Low Iron Linked to ADHD
Iron deficiency may worsen the symptoms of attention deficit–hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and supplementing with iron may increase the body’s iron stores and decrease the condition’s severity, reports the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine (2004;158:1113–5).
ADHD is a behavioral disorder affecting about two million Americans, characterized by inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. Children with ADHD may have a hard time controlling their behavior and following instructions. They may talk excessively, feel restless, and be easily distracted, skipping from one incomplete task to another. ADHD is usually apparent by the early school years and can persist into adolescence and adulthood. About 25% of children with ADHD also have a learning disability, and about 35% go on to develop conduct disorders. Children with conduct disorders may lie, steal, and exhibit aggressive behavior towards people or animals.
The multifaceted treatment approach usually taken for ADHD includes behavioral therapy, medication, and individual and family counseling. Stimulant medications such as methylphenidate (Ritalin™) and amphetamine mixtures like Adderall™ are commonly prescribed. Although they may help the condition, these medications can also cause unwanted effects such as irregular heartbeat, dizziness, and difficulty sleeping. Many children are not able to tolerate the side effects of these drugs or do not respond to the medications. Atomoxetine (Strattera™) is a nonstimulant medication used to treat ADHD. Strattera™ has its own list of side effects, however, that may include loss of appetite, irritability, and difficultly breathing or swallowing.
There is some evidence that ADHD may be related to the metabolism of the chemical messenger (neurotransmitter) dopamine in the brain. Iron is needed to help the body manufacture dopamine. Therefore, it is possible that levels of iron in the brain may influence ADHD symptoms.
Ferritin is a storage protein for iron in the body and measuring the ferritin level in the blood is a sensitive test for iron deficiency. When ferritin levels are low, brain development may be compromised, causing mental retardation and behavioral disorders in children. Ferritin levels rise in response to supplementation with iron. The new study compared blood levels of ferritin and other indices of iron status and the results of the Conners’ Parent Rating Scale for ADHD symptoms in 53 children with ADHD and 27 children with a mild reading disability (control group).
Ferritin levels were significantly lower in the children with ADHD than in those in the control group, indicating that the children with ADHD had lower iron status. Of the 53 children with ADHD, 84% had abnormally low ferritin levels and 32% had extremely low levels. Other indices of iron status were comparable between the two groups. Blood ferritin levels were significantly correlated with the severity of ADHD symptoms; the lower the ferritin level, the more severe were the symptoms. In particular, lower ferritin levels were associated with more distractibility, inattention, and learning disorders.
Iron supplementation has previously been shown to decrease the symptom severity and cognitive problems in children with ADHD who had inadequate amounts of iron in their diets. The results of this study suggest that a large percentage of children with ADHD may actually be iron-deficient and that supplementing with iron may be beneficial in the treatment of the condition.
Taking iron is not appropriate for all people, and can even be dangerous for people who have inherited a condition that causes them to accumulate iron (hemochromatosis). A knowledgeable healthcare professional should be consulted prior to initiating iron treatment.
Kimberly Beauchamp, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Rhode Island and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. She is a co-founder and practicing physician at South County Naturopaths, Inc., in Wakefield, RI. Dr. Beauchamp teaches holistic medicine classes and provides consultations focusing on detoxification and whole-foods nutrition.
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