Iron and Brain Development

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Food and Health, Nutritiion, Supplements and Health

Iron and the Teen Brain
Author: Dr. Steve Chaney

 

iron and brain development in teensFor those of you with teenagers – or who have had teenagers in the past – you may suspect that there’s nothing between their ears. But actually there is a lot going on between their ears, and some of the neural contacts laid down in the brain during the teen years influence the health of their brain during their adult life.  Let’s look at the association between iron and brain development.

And – no surprise here – what they eat can affect the health of their brain as well.

Which brings me to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences January 9, 2012 (doi: 10.1073/pnas.1105543109) that looks at the adequacy of dietary iron intake during the teenage years and their brain health as adults.

Basics of Iron Metabolism

Before I describe the study perhaps a little bit of what I call Biochemistry 101 is in order.

Free iron is toxic to living cells. For that reason, our body produces multiple proteins to bind and transport the iron. The protein that binds and transports iron through the bloodstream is called transferrin. Under normal conditions 2/3 of the transferrin in our bloodstream has iron bound to it and 1/3 does not. And that is the ideal ratio of bound and unbound transferrin for delivery of iron to brain cells and other cells in our body.

When our diet is iron deficient (or we have excessive blood loss) the percent iron saturation of transferring decreases. The body tries to compensate by producing more transferrin, but this doesn’t really help since the problem was inadequate iron supply, not inadequate transferrin supply. As a consequence elevated transferrin levels are generally indicative of an iron-deficient diet.

Iron and Brain Development in Teens

iron and brain developmentThe study was led by Dr. Paul Thompson of the UCLA Department of Neurology. He and his team performed brain scans on 631 healthy young adults with an average age of 23. The brain scans were of a type that measured strength and integrity of the connections between the nerves in the brain – in other words, the brain’s wiring. They then went back and looked at the amount of iron available to each subject’s brain during adolescence by looking at their blood transferrin levels from routine physical exams performed at ages 12, 14 and 16 (blood transferrin levels are often measured as part of routine physical exams).

The results were pretty clear cut. Elevated transferrin levels during the teenage years were associated with reduced brain-fiber integrity in regions of the brain that are known to be vulnerable to neurodegeneration. These individuals did not show any cognitive impairments as young adults, but the concern is that they might be more likely to develop cognitive impairments as they age.

Dr. Thompson summarized his team’s findings by saying that “Poor iron levels in childhood erode your brain reserves which you need later in life to protect against aging and Alzheimer’s. This is remarkable, as we were not studying iron deficient people, just around 600 normal healthy people. It underscores the need for a balanced diet in the teenage years, when your brain command center is still actively maturing.”

Questions Every Parent Should Ask

If you have teenagers you might want to ask yourself questions like:

  • What is your teenager’s diet like?
  • Is it balanced?
  • Are you sure that it meets their nutritional needs?
  • Should you consider supplementation to make sure that they are getting all of the nutrients that they need?

 

The Bottom Line

  • A recent study suggested that inadequate iron intake in the teenage years may affect how our brains are wired in our adult years. The authors of the study interpreted the study as suggesting that an inadequate diet during the teen years could predispose us to cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s as adults.
  • This study only looked at structural differences in the brain circuitry. We can’t conclude from this study alone that inadequate iron intake as a teenager will doom somebody to cognitive impairment and increased Alzheimer’s risk as they age. But we can conclude that adequate iron intake during adolescence is required for normal brain development.
  • And it’s probably not just iron. This study focused on iron status because transferrin levels are routinely measured during physical exams so it was easy to go back and determine what each subject’s iron status was during their teenage years. Many other important nutrients are required for normal brain development, but we don’t have an easy way of going back and determining what someone’s nutritional status was for those nutrients in their teen years. What was shown to be true for iron in this study is likely to be true for other nutrients as well.
  • These were normal teens eating a normal American diet. They weren’t from a third world country and there was nothing weird about what they were eating. But, clearly some of the subjects in the study weren’t getting the iron that they needed from diet alone.
  • The teen years are a time of rapid growth and maturation. It’s not just the brain that needs the proper balance of nutrients during the teen years. All of their tissues require proper nutrition.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (1)

  • Chelia McFowler

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    Very informative, I will pass this on to my children.

    Reply

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Latest Article

Best Diet For Heart Disease Prevention

Posted July 9, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Are The American Heart Association’s Recommendations Correct?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

What is the best diet for heart disease prevention? 

diet for heart disease preventionHeart disease is a killer. It continues to be the leading cause of death – both worldwide and in industrialized countries like the United States and the European Union. When we look at heart disease trends, it is a good news – bad news situation.

  • The good news is that heart disease deaths are continuing to decline in adults over 70.
  • The decline among senior citizens is attributed to improved treatment of heart disease and more seniors following heart-healthy diets.
  • The bad news is that heart disease deaths are starting to increase in younger adults, something I reported in an earlier issue, Heart Attacks Increasing in Young Women of “Health Tips From the Professor.”
  • The reason for the rise in heart disease deaths in young people is less clear. However, the obesity epidemic, junk and convenience foods, and the popularity of fad diets all likely play a role.

Everyone has a magic diet for reducing heart disease risk. The American Heart Association tells us to avoid fats, especially saturated fats. Vegans tell us to avoid animal protein. Paleo and keto enthusiasts tell us carbs are the problem. Who is correct?

Of course, we don’t eat fats, carbohydrates, or proteins. We eat foods. That is why a recent study (T Meier et al, European Journal of Epidemiology, 34: 37-45, 2019) is so important. It reported which foods increase and which decrease the risk of premature heart disease deaths.

How Was The Study Done?

diet for heart disease prevention studyThe authors of the current study analyzed data from the “Global Burden of Diseases (GBD) Study”, a major world-wide effort designed to estimate the portions of deaths caused by various risk factors.

The current study focused on the impact of 12 dietary risk factors on heart disease deaths between 1990 and 2016 for 51 countries in four regions (Western Europe, Central Europe, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia).

The dietary risk factors were:

  • Diets low in fiber, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, polyunsaturated fatty acids, omega-3 fatty acids, and whole grains.
  • Diets high in sodium, processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, and trans fatty acids.

Saturated fat and meat were not explicitly included in the GBS Study data. However, diets low in polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fats are likely high in saturated fats. Similarly, diets low in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes are likely higher in meats. The study also did not include dairy, and some recent studies suggest that some dairy foods may decrease heart disease risk.

For simplicity I will only consider the findings from Western Europe because their diet and heart disease death trends are similar to those in the United States.

 

Best Diet for Heart Disease Prevention?

plant-based diet bestThe study found that in 2016 (the last year for which data were available):

  • Dietary risk factors were responsible for 49.2% of heart disease deaths.
  • 6% of all diet-related heart disease deaths occurred in adults younger than 70, and that percentage has been increasing in recent years.

When they looked at the contribution of individual foods to diet related heart disease deaths, the percentages were:

  • Diets low in whole grains = 20.4%
  • Diets low in nuts and seeds = 16.2%
  • Diets low in fruits = 12.5%
  • Diets high in sodium = 12.0%
  • Diets low in omega-3s = 10.8%
  • strong heartDiets low in vegetables = 9.0%
  • Diets low in legumes = 7.0%
  • Diets low in fiber = 5.7%
  • Diets low in polyunsaturated fats = 3.7%
  • Diets high in processed meats = 1.6%
  • Diets high in trans fatty acids = 0.8%
  • Diets high in sugar-sweetened beverages = 0.1%

So, what is the best diet for heart disease prevention?

In short, this study concluded:

  • A primarily plant-based diet is the best protection against premature death due to heart disease.
  • All plant-based food groups (whole grains, nuts and seeds, fruits, vegetables, and legumes) play an important role in reducing heart disease deaths.
  • Meat was not included in the analysis, but it is likely that most people’s diets in this region of the world contained some meat. The most likely take-away is that meat does not affect heart disease risk in the context of a primarily plant-based diet.
  • Dairy was not included in the analysis either, but some studies suggest dairy, particularly fermented dairy foods, reduce heart disease risk.
  • Finally, the study concluded: “Compared to other…modifiable risk factors (physical inactivity, drug and alcohol abuse, tobacco smoking, obesity, etc.), an altered diet is the most effective means of preventing premature deaths from cardiovascular disease in Western Europe.”

While every study has its weaknesses, this study is consistent with multiple previous studies showing that primarily plant-based diets are best for reducing heart disease risk. You will find a more complete discussion of these studies in my book “Slaying The Food Myths.”

 

Are the American Heart Association’s Recommendations Correct?

With this study’s results in mind we can now ask whether the recommendations of the American Heart Association and other popular diets are correct. Are they likely to reduce heart disease deaths?

  • The American Heart Association Recommends a dietary pattern that emphasizes a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes, skinless poultry and fish, and low-fat dairy products. This study supports those recommendations.
  • This study also supports the heart-health benefits of the Mediterranean and DASH diets.
  • Meat and dairy were not explicitly considered in this study. Thus, the results of this study are also consistent with vegan and semi-vegetarian diets.
  • However, low carb diets like Paleo and keto eliminate some of the key food groups (whole grains, fruits, and legumes) that appear to be essential for reducing heart disease risk. 40% of the heart-health benefits in this study came from those 3 food groups. Thus, this study does not support claims that those two diets are heart-healthy long term.

 

The Bottom Line

 

Everyone has a magic diet for reducing heart disease risk. The American Heart Association tells us to avoid fats, especially saturated fats. Vegans tell us to avoid animal protein. Paleo and keto enthusiasts tell us carbs are the problem. Who is correct?

A recent study provides some important clues. It looked at dietary patterns associated with reduced risk of premature death from heart disease in Western Europe. The study concluded:

  • A primarily plant-based diet is the best protection against premature death due to heart disease.
  • All plant-based food groups (whole grains, nuts and seeds, fruits, vegetables, and legumes) play an important role in reducing heart disease deaths.
  • Meat did not appear to affect heart disease risk in the context of a primarily plant-based diet.
  • Dairy was not included in the analysis, but some studies suggest dairy, particularly fermented dairy foods, reduce heart disease risk.
  • Finally, the study concluded: “Compared to other…modifiable risk factors (physical inactivity, drug and alcohol abuse, tobacco smoking, obesity, etc.), an altered diet is the most effective means of preventing premature deaths from cardiovascular disease.”

While every study has its weaknesses, this study is consistent with multiple previous studies showing that primarily plant-based diets are best for reducing heart disease risk. You will find a more complete discussion of these studies in my book “Slaying The Food Myths.”

With this study’s results in mind we can now ask whether the recommendations of the American Heart Association and other popular diets are correct. Are they likely to reduce heart disease deaths?

  • The American Heart Association Recommends a dietary pattern that emphasizes a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes, skinless poultry and fish, and low-fat dairy products. This study supports those recommendations.
  • This study also supports the heart-health benefits of the Mediterranean and DASH diets.
  • Meat and dairy were not explicitly considered in this study. Thus, the results of this study are also consistent with vegan and semi-vegetarian diets.
  • However, low carb diets like Paleo and keto eliminate some of the key food groups (whole grains, fruits, and legumes) that appear to be essential for reducing heart disease risk. 40% of the heart-health benefits in this study came from those 3 food groups. Thus, this study does not support claims that those two diets are heart-healthy long term.

For more details read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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