There are over 6 million children (11% of the child population) in the United States that have been diagnosed with ADHD, and the numbers of diagnoses are continuing to rise. While the causes of ADHD are not fully understood, it is believed that the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine may play a large role. Both neurotransmitters contribute to maintaining alertness, increasing focus, and sustaining thought, effort, and motivation (Hunt). The biosynthesis of norepinephrine requires dopamine, and the biosynthesis of dopamine requires iron. Coincidentally, a vast majority of ADHD-diagnosed children (84% of them) have an iron deficiency, compared to just 18% of children who are not diagnosed with ADHD. This means that children with ADHD are 4.5 times more likely to be iron deficient. These numbers clearly show that a correlation between ADHD and iron deficiency exist.
According to Andrea Messer of Penn State University, when children are deprived of iron at any point during the last trimester of pregnancy or first six months of life—a critical period of brain development—they suffer brain damage at least through early adulthood, and possibly beyond. In particular, their motor function can be impaired as well as their ability to focus.
While the prenatal and early-life effects of iron deficiency exist, a study performed by Dr. Eric Konofal and colleagues at the Child and Adolescent Psychopathology Department of the European Pediatric Hospital in Paris, concluded that iron supplementation was shown to be beneficial in children with both ADHD and iron deficiency.
Iron deficiency can be discovered by measuring the protein ferritin concentration because ferritin binds to iron and the amount of ferritin in the blood shows how much iron is stored in the body. Parents of children who have been diagnosed with ADHD should talk to their doctor about having the child’s ferritin levels checked to determine if iron deficiency may be a potential contributing factor to ADHD symptoms, such as “acting out” or throwing tantrums.
Parents should never give the child iron supplements without a blood test and doctor’s approval since too much iron can block the absorption of zinc, copper, and manganese, yet if the child’s doctor agrees it may be beneficial to administer iron supplements to the child, as we see through Dr. Konofal’s study, it is possible iron supplementation may relieve ADHD symptoms. Of course, diet is always the safest way to increase your child’s iron levels.
The top 10 iron-rich foods are:
- Red meat
- Egg yolks
- Dark, leafy greens (spinach, collards)
- Dried fruit (prunes, raisins)
- Iron-enriched cereals and grains (check the labels)
- Mollusks (oysters, clams, scallops)
- Turkey or chicken giblets
- Beans, lentils, chick peas and soybeans
Additionally, eating iron-rich foods along with foods that provide plenty of vitamin C allows the body can better absorb the iron, while too much calcium can actually interfere with iron absorption (Zelman).
Konofal, Dr. Eric, et al. “Effects of iron supplementation on attention defecit hyperactivity disorder in children.” Pediatr Neurol, 2008: 38:20-6. Print.
Hunt, Dr. Robert D. “Functional Roles of Norepinephrine and Dopamine in ADHD.” Medscape, 2006. Web. 10 July 2013.
Messer, Andrea. “Ritalin May Ease Early Iron Deficiency Damage.” Penn State News, 2 February 2011. Web. 10 July 2013.