Chemical symbol for iron

Can low iron cause anxiety?

Iron is vital for healthy functioning of the body. It is used in the production of red blood cells, which move oxygen around the body. Having a healthy level of iron is important as too much, or too little can be harmful.

What is it?

Iron is a metal. You find it on the periodic table under the symbol Fe, which comes from its Latin name of ferrum.

It is a very prevelant metal: more common than any other element on Earth, by weight. And we humans have been using it for a long time. Since, well, the Iron Age.

When we talk about iron in food, or in our bodies, we are talking about the same stuff.

Do we need it?

Yes. Most living creatures need iron, including us.

Iron lives in red blood cells (and a few other places) and helps get oxygen to our muscles.

Specifically, iron is needed for haemoglobin, a protein that lives inside our red blood cells. Haemoglobin moves oxygen around the body and takes some of the carbon dioxide away afterwards. It's red, which is why our blood appears red.

How do we get it?

The body cannot make iron, so we need to obtain it from food.

Once we have it, the body is pretty good at keeping it. Most of it will be recycled by the body, with a small amount escaping through our stomach, sweating and shedding of skin cells.

What happens if I don't have enough?

If you do not get enough, you will suffer from iron deficiency.

This in itself is not a problem but leads on to iron deficiency anaemia. When the body does not have enough iron, it is unable to produce enough red blood cells, or enough haemoglobin to put in the red blood cells.

When this happens you may experience:

  • Lack of energy and tiredness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Heart palpitations
  • Look paler than usual

Anaemia is diagnosed with a blood test.

In the grand scheme of things, deficiency is not that serious because most cases are mild. However, it is a bigger concern for children or pregnant women, or in severe cases.

What happens if I get too much?

The flip side of deficiency is iron overload.

This rarely happens in nature because the body can control how much it absorbs. However, if cannot entirely turn the process off, so if you start guzzling supplements, the body can find itself with too much.

It can also happen as a result of genetic conditions, such as haemochromatosis.

Overload can damage import organs such as the liver and heart. It can also cause joint pain and arthritis.

How does it affect mental health?

Iron deficiency makes it more difficult for the brain to move oxygen around the body, which can affect our mental, as well as our physical, health.

A study in Canada found that low levels of iron were correlated with mental health problems1.

"Individually, inadequate intakes of nutrients such as folate and iron independently predicted mental health, suggesting that there is a heightened need for some specific nutrients in relation to mental well-being."

Deficiency can leave you feeling tired and can lead on to depression2. It can also cause other mental health issues in children, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder3.

Low levels can also affect learning and memory4.

However, what we don't have is a study that looks at the effect of improving iron levels on mental health.

The existing research tends to look at people with low-quality diets overall and does not isolate iron as the specific cause. Nor do they give people iron supplements and measure whether their mental health improves.

Therefore, while we see a clear correlation between deficiency and poor mental health, more research is needed to look specifically at iron, and what we can do about it.

What are good sources?

The best way to regulate your levels is with a varied and balanced diet. This will allow the body to manage its levels naturally.

Good food sources include:

  • Meat
  • Beans
  • Nuts
  • Dried fruit
  • Wholegrains
  • Kale

Should I take supplements?

Generally, no.

Your doctor will advise you if you need to take supplements. However, for most people, you should be able to get the iron you need from eating a healthy diet. Supplements often contain large amounts of iron and taking too much is harmful.

However, there are certain risk groups who should consider taking supplements. Pregnant women or women who suffer from heavy periods are the main two.

If taking supplements, it should be limited to no more than 17mg per day5, unless you are prescribed a higher dose.

Conclusion

There is evidence that low iron is associated with poor mental health.

While more research is needed to look at the effects of deficiency specifically on mental health, and what we can do about it, it is clear that it is important to maintain healthy iron levels for our overall health.

However, most of us will get all the iron we need from eating a healthy and varied diet. As overload is also a risk, supplements should only be used when prescribed by a doctor unless you are in a risk group.

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Published 25 September 2017. Written by Chris Worfolk.

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References

  1. Karen M. Davison, Lovedeep Gondara and Bonnie J. Kaplan. Food Insecurity, Poor Diet Quality, and Suboptimal Intakes of Folate and Iron Are Independently Associated with Perceived Mental Health in Canadian Adults. Nutrients 2017, 9(3), 274; doi:10.3390/nu9030274. Link. ↩︎

  2. Rao TSS, Asha MR, Ramesh BN, Rao KSJ. Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Indian Journal of Psychiatry. 2008;50(2):77-82. doi:10.4103/0019-5545.42391. ↩︎

  3. Bourre JM. Effects of nutrients (in food) on the structure and function of the nervous system: update on dietary requirements for brain. Part 1: micronutrients. J Nutr Health Aging. 2006 Sep-Oct;10(5):377-85. ↩︎

  4. Youdim, M.; Yehuda, S. The neurochemical basis of cognitive deficits induced by brain iron deficiency: Involvement of dopamine-opiate system. Cell. Mol. Biol. 2000, 46, 491–500. ↩︎

  5. NHS Choices. Iron. 3 March 2017. Link ↩︎