While pregnancy and the life it creates is a wonderful thing, it can also be a significant nutritional drain on the mother. One nutrient that pregnancy can leave a woman short on is iron, and I was interested to read a report recently regarding the impact of this mineral has on the bonding of new mums with their babies. Scientists have discovered that women found to be deficient in iron relate less well and are less sensitive to their babes. Also, the children of iron-deficient mothers were less responsive to their mothers too. This research suggests that iron is a key nutrient for the welding of mother-and-infant relations.
One way in which iron deficiency may affect mood and behaviour is through its ability to induce anaemia. Iron is critical for the manufacture of haemoglobin – the substance within the red blood cells which ferries oxygen around the system. Iron deficiency can therefore lead to low levels of haemoglobin (anaemia) which is a downer for mood and energy levels, and does nothing to help the interaction of a mother with her child.
Although iron deficiency is the most common cause of anaemia, its not the only cause. This means that if a blood test reveals anaemia, specific testing for iron levels is usually warranted. It is generally accepted that this is best done by measuring blood levels of a substance known as ‘ferritin’. Ferritin levels are not normally measured unless there is evidence of anaemia. However, iron deficiency can occur in the absence of anaemia, and even in isolation can cause quite debilitating symptoms. For example, iron participates in the reactions that generate energy production in the body, so a lack of this nutrient commonly manifests as physical and mental fatigue. Iron also has a role in the normal functioning of the brain chemical dopamine which plays an important role in physical and mental functioning.
Because of iron’s critical role in physical and mental health, my belief is that it makes sense to measure ferritin levels in women around the time of pregnancy, even those who are not anaemic. ‘Normal’ ferritin levels for women are typically between 5 – 150 ng/ml (nanograms per ml of blood). The normal range of ferritin levels is wide, encompassing about 90 per cent of women. It’s important to bear in mind, therefore, that a ferritin level at the low end of the normal range may be far from ideal. My experience is that ferritin levels need to be above about 50 ng/ml for optimal functioning.
Good sources of iron for women with ferritin levels below this range include nuts, seeds, meat, fish and seafood such as mussels and clams. However, iron levels can take some time to pick up in the body, which is why I generally recommend additional help in the form of supplementation. I generally find that liquid iron supplements such as Floradix (available in health food stores) are better tolerated and more effective than the most commonly prescribed form of iron (iron sulphate). Recent research on bonding suggests that iron may well end up gaining a reputation as a bit of a mother and babe magnet.