Healthy Iron Levels Better for the Brain

Healthnotes Newswire (April 26, 2007)—Women: Do you have trouble concentrating? Does it take you longer than others to complete tasks? Are you often forgetful? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may have low iron levels.

While the effects of iron deficiency on mental function in children are well recognized, less is known about how an iron shortage affects the adult brain. In the first study of its kind, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers from Pennsylvania State University showed how women with low iron levels can think more clearly by taking extra iron.

Women of reproductive age and children are at high risk for iron deficiency. Some of the hallmarks of iron deficiency anemia are extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, and rapid heartbeat. However, even if iron deficiency is not severe enough to cause anemia, it might have adverse effects on brain function.

The investigators wanted to find out how mental (cognitive) functioning in young women was affected by iron deficiency, and to what degree iron supplementation helped the problem.

They studied 113 women—some of whom had iron deficiency anemia, some with low iron stores (but who were not anemic), and some with normal iron levels—by measuring their attention, memory, and ability to learn.

The women were given either 160 mg of ferrous sulfate (containing 60 mg of elemental iron) each day for 16 weeks or a placebo.

At the beginning of the study, women who had normal iron levels were able to perform cognitive tasks better and more quickly than women with iron deficiency anemia; women with low iron stores scored somewhere in between.

Women whose iron stores were restored to normal with supplementation had a five- to seven-fold improvement in their cognitive performance. In addition, women whose anemia improved were able to complete the cognitive tasks more quickly than before.

The researchers explained, “This relation of changes in [iron stores] and in cognitive performance is highly important because it shows that persons do not have to be anemic to have alterations in attention, memory, and learning.”

They further noted, “These findings are evidence that iron deficiency without anemia affects how well we do simple and complex cognitive tasks, whereas anemia affects how fast we complete those tasks,” the authors said.

“Our data are significant in that they show that normalization of iron status affects mental functioning in otherwise healthy adult women. Thus, the effects of iron deficiency on mental functioning are not limited to the early stages of development,” they concluded.

If you think that you might benefit from taking extra iron, talk with your doctor first. Some people shouldn’t take extra iron; it’s important to have your iron levels tested before taking iron supplements.

(Am J Clin Nutr 2007;85:778–87)

Kimberly Beauchamp, ND, earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Rhode Island and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. She cofounded South County Naturopaths in Wakefield, RI. Dr. Beauchamp practices as a birth doula and lectures on topics including whole-foods nutrition, detoxification, and women’s health.

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