July 28


Productivity Killer: How Iron Deficiency Affects Performance

When iron is deficient, you don’t necessarily have to eat nails, and when you have an excess, you can get unpleasant side effects. For example, you lack energy for simplest activities, like cooking or playing at IviBet. Let’s find out when this element is necessary, how it affects our daily and mental activity and what other interesting properties it has.

Iron as a Trace Element

Let’s understand why a person needs iron.


Iron is a chemical element that is naturally found in many foods and is available as a dietary supplement.


It can exist in oxidation degrees ranging from -2 to +6. In biological systems, iron is represented in divalent (+2), trivalent (+3) or fertile (+4) states. This allows it to transfer electrons and participate in various biochemical processes.

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The hardware works like:

  • A component of hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying protein in red blood cells.
  • Part of myoglobin, a protein that ensures normal muscle function and metabolism, and normal physical development.


And it ensures adequate myelination of nerve tissue, which is important for neurological status, and indirectly affects the synthesis of some hormones.

Iron Levels, Brain and Productivity

Reduced iron levels in the body affect synaptic transmission in the brain, brain metabolism, neurotransmitter production and function, mainly in the dopamine-opiate systems, as well as cognitive function (learning and memory) and a number of physiological variables such as motor activity and thermoregulation.

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Many interesting studies have been conducted in the last decades investigating the effects of iron on the brain, e.g.:

  • The effect of oral administration of divalent iron. It has been shown to significantly improve cognitive function and motor activity in patients with minimal hepatic encephalopathy.
  • University students in Rwanda with low blood ferritin levels were fed iron-enriched beans. They watched how changing iron levels affected the participants’ behavior and brain function. EEG measurements showed that eating these beans for 18 weeks improved cognitive function compared to a control group who ate regular beans. However, the researchers note that the sample is specific – by gender and in a fairly mentally active group.
  • Otero et al. also proved that iron preparations compensate for P300 deficiency in children with delayed psychomotor development and iron deficiency, respectively positively affect working memory. P300 is an electrophysiologic potential that occurs in the human brain in response to stimuli related to decision making and object discrimination.
  • A meta-analysis of studies on the relationship between physical activity, micronutrient levels (vitamin B12, iron, and zinc) and cognitive ability in children 6 to 11 years old showed that iron had the best effect on learning outcomes in math.
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Iron deficiency adversely affects cognitive function; replenishing the deficiency corrects the impairment.


The rate of iron entering the brain increases when a person’s iron status is low and decreases when levels become higher.

The Pitfalls of Excess Iron

It’s not all that simple with this micronutrient. There are plenty of animal and human studies on this topic too:

  • High iron intake during early development in mice leads to persistent changes in dopamine metabolism and disrupts fiber myelination, and during critical phases of brain maturation can have serious consequences for brain development, some of which may be irreversible.
  • Negative effects of iron deposition in the brain, cognitive impairment in patients with chronic cerebral hypoperfusion.
  • In patients with chronic cerebral hypoperfusion, iron overload as well as deficiency can also damage the reproductive function of women and men.
  • Calcium and iron binding in ferroptosis-mediated neuronal death.
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It’s clear that iron is worth taking when needed; iron excess can have negative consequences when taken in the long term.


Iron metabolism depends primarily on the rate of utilization of aging red blood cells. A special system of mononuclear phagocytes (reticuloendothelial system, RES) is responsible for this. This system is ubiquitous, there are garbage-eating cells in the spleen, liver, bone marrow.


It’s a kind of garbage processing plant, where various foreign particles, bacteria and viruses, aged or dead cells end up, i.e. everything that can harm the body is processed. Like a typical factory, it uses the waste for recycling and synthesis – no good is wasted.

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This process has its own operator – the liver. It performs an important storage and regulatory function, and the peptide hepcidin controls the release of iron from enterocytes and macrophages (those “eaters”) into the bloodstream.

How the Body Loses Iron

Iron is low-soluble. Because of this, unlike its other metallic counterparts, it is poorly excreted (i.e. excreted). Consequently, its metabolism is more unstable and easily shifts to both deficiency and overabundance. While the levels of other trace elements can be regulated by excretion, iron levels are controlled by absorption using the hepcidin peptide. Ideally, the absorption level is equal to the losses, but in real life this is not always possible.

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Iron loss pathways:

  • Through the GI tract with feces, when old intestinal cells, red blood cells and bile leave the body with the feces, as these substances are poorly absorbed into the blood.
  • With urine and through the skin – approximately 0.1-0.3 mg/day.
  • Menstrual losses – 1.5-2.1 mg/day. Oral contraceptives decrease the loss, and intrauterine contraceptives increase it.


In men, total iron losses are 0.6-0.9 mg/day. In premenopausal women – slightly more than in men. In women in the reproductive age – up to 18 mg monthly.

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