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Women's Depression Unlikely to Be Linked to Iron-Poor Blood

By Judy McBride
May 13, 1999

The question of whether depression in women of childbearing age is linked to low iron reserves may be laid to rest. Scientists with USDA's Agricultural Research Service found no relationship between marginal iron status and mood. That's different from severe iron deficiency, which could cause depression.

Nutritionist Janet R. Hunt and psychologist James G. Penland studied 384 women ages 20 to 45, who were not diagnosed as depressed, at ARS' Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center in North Dakota. They wanted to settle conflicting findings from earlier studies.

About one in five women of childbearing age has low iron stores compared to one in 60 men. Twice as many women as men are clinically depressed--a gender difference that begins in adolescence. Depression is more pronounced among married women age 25 to 45 with children.

Hunt and Penland used a standardized psychological profile and mood checklist to test the volunteers, unlike some earlier studies. They also analyzed the volunteers' blood samples by the most sensitive tests of iron stores.

They found no relationships between mood scores and three signs of iron status--serum ferritin, serum iron and hemoglobin. Serum ferritin is the first indicator of iron status to drop, while hemoglobin is the last and most resistant indicator to change.

Iron deficiency severe enough to cause depression and fatigue would show up in a simple hemoglobin or hematocrit test. So it's not necessary for women experiencing these symptoms to have their ferritin levels tested.

The study yielded some surprises. Women's iron stores were not associated with meat consumption or the use of iron supplements. But they were higher in women who used oral contraceptives and lower in women who regularly donate blood.

A story about the research appears in the May 1999 issue of Agricultural Research magazine and on the World Wide Web at:


Scientific contact: Janet R. Hunt, ARS Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center, Grand Forks, N.D., phone (701) 795-8328, fax (701) 795-8395,