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Children’s health: Poor concentration, impulsivity and hyperactivity. How nutrition can help.

Is your child struggling at school? Is being lively, impulsive or unfocused causing problems with their learning?  Nutrition can help.

The importance of diet cannot be overlooked when trying to understand children’s behaviour. There are five critical areas that need to be considered when helping children with concentration and behavioural issues.

  1. Blood sugar balance.

The body works hard to keep the glucose in our bloodstream within a really tight range. Meals and snacks rich in carbohydrate and lacking substantial protein make this a difficult job. The carbohydrate is turned to glucose and enters the blood stream and the body reacts by producing insulin to counteract the surge. This leads to a dip in blood sugar levels. This dip can result can result in any of the following symptoms:

  • Meltdowns/tantrums
  • Lack of concentration
  • Fatigue
  • Difficult behaviour

What to do.

The key to balancing blood sugar is simple:

Meals and snacks must be regular, I would recommend every three hours in the first instance. You need to pre-empt the dip so this timing will need to be finely tuned by yourself or your child’s practitioner.

Make sure that ALL meals and snacks contain a good quality protein source (meat, poultry, eggs, beans, lentils, etc.) and replace any refined carbohydrate (white bread, rice, etc.) with wholemeal versions.

Avoid foods that increase blood sugar variations and increase the likelihood of the symptoms listed above. These include sugary foods and drinks (squashes, juices etc.) and refined processed foods like white flour bread and pastries.

This regular, well formulated meal will keep blood sugar levels stable throughout the day. There may be an adjustment period where your child feels more tired than usual, just let them rest and help them through it before long energy levels should be more stable and meltdowns, concentration issues less frequent.

To help you implement blood sugar balancing techniques we have compiled a cheat sheet which you can download at the bottom of this page.

If after implementing these dietary changes you don’t see a substantial change in behaviour or concentration then you will need to consider that food reactions and deficiencies might be playing a large part in your child’s issues.

2. Problems with food additives

Some common food additives can impact the behaviour of sensitive children. Unfortunately, these additives are widely used in food and drinks. Two of the key players are aspartame and food colourings.

  • Aspartames effect on neuronal function can be stimulator, which can result in hyperactivity and lack of concentration.
  • Problematic food colourings include azo dyes. Our bodies cannot process these chemicals and because of this they might cause systemic damage in vulnerable children. Some children react to these colourings with hives and skin rashes and some react with behavioural disturbances.
  • Monosodium glutamate can also stimulate neuronal function causing hyperactivity and sometimes headaches in those children that cannot convert glutamate. It is present in some crisps and snack products as well as some Chinese food.

Some children have problems processing natural compounds in foods called phenol.  Working through this issue requires attention to the diet and environment and support for your child’s detoxification systems.

Common symptoms of phenol processing issues include:

Red ears and/or cheeks, hyperactivity after using calpol and rashes and/or hives.

What to do.

Check children’s drinks for aspartame – especially low sugar varieties. It is in most popular squashes for children and almost all fizzy drinks.

Particularly dangerous food colourings include E110-120 and come with names such as Allura Red and Sunset Yellow. These are azo dyes and should also be avoided. Our bodies cannot process these alien chemicals and so they are able to do systemic damage in vulnerable children.

Monosodium glutamate can also stimulate neuronal function causing hyperactivity and/or headaches in those children that cannot convert glutamate. It is present in some crisps and snack products as well as some Chinese food.

Check for phenol processing problems and consult with a nutrition practitioner to help your child to process these compounds better.

  1. Remove damaged fats and use essential fats.

It is critical to brain function at any age to have sufficient essential fatty acids. EPA and DHA deficiencies have been associated with learning disorders, concentration problems, hyperactivity as well as low mood.

Our modern diets are often lack these important fatty acids. Generally, children don’t eat enough regular amounts of oily fish to have sufficient quantities of the important DHA and EPA fats. However, they do tend to eat more fried and processed products – chips, crisps, etc. These products contain, or are cooked in, vegetables oils, that are damaged through processing. Damaged vegetable oils interfere with the uptake of those crucial essential fatty acids. So as you can imagine the deficiency of essential fatty acids is exacerbated.

What to do.

The key to good brain function is to reduce chips, crisps, deep fried food. Don’t use vegetable oils for cooking at home. Then you need to bring in the EFA’s – sardines, salmon, trout and mackerel are great sources. If your child is adverse to eating oily fish, and many are, then do consider a good quality, high strength, fish oil supplement.

Some children with hyperactivity, learning difficulties or concentration issues need more of another kind of oil too. If you have tried a good quality fish oil with limited effect, your child might be in this category. They may need Gamma Linoleic Acid which can be found in evening primrose oil supplements and borage oil because the conversion to this oil may be blocked or limited. Sometimes fish oil supplements can block the uptake of GLA in those that struggle with conversion.

  1. Correct vitamin and Mineral deficiencies.

Many children have vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Common deficiencies include zinc and magnesium, but there are others too. In children with behavioural or concentration issues absorption in the digestive system is often compromised and correcting this helps to increase levels of vitamins and minerals too.

Common zinc deficiency signs and symptoms are:

Slow wound healing, acne, poor appetite and/or sense of taste, sensory issues and slow growth.

Common Magnesium deficiency signs and symptoms are:

Muscle cramps and/or spasms, asthma, sleep issues and anxiety.

What to do.

Epsom salt baths work well to give additional magnesium through the skin. This by-passes any issues with digestion that might be affecting absorption. Add one cup to a warm bath and stay in the bath for 20 minutes.

Zinc is found in meat, poultry, fish and seafood. Other good sources include nuts and nut butters (almond, cashew, etc.). If digestion is compromised a homemade meat stock used as a base for soups, stews etc. can be useful to increase mineral levels.

I don’t recommend supplementing either of these minerals on their own without the guidance of a Nutrition Practitioner.

  1. Check for underlying metabolic conditions

Relevant conditions to screen for are Pyroluria and MTHFR. Both of these would affect your child’s ability to handle various additives, chemicals, etc. They could compromise gut function as well as leading to mineral and vitamin deficiencies and issues with cognitive function.

MTHFR is a common genetic variant that causes a key enzyme in the body to function at a lower rate than normal. This affects an individual in many ways and can make a child more susceptible to reactions to environmental chemicals and toxins. It affects the methylation process in the body which is important for brain, nervous system function and detoxification amongst other things. The MTHFR is a huge topic that requires its own report, but here I will say that it can be screened for using a saliva sample.  If positive, you can work with a practitioner to manage your child’s diet and lifestyle appropriately to support methylation. This will help them to manage their symptoms and stay healthy.

Pyroluria is less common but can lead to neurological issues such as ADHD, autism, addictions, eating disorders, social anxiety and chronic depression. If there is a family history of these kinds of illnesses it is worth running a simple urine test to find out if it’s an issue for your child. Pyroluria leads to major deficiencies in zinc and B6 and tends to run in families.

Pyroluria checklist:

  • A family history of chronic depression/suicide/eating disorder/alcoholism/schizophrenia?
  • Poor dream recall?
  • Poor morning appetite?
  • Hypersensitive to loud noises?
  • Reading difficulties?
  • Mood swings/temper tantrums?
  • Acne?
  • Sweet smelling breath?
  • Tendency to anxiety or fearfulness?
  1. Check for food intolerances:

The effect of food intolerances on behaviour is huge. If your child is reacting to a food or foods in their diet it WILL impact on concentration, hyperactivity, it will make them emotionally unstable and display difficult behaviour. Eating foods they have a problem with will provoke your child’s adrenal glands to react – stimulating adrenalin release, followed by a blood sugar crash – this is when you see the effect on behaviour, mood and concentration.

Signs that your child might have issues with food:

Rashes, eczema, loose bowel movements or constipation, a history of colic or reflux, recurrent ear infections and/or chronic tonsillitis dark circles under the eyes of bed wetting beyond the early years.

Food intolerances are common and can be tested for using a pin prick test in your own home. Or you can try elimination and challenge approach if you think you might know which food is the culprit. Common problematic foods are dairy, gluten, eggs, nuts and soy.

Additional Information

Pyroluria testing – £50. In-home testing kit for urine sample, results within 14 days. 

MTHFR testing – £120. Saliva sample collected in-home. Results within 3 weeks. Contact  info@anappleaday.org.uk and ask for MTHFR testing.

Food Intolerance Testing – £279. In-home pin prick sample. Comprehensive test of 156 foods.  Includes a complementary review of the test results with a practitioner.

Contact the Brain Food Clinic to ask for your free 10 minute phone consultation with our specialist practitioner.

Author: Sarah Hanratty

Sarah is a specialist practitioner at the Brain Food Clinic. She has a degree in Nutritional Medicine and is a certified Gut and Psychology Syndrome Practitioner. Sarah helps people to overcome physical and mental health issues using bespoke nutritional protocols.

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