Most pediatricians advise breastfeeding moms to supplement their baby’s iron intake with drops. And when its time for baby to start on solids, the current recommendation is to chose iron-fortified cereals after 6 months of age and to continue that supplementation until around age 2.
But, if you’ve read part one, you know that there is enough evidence that this might be a really bad idea to make me change the way I practice. It turns out that we have research to show that a seemingly modest excess of iron can be bad for everyone, and especially for children.
Why would this be?
We need a steady supply of iron because only iron can complex [associate without binding] with heme proteins in our blood to absorb oxygen in our lungs and then release oxygen wherever its needed. Iron is also necessary for many metabolic functions because of its unique reactions with oxygen. But with too much iron, the oxygenation reactions can run out of control, releasing free radicals that effectively burn us from the inside out.
While doing the the research for Deep Nutrition, I learned that the underlying pathology behind so many illnesses is uncontrolled oxidation. Oxidation reactions can go out of control in any tissue. And depending on exactly what they damage (cell membranes, enzymes, DNA), a variety of diseases can result. With this understanding, I now appreciate how iron-induced oxidation in various parts of a growing baby’s body can lead to each of these five serious health problems.
- Lowered intelligence: In the nervous system, iron and oxygen react with certain fatty acids in nerve cell membranes. This can not only damage the affected nerve cell but also trigger inflammation and repair mechanisms that can lead to headaches and cause blood clots and swelling that can extend to nearby tissues, disrupting brain function. If these reactions are going on every day that the baby gets that extra iron, untold millions of nerve cells may die, and those that remain may be forced to jerry-rig novel connections that may cause abnormal behavior.
- Bacterial infection: Bad bacteria love iron. Iron in the gut can promote the growth of pathogenic bacteria. Only 5% of the iron is absorbed from the gut when the source is fortified cereals, compared to 50% of the iron being absorbed from breastmilk. This leaves an abnormally high amount of unabsorbed iron in the gut to promote the growth of pathogens that cause intestinal and even blood infection, and disrupt immune function for some time after the infection is gone.
- Early Atherosclerosis: Iron and oxygen react with certain fatty acids in fat-carrying blood particles called lipoproteins (the L in HDL and LDL cholesterol). The reaction damages the particles so that they can’t be recognized by the body. The unfamiliar particles never bind to the docking sites on that allow lipoproteins to unload their nutrient cargo (nutrients like phospholipids, vitamins A, D, E, and K, and more). Instead of nourishing you, the damaged particles float endlessly in your bloodstream like plastic bags in the Pacific ocean. Eventually, they glom up together and precipitate out of circulation to form the beginnings of atherosclerosis called fatty streaks.
- Cancer: Iron and oxygen react with a wide variety of chemicals in the cell nucleus to generate dangerous free radicals. Free radicals are high energy particles that, like X-Rays, can damage DNA. DNA mutations place us at high risk of developing cells that behave selfishly, and will divide and grow in spite of signals that they need to stop. This is how DNA damage leads to cancer.
- Stunted growth: I’m not sure there’s a single mechanism that explains how excess iron leads to body-wide skeletal growth delays, including the skull and long bones. It may be that all this disruption burns up valuable nutrients that may no longer be able to support normal skeletal growth.
Because of the growing evidence that iron-fortification in babies is not without risks, increasing numbers of pediatricians are choosing to forgo the American Academy of Pediatricians recommendation to supplement babies with additional iron beginning at age four months and, rather, test iron levels in babies before deciding whether or not any iron supplementation is indeed appropriate.
To me, these research findings confirm my feelings about commercial baby formulas and cereals. The fact is, these processed products cannot begin to compete with mom’s breast milk to give baby a running start for a life of extraordinary health. And when baby’s old enough for solid foods, there are far better alternatives than a box of cereal.
If you’ve been feeding iron fortified cereals to your toddler, here’s a few steps you can take to benefit your toddler’s health starting today:
- Print this article and show it to your pediatrician.
- Download Nina Planck’s “real first food list” here.
- Read through the excellent free info at Nourishing Our Children.
- Consider joining the Holistic Mom’s Network.