Updated: January 5, 2021
The large-scale traumatic event of the COVID-19 Pandemic has amplified anxiety and depression globally.
A recent study found that depression is three times higher during COVID-19 than before the pandemic. Physical, emotional, and psychological burnout from the disruption of our normal lives otherwise known as COVID fatigue is playing a role.
Social isolation combined with a lack of activities that bring joy is extremely difficult to process emotionally. Uncertainty, hopelessness, frustration, anger, worry, and fear are just some of the emotions that may be present during these turbulent times.
If you or a loved one is experiencing depression we are here to help and ready to explore additional underlying causes of your depression. Low levels of iron is one factor that we rule out. In this article, we share insight into how iron deficiency is linked to emotional health.
I have noticed an increasing number of patients struggling with depression, anxiety, and other mood problems over my 30+ years of practice as a physician. Depression is on the rise in all age groups, with a recent survey of teenagers in the United States revealing that 36% of girls and 14% of boys experience depression at some point during their teenage years. Girls are 2 times more likely to become depressed than boys, particularly after beginning menstruation at puberty.
The results of this survey raised a red flag for me. When I treat patients with mood disorders, I search for any underlying medical or nutritional causes. One nutritional deficiency that often contributes to depression is iron deficiency. When I saw that girls are more likely to become depressed than boys and that there is a spike after beginning menstruation (a time when iron is lost in the blood), I couldn’t help but wonder if iron might play a role for some of these teenage girls.
Another group of patients that I have seen become iron-deficient and depressed are my patients who come to me taking acid-blocking medications. Acid blockers, like Prilosec and Nexium, reduce stomach acid to treat symptoms of reflux and heartburn. The problem is that stomach acid is required for the proper absorption of iron from food. Ongoing use of these medications can lead to iron deficiency and a cascade of symptoms to follow.
Let’s take a step back. What exactly does iron have to do with mood and depression?
Iron and Depression
Iron is a vital mineral that plays a role in every cell of the body. Iron is a component of the hemoglobin protein in red blood cells, which carries oxygen throughout the body.
Strict vegetarians are at risk of iron deficiency. Iron is obtained from food sources, such as meat, poultry, seafood, lentils, beans, spinach, and sesame seeds.
When there is a lack of iron in the body, red blood cells become small, and less oxygen circulates to body tissues—a condition called iron-deficient anemia. Common symptoms of iron-deficient anemia include lack of energy, dizziness or lightheadedness, and pale skin.
Some people are iron deficient without actually having anemia. A unique symptom of iron deficiency is a craving for ice. There is a medical term for craving ice: pagophagia. If you crave ice, you may want to have your iron levels checked.
Iron deficiency can contribute to depression because of its relationship with dopamine—one of the neurotransmitters in the brain that keeps us happy. Iron is required for the production of dopamine in the brain. Our bodies use tyrosine from protein-rich foods to produce dopamine, but this only happens in the presence of iron. A lack of dopamine can lead to depression, anxiety, and even movement disorders like restless leg syndrome. Think of it like this:
Symptoms of Dopamine Deficiency
- Anxiety / Depression
- Poor Concentration
- Restless Leg Syndrome
Testing for Iron Deficiency
Routine blood tests measure the number, size, and shape of red blood cells as well as the amount of hemoglobin in the blood. These measurements give insight into iron status, but they do not reliably detect iron deficiency in all patients. The most reliable way to test for body stores of iron is to test ferritin. Ferritin is the body’s storage form of iron and the most reliable test for iron deficiency.
A Case Example
I had a young woman come to see me with heart palpitations. Her palpitations had begun after taking a medication to treat restless leg syndrome. We know that restless leg syndrome can be associated with low iron levels. Sure enough, her ferritin level was low. It turns out that her iron level was low because she was taking an acid-blocking medication to treat her heartburn.
Here we have a woman experiencing a side effect of a medication, which she is taking to treat the side effect of another medication. How could we turn this around? We needed to get to the root cause of the original symptom: heartburn.
We discovered that her heartburn was a reaction she was having to gluten.
We did a trial of a gluten-free diet and started her on a protocol to heal her digestive system. The heartburn went away. We gave her a natural iron supplement, which corrected the iron deficiency. As her iron levels returned to normal, her dopamine levels rose, and her symptoms of anxiety and restless leg syndrome improved.
How to Get Care for Depression
Depression can affect friendships, performance, and even lead to suicide attempts. If the answer might be as simple as correcting iron deficiency, then why not explore that possibility? If you or somebody you know struggles with a mood disorder, our integrative team of doctors, nurses, and nutritionists is here to help. We will test your ferritin levels and screen for any other underlying medical causes.
Call our office today at 303-343-3121.
Tips for Coping with Depression
- Communicate with loved ones and express your feelings.
- Cultivate a meditation or deep breathing practice to aid in relaxation.
- Practice gratitude by thinking of three things you are grateful for every day.
- Aim to exercise and move your body daily to increase your endorphins.
- Sit outside on sunny days to boost your levels of Vitamin D.
- Maintain a consistent sleep schedule.
- Consume healthy foods and limit caffeine and alcohol intake.
If you or someone you know feels suicidal there is a National Suicide Prevention Lifeline that is available 24 hours a day. For free and confidential support, you can call 800-273-8255.
 Breslau J, Gilman SE, Stein BD, Ruder T, Gmelin T, Miller E. Sex differences in recent first-onset depression in an epidemiological sample of adolescents. Transl Psychiatry. 2017;7(5).
 Hashimoto R, Matsuda T, Chonan A. Iron-deficiency anemia caused by a proton pump inhibitor. Intern Med. 2014;53(20):2297-2299.
 Youdim MB, Ben-Shachar D, Ashkenazi R, Yehuda S. Brain iron and dopamine receptor function. Adv Biochem Psychopharmacol. 1983;37309-321.
 Unger EL, Bianco LE, Jones BC, Allen RP, Earley CJ. Low brain iron effects and reversibility on striatal dopamine dynamics. Exp Neurol. 2014;261462-468.
 Allen RP. Restless Leg Syndrome/Willis-Ekbom Disease Pathophysiology. Sleep Med Clin. 2015;10(3):207-14, xi.
 Johnson S, Lang A, Sturm M, O’Brien SH. Iron Deficiency without Anemia: A Common Yet Under-Recognized Diagnosis in Young Women with Heavy Menstrual Bleeding. J Pediatr Adolesc Gynecol. 2016;29(6):628-631.
Like what you learned? Click here to sign up for our eNewsletters by Dr. G to receive cutting-edge health tips straight to your inbox.
About The Care Group: We promote optimal wellness by providing an individualized, functional medicine approach to address root causes rather than simply treating symptoms. We help patients with a wide range of issues including autoimmune/ inflammatory disease, digestive disorders, hormone imbalances, and mood disorders. To learn more about our practice, click here.
About the Author: Dr. Gerard Guillory, MD is Board Certified in Internal Medicine and has published two books on Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). In 1985, he opened The Care Group, PC. Today, his clinic is a Primary Care facility that is a hybrid of functional and traditional medicine treating patients with digestive disorders, autoimmune disease, and other conditions. You can learn more about Dr. Guillory here.