I have a friend who flat out refuses to drink apple juice. Lisa swears that it tastes like rusty nails and I’ve never been able to convince her otherwise.
The reason why remained a mystery, until one day Lisa revealed that her mom used to give both her and her siblings iron drops in apple juice when they were kids.
Well, while my friend’s mom may have turned her off on apple juice for the rest of her life, it turns out, according to new research, that she may have also assured her of never having to suffer through the miseries of Alzheimer’s disease or other brain aging related disorders.
I don’t know about you, but I’d say that’s a pretty fair trade.
I’ll tell you more about that new research in just a moment, but first let me share a little background about what we already knew about the importance of iron and brain health.
Mission Cognition Starts with Iron
Iron forms the center of red blood cells. And, as you probably already know, a shortage of the mineral in the body leads to a condition called anemia, which means that you have too few iron-dependent red blood cells.
Since your body uses those same cells to transport oxygen around the body running low on them can have a major impact on your overall health.
Your brain is particularly vulnerable to a lack of oxygen-rich red blood cells circulating in your body. In fact, it’s estimated that your noggin may use up to twenty percent of the oxygen that’s available in your blood.
Not having enough of it can negatively affect your brain health, leading to cognition problems like forgetfulness or lack of concentration (especially in children) and, in the worst cases, dementia.
Which brings us back to that new research I mentioned earlier.
A team of scientists at the University of California uncovered a surprising connection between a lack of iron in the teen years and negative changes in the brain much later in life.
A Healthy Teen Brain Makes a Happy Senior Brain
As strange as it might sound to understand the brain health and iron connection you actually need to start with the liver.
You see, your liver produces a protein called transferrin that’s used by your body to transport iron. When your iron levels are running low your liver reacts by pumping out more of the protein to increase transport of the mineral.
The U of C team began measuring the levels of transferrin in a group of 615 healthy twins and siblings eight to 12 years ago. They wanted to find out if iron levels during adolescence had any impact on the brain later in life.
They checked the volunteer’s transferrin levels at ages 12, 14, and 16. Then recently, when the children had reached an average age of 23, they took MRI scans of the brains of the entire group.
Plus, they also took a specialized diffusion MRI scan, which maps the brain’s myelin sheath connections, strength, and integrity, of 574 of the volunteers.
What they discovered, to everyone’s surprise according to neurology professor Paul Thompson, was that good brain health in your adult years relies on having healthy iron levels way back in your teen years.
And here’s why…
Iron is Real Brain Food
It turns out that when you’re young, iron helps to build the physical wiring of the brain. The mineral is a vital building block in the creation of the fatty myelin sheath that coats the threadlike pathways in the brain that nerve impulses travel along.
But not enough iron in the diet in childhood forces your brain to dig into its reserves leaving you vulnerable later in life when your brain needs the stored mineral to protect against aging and Alzheimer’s.
So, the bottom line? Eating a balanced diet in the teen years when your brain is still developing is vitally important to your brain health in your Golden Years.
Now, of course, unless you have a time machine squirreled away in your attic that may not be advice either you or I can follow. But we can certainly make sure that the young people in our lives…and those that care about them…know about the importance of iron.
But, also keep in mind that just like with most things in life, the key with iron is balance. In fact, too much of the mineral later in life is associated with brain-related conditions such as Parkinson’s, Huntington, and Alzheimer’s diseases.
And, if like Lisa’s mom you (and your naturopath) choose to give your child iron supplement drops just be sure to choose the food you add them to very carefully because, like Lisa, she may never eat or drink it again after childhood.
Or, better yet, avoid the free radicals that come with inorganic iron supplements by serving calves liver for dinner, or by using desiccated liver tablets instead.
Dr. Allan Spreen
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