Updated: Apr 23
Is your child having problem falling to sleep at a reasonable hour? Do they find it hard to relax and wriggle restlessly in their bed for a long time before falling asleep? You struggle to understand why they are not tired as they do a lot of sport and are very active during the day. This surely is enough to make them fall asleep, but no!
You have tried magnesium (the most common mineral deficiency for sleep problems) and have banned screens in the afternoons and evening, but is hasn’t made a difference to their sleep problems. If this is the case then it could be that they are deficient in the very important mineral iron.
Studies have revealed a link between childhood hyperactivity and sleep disturbances with low serum ferritin levels. These studies have indicated that children with serum ferritin levels below 45ng/ml have more disturbed sleep then children with higher levels. Ferritin is a blood cell protein that contains iron. A ferritin test shows how much iron your body is storing so if ferritin is low it indicates iron stores are low and you have iron deficiency. Although this study was on children with ADHD iron deficiency is a potential issue for any child with sleep problems. For more details of the study see: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19205783
Children have relatively high iron needs as a result of rapid body growth so they are at risk of developing iron deficiency, particularly if they are very active and have a tendency for fussy eating. Also children with digestive issues (e.g. tummy pain, bloating, gas, diarrhoea, constipation) and food allergies may not be absorbing iron as well as they should due to inflammation in the digestive system. So improving their gut function is crucial to help bring their sleep patterns back in to a healthy balance.
Iron deficiency is often an under recognized cause of sleep disturbances. Common symptoms that could be linked to iron deficiency in children:
General weakness and fatigue
Shortness of breath
Abnormally pale skin, rims of eyes, nails and tongue
Irritability or anxiety
Brittle nails with longitudinal ridging
Unusual food craving, e.g. Ice, dirt, etc. A craving for ice is very common.
Blue shading in eyes
Dizziness or light-headedness
Rapid or irregular heartbeat or hearing heartbeat in ear or head.
Sensitive to cold with cold hands and feet
Restless legs and the inability to keep still
Iron is essential for the synthesis and use of the important brain neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, adrenalin and epinephrine. They are important for mood, emotion, focus and attention and sleep.
If you are concerned your child many be low in iron it is best to go to your GP and get a blood test done in the first instance. It is important to know what their ferritin level is.
What foods are a good source of Iron?
Heme iron sources from meat, fish and poultry have the highest absorption. Grass fed beef, lamb and liver are excellent sources. Plant sources of iron (non heme) have a lower absorption so should ideally be combined with animal sources for maximum absorption. Plant based sources include: spinach, lentil, beans, peas, apricots, prunes, raisins, molasses, tofu and spirulina. Foods rich in vitamin C such as potato, capsicum, broccoli, strawberries and citrus fruits help to increase the absorption of Iron.
For some children dietary Iron may not be enough and supplementation is needed. My favourite Iron supplement for children is good old Floradix. It is well absorbed, tastes good and has additional B vitamins, herbs, fruits and vegetables to help with the absorption of the iron. It also helps to boost energy levels so is important for children who do a lot of sport as excessive exercise levels can deplete iron levels.
Catherine Garney, Registered Clinical Nutritionist and Certified GAPS Practitioner.