ADHD & Iron: Can Nutritional Supplements Improve Symptoms?

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

 Using nutrition and iron supplments to improve your child's ADHD symptoms

If you suspect your child has low levels of iron, talk with your doctor about doing a ferritin test.


Low-Iron Indicators

  • increased irritability and inattentiveness
  • depression
  • poor memory
  • doesn’t eat red meat, poultry, and fish (major sources of iron)
  • finicky appetite
  • symptoms of Restless Legs Syndrome—creeping, crawling, tingling, pulling sensations in the leg, which increase when sitting or lying down and during the evening and night

If your child exhibits two or more of the above, ask your doctor about testing his serum ferritin levels.

Recipe: Iron-Rich Chili

This tasty dish is easy to prepare, inexpensive, and nutritious. The meat and tomatoes are excellent sources of iron. The kidney beans and canola oil are good sources of ADD-friendly omega-3 fatty acids.

1 pound lean ground meat
1 19-ounce can kidney beans, drained
1 15-ounce can tomato purée
1 tablespoon instant minced onion
2 tablespoons chili powder
2 tablespoons canola oil

Lightly brown meat in a nonstick pan; drain off the fat. Stir in remaining ingredients; bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer 10 minutes.


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.

More-Iron Strategies

Diet, not supplements, is the safest way to increase your child’s iron levels.

So-called heme iron, contained in animal products, like meats, poultry, and fish, is absorbed much more efficiently than non-heme iron, found in fortified cereals, whole grains, vegetables, legumes, and some fruits. You can increase iron absorption by serving these foods with those high in vitamin C—orange or grapefruit juice.

Iron-rich foods include:

  • Cheerios (1 cup), 8 mg. iron
  • Wheaties (1 cup), 4.5 mg.
  • beef pot roast (3 oz.), 2 mg.
  • turkey (dark meat; 3 oz.), 2 mg.
  • tuna (3 oz.), 1.9 mg.
  • peas (1/2 cup), 1.8 mg.
  • hamburger (lean, 3 oz.), 1.8 mg.
  • egg (1 medium)
  • 1.1 mg.; chicken (1 drumstick), 1 mg.
  • banana (1 medium), 0.9 mg.
  • baked potato (1 medium), 0.7 mg.
  • peanut butter (2 tbsp.), 0.6 mg.
  • whole-wheat bread (1 slice), 0.5 mg.

Limit the servings of dairy products when serving iron-rich food. Calcium interferes with the mineral’s absorption. Two to three servings of dairy a day for kids ages four to eight, and four servings for children nine to 18, can supply enough calcium without compromising iron absorption.

While double-blind studies using larger populations need to be done to confirm iron’s effect on ADHD symptoms, encouraging your child to eat more iron-rich foods, in the meantime, can only benefit his mental and physical health.

This article comes from the Fall issue of ADDitude.

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