by Kaylee Helfrich
Doctoral Student in Nutrition, Smith Lab
UNC Nutrition Research Institute
November 27, 2017 – In the Marvel movie Iron Man, Tony Stark (Iron Man) is a genius inventor who creates a suit of armor, giving himself enhanced strength and the ability to fly. Although Tony Stark carries the name “Iron Man” for his suit of metal armor, his name is also an apt description of the abundance of iron that he has in his body, especially in his brain. The human body requires iron to function normally, and without enough iron, adults feel fatigued and have difficulty concentrating. Iron is even more essential during pregnancy. If Tony Stark’s mother had not consumed enough iron during pregnancy, it is unlikely that he would have become a brilliant inventor, because iron is necessary for the proper development of the infant’s brain.
A recent review article published by researchers at the NRI discusses how alcohol consumption during pregnancy can affect iron usage (Helfrich et al., in press). Alcohol consumption during pregnancy causes fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). Children with FASD suffer from many issues, such as abnormal facial features, small size, low intelligence, and behavioral problems, all of which last throughout life. However, some mothers who consume a lot of alcohol do not have children with FASD, while other mothers who drink very little alcohol do have children with FASD. What might cause this discrepancy?
One possibility is nutrition. A healthy maternal diet may protect an infant from the effects of alcohol, while a poor maternal diet worsens the effects of alcohol. Recent research suggests that sufficient iron consumption during pregnancy is protective against some alcohol-induced problems. Studies in animals find that when mothers have sufficient levels of iron and drink alcohol, their babies have better cognitive outcomes than babies whose mothers are iron deficient and drink alcohol. However, babies from mothers who drank alcohol had worse cognitive outcomes than babies from mothers who avoided alcohol. In trying to understand why iron deficiency worsens the impact of alcohol, researchers found that alcohol diverts iron from the brain and causes it to be stored in the liver. This means that there is less iron in the brain for essential cognitive functions. In short, maternal alcohol consumption causes babies to become iron deficient, even if the mother consumes sufficient levels of iron. However, when mothers do consume sufficient iron, alcohol has less of an impact on the babies than if the mother is iron deficient.
Why this matters
Although many programs encourage moms to stop drinking alcohol during pregnancy, some mothers still continue to drink. Research studying how iron and alcohol interact during pregnancy will inform interventions to protect children from the adverse effects of alcohol if the mother drinks. One possible intervention is to provide maternal iron supplementation. This could improve FASD outcomes in populations with high rates of both alcohol consumption and nutrient deficiencies. Although it is always better for women to avoid alcohol during pregnancy, interventions such as iron supplementation could reduce the severity of alcohol-induced issues.
Helfrich KK, Saini N, Kling PJ, and Smith SM. (in press). Maternal Iron Nutriture as a Critical Modulator of FASD Risk in Alcohol-Exposed Pregnancies. Biochem Cell Biol.