Iron

Our rating
 Question mark: This treatment has not been properly researched. It is not possible to say whether they are useful or not.

What is it?

Iron is an essential trace element found in many foods. It is involved in many processes of the body – for example, red blood cells contain a protein which has iron in it.

How does it work?

Iron is involved in biological processes which transport oxygen around the body, as well as many other body functions. Iron deficiency can result in symptoms such as fatigue, irritability, and poor concentration. It is thought that an iron deficiency may contribute to depression in some people, so increasing iron intake may help to improve symptoms.

Is it effective?

Iron deficiency has been linked to an increased risk of developing depression (and other psychiatric disorders) in children. In adults, some studies have found that participants had improvement in mood after iron supplementation, whereas others have not found this effect.

There have been no scientific studies where people with clinical depression have been treated with iron.

Are there any disadvantages?

Iron supplements can cause side effects such as constipation and nausea. Dietary supplements, including iron, may have negative interactions with prescribed medications or other supplements. Iron can also be harmful if too much is taken. Iron supplements should always be taken under the supervision of a health care professional.   

Where do you get it?

Iron supplements are available from a pharmacist and in some supermarkets. If you think you may have an iron deficiency, it is important to discuss this with your GP and have a blood test done to check. Some foods are naturally rich in iron, including meat, lentils, fortified cereals and spinach. 

Recommendation

Iron supplements may be helpful for people with an iron deficiency, but there is no evidence to suggest it can treat depression.

Key references

  • Chen, M.-H., Su, T.-P., Chen, Y.-S., Hsu, J.-W., Huang, K.-L., Chang, W.-H., . . . Bai, Y.-M. (2013). Association between psychiatric disorders and iron deficiency anemia among children and adolescents: a nationwide population-based study. BMC Psychiatry, 13(1), 1-8.
  • Lomagno, A. K., Hu, F., Riddell, J. L., Booth, O. A., Szymlek-Gay, A. E., Nowson, A. C., & Byrne, K. L. (2014). Increasing Iron and Zinc in Pre-Menopausal Women and Its Effects on Mood and Cognition: A Systematic Review. Nutrients, 6(11).
  • Stewart, R., & Hirani, V. (2012). Relationship between depressive symptoms, anemia, and iron status in older residents from a national survey population. Psychosomatic medicine, 74(2), 208-213.
  • Yi, S., Nanri, A., Poudel-Tandukar, K., Nonaka, D., Matsushita, Y., Hori, A., & Mizoue, T. (2011). Association between serum ferritin concentrations and depressive symptoms in Japanese municipal employees. Psychiatry Research, 189(3), 368-372.

Last updated and reviewed: 1 December 2016