity of dopamine, a chemical involved in controlling movement. The researchers suggest that this could explain the observed link between iron stores and ADHD.  http://www.webmd.com/add-adhd/childhood-adhd/news/20041217/study-links-low-iron-to-adhd

A review of studies of iron deficiency and ADHD  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23082739 would seem to confirm a connection.

Another site http://www.socialanxietysupport.com/forum/f11/iron-99500/    reports that: “In animal studies, iron insufficiency appears to cause abnormal dopamine function.”

This is an important finding too.  For according to http://www.webmd.com/add-adhd/guide/adhd-causes :

Recent studies show that the brain chemical, dopamine, may play a role in ADHD. Dopamine is an important chemical that carries signals between nerves in the brain. It is linked to many functions, including movement, sleep, mood, attention, and learning.

The ADHD and Autism Nutritional Supplement Handbook by Laake & Compart (2013) address the importance of iron as well.  There the authors note:

“Iron-deficiency anemia contributes to decreased attention, arousal, and social responsiveness, most often observed in ADHD.  They symptoms occur because iron is responsible for oxygen delivery to the tissues.  Muscle function, tone, and endurance are iron dependent.  Iron is one of the important co-factors in carnitine production.  [Author’s note: Carnitine plays a role in turning body fat into energy.]  Iron as well as tetrahydrofolate and tyrosine) is necessary for the synthesis of dopamine, the neurotransmitter most involved in attention.  Iron deficiency is found in individuals with ADHD and Autism.”

“Body stores of iron as shown by low ferritin levels on blood testing decline first, prior to serum iron declining.  These deficits occur before the complete blood count indicates anemia.  For this reason, inattention, poor endurance, lethargy, or fatigue may show up before the complete blood count reveals there is a problem.”  (p.55)

Okay so if low iron is connected to problems with the neurotransmitter dopamine and dopamine is connected to ADHD it seems we may be finally getting somewhere. 

Well, not so fast.  This is not all “cut-and-dry.”  Giving your child iron supplements may or may not be helpful.  The ADHD & Autism Nutritional Supplement Handbook warns that: “if blood levels of iron are too high or there is a metabolic disorder in which iron accumulates in the tissue, iron supplementation can be damaging, even toxic.”  (p. 55)

The field is also moving in all sorts of other directions too.  In late October, http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/268016.php reported research that looked at dopamine problems and thought the problem lay elsewhere.  The article said:

Writing in the latest issue of the journal Brain, the researchers... suggest instead that the main cause of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is to be found in structural differences in the brain's grey matter." 

My hunch at this point is that those who are looking for a single “smoking gun” for all cases of ADHD are likely going to be disappointed.  Look into iron deficiency if it seems applicable in your case.  Don't be too dejected though if it doesn't solve everything.  It seems more likely that it is going to be different things or different combinations of things causing the attention issues for different people.  

My advice is for parents of children with attention issues to keep checking into things that they think may have some applicability in their child's situation.  If you look into 12 things and each of six of them make things a little bit better, that might really start to add up to some noticeable improvement.  

Doug Muha Ed.S.
School Counselor
Waverly Elementary School