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Child Development

ADHD and Iron Deficiency: Is there a Connection Between the Two?

November 29, 2022
Table of Contents

    Healthy iron stores are crucial for physical and mental well-being. The body uses iron to create hemoglobin, a protein that allows oxygen to flow throughout the body. Iron is vital for immune functioning, energy, mood, concentration, and growth and development. It’s clear, then, that a child with iron deficiency anemia must be treated appropriately and as quickly as possible. With effects of iron deficiency like trouble with concentration or focus in mind, parents might wonder, "is there a connection between iron deficiency and ADHD?" 

    Today, we'll answer that question and discuss the impact of iron levels on ADHD, signs of low iron levels to look out for, and modes of iron supplementation. Then, we'll discuss the connection between iron and dopamine, as well as how apps can help children with ADHD

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    Can Low Iron Impact ADHD?

    Iron is necessary for cognitive function and brain development. Kids with low iron levels face the potential for long-term effects, such as a permanently lower IQ, behavioral disturbances, and developmental delays.

    When it comes to ADHD specifically, there's quite a bit of research on children with ADHD and iron status. A range of studies show that ADHD in children is linked to low levels of ferritin and serum iron. A small study found that, when children with ADHD took an iron supplement, their ADHD symptoms improved. 

    This doesn't mean that vitamin and mineral supplements containing iron are a standalone treatment for children with ADHD, nor does it mean that low iron causes ADHD. After all, there are many risk factors for ADHD, such as genetics. However, treating iron deficiency is needed for iron-deficient children, and if your child has ADHD, iron supplementation might help their ADHD symptoms.

    What's the verdict, then? Though it's not a cause of ADHD, a lack of iron can lead to poor cognitive development, is linked to ADHD, and can worsen or contribute to ADHD symptoms. Some of the signs of iron deficiency are similar to ADHD symptoms, like trouble focusing. Understanding the signs of low iron can help you identify it. 

    Signs of Low Iron

    Most of the time, iron deficiency is detected when someone notices symptoms of iron deficiency and goes to the doctor. Here are some of the most well-known signs of low iron stores:

    • Fatigue.
    • Insomnia.
    • Shortness of breath.
    • Cold hands and feet.
    • Unusual cravings for ice and other non-food substances, like dirt.
    • Uncontrollable leg movements while sleeping.
    • Trouble focusing, concentrating, or thinking.
    • Mouth ulcers or an inflamed tongue.
    • Skin that is paler than usual.
    • Hair loss.
    • Lightheadedness.
    • Dizziness.
    • Weakness.
    • Headaches.
    • Irritability. 

    Iron-deficient children and adults alike may experience these symptoms. Kids may be prone to low appetite as a result of low iron levels. Not everyone with an iron deficiency experiences the same symptoms, so don't hesitate to ask for a blood test even if every symptom of iron deficiency isn't present in your child. It is best to treat iron deficiency sooner rather than later if at all possible - before symptoms heighten or low iron levels have a severe impact on your child's health.

    Should I Supplement Iron? 

    Iron supplementation is usually necessary for people with iron deficiency anemia and can even be lifesaving in the case of more severe iron deficiencies. Your child's pediatrician will likely prescribe iron supplements if iron stores are low. Medical professionals such as pediatricians are versed in treating iron deficiency. They will be able to prescribe an appropriate dose, which is important because, though iron supplements are generally safe, it is possible to take too much iron. Maintaining a diet high in iron is also advantageous in treating and preventing low iron stores. 

    Does Iron Help With ADHD?

    In the case that iron deficiency contributes to an increase in ADHD symptoms, iron supplements may help with ADHD. If you have any questions about whether or not it’s safe for your child to supplement iron, consult with their pediatrician. Though overdosing on iron is rare, it is possible. 

    Forms Of Iron Supplementation

    There are multiple ways to supplement iron. To supplement iron, a doctor may suggest: 

    • Over-the-counter or prescription iron tablets and capsules.
    • Liquid iron supplements.
    • Intravenous (IV) iron.

    Most people try supplements prior to IV iron. IV iron may be ideal for people who cannot tolerate oral iron supplements. For example, those who vomit when they take iron supplements orally. Talk with your child's pediatrician to determine the best form of iron supplementation for your child, and make sure to reach out for an alternative option if concerns such as GI distress impact your child's ability to take oral iron supplements. There are many risk factors for anemia, such as gastrointestinal disorders and other medical problems that might cause trouble with iron absorption, menstruation, and a lack of iron in one's diet, which may be the case for picky eaters.

    Sources Of Dietary Iron

    A balanced diet for ADHD children can make a major difference. Getting enough iron in one's diet can prevent iron deficiency in some cases, but not always. Eating iron-rich foods can also prevent relapse in iron deficiency anemia once the initial iron deficiency is treated. Iron is found in a variety of different foods. Sources of dietary iron include:

    • Fortified cereal. 
    • Red meat and organ meats. 
    • Quinoa.
    • Spinach, Swiss chard, and kale.
    • Dark chocolate.
    • Pumpkin seeds. 
    • Dried apricots. 
    • Potatoes.
    • Broccoli. 
    • Tofu.
    • Beans.
    • Tuna.

    Of course, this is by no means an extensive list, and there are many other foods that contain substantial iron. Often, iron-rich foods are child-friendly or can be made so. Look at your child's typical food intake and try to add more iron-rich foods to their diet. Iron-rich foods will not lead to an overdose of iron the way supplements can if taken in excess. It isn't uncommon for ADHD patients to face challenges with picky eating or poor appetite. If poor appetite or problems with picky eating are a concern for your child with ADHD, making sure that they get the nutrients they need may be something to pay extra attention to. 

    Recommended reading: My ADHD Child Needs To Gain Weight: How Can I Help?

    Note: Joon is an app designed for kids aged 6-12 with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and their parents. It aids motivation and helps children with ADHD complete tasks in real life, such as household chores, school assignments, and self-care routines. Many users even say that their parent-child relationship has improved as a result of using Joon. Click here to try Joon for free for 7 days. 

    Iron And Dopamine

    Dopamine is a neurotransmitter responsible for motivation, pleasure, and satisfaction. Iron is essential for the regulation of dopamine and neuron functioning. Iron deficiency leads to reduced dopamine levels and other abnormalities. Since adults and children with ADHD often already have lower dopamine levels, particularly if they're unmedicated, it makes sense that low iron levels would make ADHD symptoms worse. 

    In addition to iron treatment potentially helping children with ADHD and low iron levels, treatment for iron deficiency is linked to a lower risk of multiple mental disorders. Treating low iron stores also reduces the risk of sleep disorders. This may be relevant for families who have children with ADHD, as restless legs syndrome is connected to both iron deficiency and ADHD.

    Can Iron Deficiency Be Misdiagnosed As ADHD?

    In rare cases, it’s possible for iron deficiency to be misdiagnosed as ADHD. If symptoms such as trouble with concentration occur without a history of ADHD, iron deficiency might be a possible cause to look into. When a child receives an ADHD diagnosis, the clinician who provides an ADHD evaluation will typically rule out other causes first to avoid misdiagnosis. 


    Iron deficiency anemia can cause a wide range of health problems and should be treated appropriately with the help of a medical professional. Children with ADHD may benefit from iron supplementation, and all iron-deficient children should be treated for their low iron stores by a medical doctor. The first form of treatment prescribed for iron deficiency anemia will usually be iron supplements, but some people benefit most from IV iron for various reasons. IV iron may be recommended if iron causes vomiting or similar symptoms for your child.

     Preventing iron deficiency anemia through food intake is possible in some cases, and eating a diet rich in iron may help prevent a relapse of low iron levels. If you believe that your child may have low iron levels, make an appointment with their pediatrician and ask to check on their iron status. Children with ADHD often benefit from a combination of different interventions and forms of support, including a balanced diet, behavioral therapy, treating other medical concerns that have the potential to impact ADHD symptoms, like low iron stores, and using games for children with ADHD like Joon.

    How Joon Can Help Your Child with ADHD

    Joon is an app that makes routines and tasks fun for children with ADHD. Parents sign up first and customize a list of chores or tasks, also called "quests," for their child with ADHD. When the child finishes these tasks in real life, they get rewards that allow them to care for their virtual pet in the game. Examples of quests a parent might add to Joon for their child to complete include getting dressed, brushing their teeth, making the bed, eating breakfast, or completing homework assignments. You can select suggested tasks for your child or add your own. 

    Joon is backed by child psychologists, occupational therapists, and teachers. Even better, 90% of kids complete all of the tasks a parent sets with Joon. Joon has an overall rating of 4.7 out of 5 and has over 3.5k reviews in the App store. 

    Download Joon and start your free trial today.


    Sarah Schulze MSN, APRN, CPNP

    Sarah is a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner with a specialty certification in pediatric mental health. She works at a clinic in Champaign Illinois, providing care to children and adolescents with mental health disorders. She obtained her bachelor's in nursing from Indiana State University in 2011 and completed her master's in nursing from University of Illinois at Chicago in 2014. She is passionate about helping children create a solid foundation on which they can grow into healthy adults.


    Sarah Schulze MSN, APRN, CPNP

    Sarah is a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner with a specialty certification in pediatric mental health. She works at a clinic in Champaign Illinois, providing care to children and adolescents with mental health disorders. She obtained her bachelor's in nursing from Indiana State University in 2011 and completed her master's in nursing from University of Illinois at Chicago in 2014. She is passionate about helping children create a solid foundation on which they can grow into healthy adults.