[Iron deficiency: A diagnostic and therapeutic perspective in psychiatry]

Encephale. 2017 Feb;43(1):85-89. doi: 10.1016/j.encep.2016.08.002. Epub 2016 Sep 16.
[Article in French]


Background: Iron plays an essential role in balancing the various metabolism in the body. It is also involved in the synthesis of several neurotransmitters. Nutritional iron deficiency is one of the most widespread worldwide; it poses a great health challenge due to the consequences it entails.

Objectives: The aim of this research study is to explore the percentage of psychiatric patients who have a deficiency in iron. In addition, the study investigates the efficacy of iron administered by oral treatment on psychiatric symptomatology among iron deficient patients. The research study utilized the martial biological results, which involved the observation of the level of iron deficiency among the outpatients of a local psychiatrist and assessor from the period of January 2012 until December 2013.

Methods: Out of 412 patients, 295 were women and 117 men. The age of the participants ranged from 16 to 89years, with an average age of 45years. The only exclusion criterion was a patient's refusal or inability to take the prescribed iron assessment test. We considered a transferrin saturation coefficient (TSC)<30% and/or a serum ferritin level≤50ng/mL to be "indicative" of obvious iron deficiency, and a ferritin level between 51 and 100ng/mL to be "suggestive" of iron deficiency. A plasma ferritin assay was performed at least once on all of the participants prior to any proposed iron treatment. A calculation of the TSC in 138 patients was requested due to suspected iron deficiency despite a blood ferritin level of>100ng/ml. A single method was utilized in the various laboratories to analyse the blood samples to determine whether there was a deficiency in iron. Only those patients with blood ferritin levels ≤100ng/mL and/or a TSC of<30% (335 patients) were subsequently given exclusively an oral iron treatment prescribed on its own or as a supplement or simultaneously with psychotropic treatment. The daily administered dose of elemental iron varied between 50 and 200mg a day.

Results: About half of the women - 145 (35.19% of the subjects) - and 15 men (3.64% of the subjects) certainly had a deficiency in iron (blood ferritin level≤50ng/mL). Ninety women and 24 men (27.6% of the subjects) had blood ferritin levels between 51 and 100ng/mL indicating iron deficiency, and 28 women and 33 men (14.8% of the subjects) had a TSC of<30% despite a blood ferritin level of>100ng/mL. Overall, 335 patients (81.3% of the subjects) showed an iron deficiency based on the criteria we set. In the remaining 77 patients (18.7% of the subjects), all of them had blood ferritin levels>100ng/mL and some had TSC≤30%, while the remaining patients' TSC was unknown because it was not measured. The results indicated that there is an iron deficiency in 198 out of 240 patients suffering mostly from mood and behavioural disorders, in 101 out of 126 patients suffering mostly from anxiety disorders, in 18 out of 27 patients suffering mostly from sleep disorders, in 14 out of 15 patients suffering mostly from delusions of persecution, and in the 4 patients suffering mostly from burn out. There was evidence of regression/remission of psychiatric symptoms in 193 responsive patients whereas the remaining 142 patients were considered non-responsive. In the responsive patient category, 37 participants were treated with just iron, 52 received iron supplemented to the initial psychotropic treatment which was not fully effective, and 104 patients were treated with iron and prescribed psychotropic drugs simultaneously. The iron treatment seems to bring about a reduction - particularly through its mono-aminergic neurotransmitter synthesis-promoting action - in hyperemotivity, anxiety, irritability, aggressiveness, sadness, anhedonia, apathy, asthenia, sleep disorders, dysautonomia symptoms, eating disorders, restless-leg syndrome, cognitive performance and the likelihood of resorting to psychiatric admission. A daily elemental iron dose intake between 50 and 200mg/day by deficient patients appears to likely enhance the effects of the psychotropic drugs and even to act as an actual antidepressant. Many patients who received a prescription for iron and antidepressants showed few side effects related to antidepressants and a small number required psychiatric hospitalization. Patients considered unresponsive to iron therapy were those who left the study, were not assessed because the study's timeframe ended, still had an iron deficiency because they did not continuously take the medication, or suffered from somatic diseases which explains their resistance to treat the low iron level (nutritional imbalance, digestive or urinary or gynecological or iatrogenic diseases, sleep apnea).

Conclusion: Our clinical observation of two years in a local psychiatrist's clinic revealed that over 80% of patients had iron deficiency. Although the low iron level cannot explain all physical and psychiatric symptoms in patients, it is useful to note that more than half of the iron deficient patients responded favorably after an oral treatment of iron. This result leads to further investigation of the level of iron in psychiatric patients and to reconsider the iron range placed by the laboratories. In addition, it is crucial not to eliminate the possibility of iron deficiency in psychiatric patients. Further research studies are needed to set more specific and detailed criteria to determine the range of iron deficiency in order to support the findings of this study and optimize the care given to patients suffering from various disorders and psychiatric syndromes.

Keywords: Coefficient de saturation de la transferrine (CST); Fer; Ferritin; Ferritine; Iron; Neuromédiateurs; Neurotransmitter; Psychiatric symptoms; Symptômes psychiatriques; Transferrin saturation coefficient (TSC).

Publication types

  • Observational Study

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Anemia, Iron-Deficiency / diagnosis*
  • Anemia, Iron-Deficiency / epidemiology
  • Anemia, Iron-Deficiency / therapy*
  • Dietary Supplements
  • Female
  • France / epidemiology
  • Humans
  • Iron / therapeutic use
  • Iron Deficiencies*
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / diagnosis
  • Mental Disorders / diet therapy
  • Mental Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Psychiatry / methods
  • Psychiatry / trends*
  • Remission Induction
  • Young Adult


  • Iron