Iron is an essential mineral required for growth and neurodevelopment in children. It is easy for a child's iron intake to reduce when their diet moves towards a more carbohydrate-based one, with protein only served at dinner times. As children grow their iron requirements differ, so it comes as no surprise that this mineral often ends up sub-optimal and, in some cases, deficient.
Iron is a lot like Goldilocks – we need enough to function well and too much can also be problematic. Our bodies cannot make iron, therefore we need it from our diet. This becomes difficult when children are fussy eaters or don't like the texture and taste of iron-rich foods like red meat.
In the clinic, I am seeing an increase in the presentation and diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). With an estimated quarter of a million children affected, ADHD is a multi-faceted condition and is fast becoming one of the most prevalent neurodevelopmental disorders in Australian children. Characterised by patterns of inattentive and/or hyperactive behaviour and often with impulsivity and emotional regulation issues, symptoms must be prevalent for at least 6 months for a formal diagnosis. Often it's identified when children begin school and are required to sit still and concentrate for lengthier periods.
One of the facts you may not know about iron is that it is a co-factor for an enzyme that converts one of our proteins called tyrosine into dopamine. Dopamine is an important neurotransmitter involved in our movement, memory, motivation, and reward system.
Getting any aha moments yet?
Is your child struggling to sit still, fidgeting or tapping a part of their body relentlessly, struggling to organise simple tasks, forgetting information easily or making careless mistakes? It could be because they're not eating enough protein to enable this conversion between iron to dopamine.
Even before any blood markers show frank anaemia, a child's iron status may be compromised causing difficulties with their ability to concentrate, focus and sit still. This is why one day your child may do well and the next fall to pieces. Ironically, as iron levels drop children can be more hyperactive and irritable, only showing signs of true fatigue and weakness when their stores are very depleted.
Iron is an easy blood marker to assess with markers measuring 4 components that tell you a lot about how the body is utilising iron and if it is actively out looking for more. The problem lies when only some of the markers are ordered and not paired with other blood indicators to accurately assess what is right for the individual. It is critically important to pair these with certain red blood cell and inflammation markers to get the full picture.
Some of the signs your child may be low in iron may present as the following:
A simple starting point is to assess your child's iron status and review their diet. I frequently see inadequate protein intake in children.
Many begin the day with cereal for breakfast, fruit and vegetables for morning tea, a sandwich of sorts for lunch, often without any protein, a muffin or biscuit after school and at long last some protein at dinner. Their bodies are operating on minimal amounts of protein throughout the day, which is difficult, let alone creating the ideal environment for their brains to work efficiently.
Ideally, children need protein in every meal to drip-feed them iron throughout the day. Simple yet small changes can help double your child's iron intake and begin to replete levels.
It's as simple as adding eggs to their breakfast, including meatballs or patties in their lunch and nuts and seeds in baked goods for afternoon tea.
Another sneaky way to get protein into children's diets is to mix plant proteins into mince dishes. Adding a can of well-rinsed lentils to spaghetti bolognese or a cottage pie can be an easy solution that is easy on the wallet and may even go undetected.
It takes time for iron stores to improve so it might take a few months of dietary changes to see a difference.
However, if things are not improving, you have blood tests confirming low iron stores or you need extra assistance, feel free to book a complimentary Discovery Call with me and I can discuss how I can help.
Michele is a naturopathic clinician and certified GAPS practitioner with a special interest in digestive and children's health.