Your Iron Intake Can Affect Your Child's Brain

A newly-published study found that there's a direct correlation between the amount of iron a mother takes during pregnancy and her unborn baby's brain development.

Your Iron Intake Can Affect Your Child's Brain Endla/Shutterstock

Are you getting enough of the essential vitamins in your diet? A startling number of healthy woman aren't, especially when it comes to iron. According to a new study published in the journal Pediatric Research, 35 to 58 percent of women have a deficiency of the key nutrient. This is a startling enough number, but researchers also found that not getting enough iron during pregnancy can have subtle effects on a child's brain development in the womb.

Investigators Bradley S. Peterson, M.D., director of the Institute for the Developing Mind at The Saban Research Institute of Children's Hospital Los Angeles, and Catherine Monk, Ph.D., of Columbia University Medical Center, examined brain tissue from 40 newborn infants 20 days after birth, using an MRI technique known as diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), and compared it to maternal iron intake during pregnancy to measure differences in the babies' gray matter.

The researchers found that the higher the amount of iron the mother ingested, the more mature the gray brain matter. The study didn't examine how the amount of gray brain matter directly affected the developmental and intellectual abilities of the newborns, but it did raise a question: How much iron should a mother be taking before and during pregnancy to maximize the health of both her and her child?

How much iron do you really need?

"As with anything, the best time to optimize iron intake is preconception," OB-GYN James Betoni, M.D., tells Fit Pregnancy, adding that pregnancy definitely increases the body's demand. The daily recommended intake for women ages 19-50, according to the National Institutes of Health, is 18 mg a day, but the recommended daily dietary allowance of iron during pregnancy is 27 mg, which is present in most prenatal vitamins, says Dr. Betoni.

"Iron requirements are reduced in the first trimester because of the absence of menstruation; they rise steadily thereafter," he says. The same goes for the amount of iron that is absorbed: a reduction in iron absorption in the first trimester is followed by a progressive rise in absorption throughout the remainder of pregnancy. "The amounts that can be absorbed from even an optimal diet, however, are less than the iron requirements in later pregnancy and a woman must enter pregnancy with iron stores of about 300 mg if she is to meet her requirements fully," he says.

That's not possible for most women because the typical American diet doesn't include enough iron. So, it's important to supplement with a good prenatal vitamin (like one recommended by your doctor) and eat as many iron-rich foods as possible, including lean meats like turkey and beef, spinach and beans. And grab a glass of OJ when it's time to take that prenatal supplement.

"Iron is best absorbed with vitamin c so taking it with a glass of orange juice, for example, will maximize absorption," Dr. Betoni says.