You need iron for cognitive health, but iron supplements may create problems


Here’s a curious quirk of nature that doesn’t seem at all surprising once you take it in.

When a pregnancy goes to full term, a mother’s milk is ideal for her newborn. But in the weeks before full term, mom’s milk actually has higher protein levels than full term milk. And that extra protein is exactly what a preterm baby needs to build the body tissue that a full term baby has already developed.

No doubt about it – mothers’ milk is nature’s perfect diet for an infant. So you’ve really got to have some monumental gall to believe you can improve on it. But that’s what pediatricians, nutritionists, and formula makers have done over the years, insisting that this perfect food is deficient in some ways.

A new study reveals the consequences of such tinkering – and in the process, shows adults the need to be careful about their own supplements that contain iron, a mineral that’s one of the key players in cognitive health.

Messing with mother

At a meeting of Pediatric researchers earlier this month, researchers from the University of Michigan reported the results of their testing of nearly 500 10-year-old children to assess cognitive and visual-motor skills.

The UM team found that children who had been fed iron-fortified formula in their earliest years scored, on average, 11 points lower than children who had been breastfed. The iron supplement kids also scored 12 points lower in visual-motor skills, including spatial memory.

Now how could this be? Iron supports cognitive function, so iron supplementation would naturally do the same, right?

In previous e-Alerts, HSI Panelist Allan Spreen, M.D., has warned against the use of inorganic iron supplements. When I asked for his thoughts on this study, he wasn’t surprised by the results.

Dr. Spreen: “Pediatricians loved to argue that mothers’ breast milk was lacking because it was remarkably low in iron during the infant’s suckling days. Huh! Funny how that fits right in with the results of this study!

“Iron is highly reactive when it’s not insulated from the system by being encased within a heme ring (hemoglobin). Free radical formation from free iron is just too much of a threat. And apparently (as we’ve now seen) infants just don’t need iron until later when their appetites change and they no longer feel like breast feeding.

“Seems like the more ‘they’ study, the more they find out that messing with Mother Nature rarely offers any advantages.”

Keeping cognition sharp

In 2005 I told you about a study from Penn State in which researchers recruited more than 100 women aged 18 to 35. Blood samples were used to separate the women into three categories: 30 were iron sufficient, 53 were iron deficient, and 30 were iron deficient anemic. Each subject took a round of cognitive ability tests.

In the initial tests, women who were iron deficient (but not anemic) scored significantly worse than women who were iron sufficient. Women with anemia also scored worse, but took longer to complete the tests. In general, the worse the anemia, the longer they took.

In the four months following the first tests, the women were randomly selected to receive either a 60 mg iron supplement daily, or a placebo. At the end of this period, the subjects took another round of tests. On average, the women who took the supplements (regardless of their previous iron status) scored just as well on the tests, and just as quickly, as the women who were iron sufficient at the outset of the study.

Writing in the journal Cell, the authors of the study concluded, “iron status is related to information processing in adult women.”

But if researchers should follow up on those women in 2015, the results of a decade of iron supplementation might prove to have taken a very heavy toll. Better to keep it safe and get iron from dietary sources of heme iron: red meat, fish, pork, and poultry, with beef liver and chicken liver having the highest amounts of iron. An additional intake of vitamin C can also help the body absorb iron.

“Unexpected Result on Iron Levels in Infant Formulations Set to Spark Debate” Lindsey Partos, NutraIngredients-USA, 5/6/08,