Sue Scheff: ADHD & Iron: Can Nutritional Supplements Improve Symptoms?

How to improve your child’s ADHD symptoms by increasing the iron levels in his diet.

by Laura Stevens

You make adjustments to your child’s diet every time a new study touts the health benefits of this food or that nutrient. First, you included more protein with breakfast, then you introduced omega-3 fatty acids.

Now, just as you’re savoring your successes, the latest research suggests that low levels of iron can worsen attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms in children with the condition.

You know how important iron is to the body, carrying oxygen to the muscles and organs. But it also plays an important role in the brain, affecting production of the key neurotransmitter, dopamine.

What does this mean to your child? Read on. We’ll help you figure out if he’s getting enough of this vital mineral.

Low Iron and ADHD

When you think of a child who is iron deficient, you envision one who is pale and tired — not a hyperactive child, bouncing off walls. Well, think again. A 2004 study, published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, found that 84 percent of children with ADHD had significantly lower levels of iron, compared with 18 percent of kids without ADHD. The lower the levels of ferritin — a protein found inside cells that store iron — the more severe the symptoms.

A small study, published this year in Pediatric Neurology, showed that symptoms improved when iron-deficient children with ADHD took an iron supplement.

Low iron may also be a factor in Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS), a condition often found in ADHD children that causes an uncomfortable tingling or crawling feeling in the legs, affecting the ability to get to sleep. In 2003, the journal Sleep reported that giving iron supplements to children with both RLS and low iron stores improved symptoms.

If you suspect your child has low levels of iron, talk with your doctor about doing a ferritin test (see “Low-Iron Indicators,” left). Never give your child iron supplements without a blood test and your doctor’s approval. Too much iron can block the absorption of zinc, copper, and manganese. Keep iron supplements out of the reach of small children.

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