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  • Writer's pictureSarah Flower

Back to school

Whether your child is just starting school or on the last year of education, dietary changes can dramatically help empower your child. A healthy diet, rich in oily fish, antioxidant-rich vegetables, nuts and seeds, will help your child’s concentration, memory, emotional stability and can even enhance achievement.

We have seen a dramatic rise in ADHD and autism in the last 20 years. Some believe this is purely down to being more aware of the conditions, but others, including myself, believe it is also down to what we are doing to our bodies. We are consuming more and more refined carbohydrates and processed foods than ever before. I work in schools, teaching healthy eating and cookery, and I continually come across children who very rarely eat a real home-cooked meal. The reliance on quick and easy foods is having a huge impact on the health, education and behaviour of our children.

Nutrients for brain health:

We should get adequate nutrition from our food, but the western diet is increasingly devoid of essential nutrients due to the abundance of refined carbohydrates, sugars and heavily processed foods. It is possible to be overweight and malnourished, a crazy situation bought about by our consumption of nutritionally empty food. Supplementation can be used to boost the body whilst in the transition phase to eat a very healthy, natural diet, as well as to supplement any inadequacies. Fish oil is the main player in brain health, but many children hate really the strong flavours of oily fish. This is where supplementation can really help, and there are some great products designed to suit children and teenagers.

Fish Oil – Nutritionists like me are always harping on about the benefits of omega 3 and oily fish for a wide range of conditions, but it really does have a key role in our children’s behaviour. Robert Winston’s ‘Child of our Time” BBC series, demonstrated this when following 25 children born in 2000. 2 of the children had behaviour problems and were given Fish oil. Within 3 months, one child, who was very withdrawn and had social and communication problems, had started being more social and outgoing. The other child, who was showing signs of aggression, was calm. Patrick Holford, author of ‘Smart Food for Smart Children’, has demonstrated in his book dramatic differences in children’s behaviour, performance and concentration in a primary school, by changing their diet and adding fish oils supplementation.

It is interesting to note that children with ADHD have lower levels of EPA, DHA and arachidonic acid in their blood. A study in 1995 of 53 boys concluded this could be due to an inability to convert these oils into forms used by the brain. Similarly, children with Autism, appear to have lower levels of omega 3, with high levels of omega 6. When the omega 3 and 6 ratio is out of balance (high omega 6), it can cause a number of problems in the body, including chronic inflammation.

Fish oil has also been shown to help regenerate brain cells that have been damaged by high sugar diets. The study conducted by Dr Lucy Pickavance at the Institute to Ageing and Chronic Disease at Liverpool University, found that the fish oils supressed triglycerides and inhibited the production of inflammatory cytokines.

Phosphatidyl Serine – known to improve cognition (mental grasp) and can increase performance and cognitive function. There is also good evidence to show it can help with ADHD and autism. It is recommended to take this throughout life, starting in the younger years, to enhance cognitive function and to help prevent dementia. It has also been shown to help reduce stress and depression. It works particularly well with B vitamins.

Zinc– this is a vital nutrient for brain health and is found to be deficient in many with mental health problems, autism, depression and even anorexia. Fill up with seeds such as pumpkin seeds, nuts, wheat germ, meat and fish.

Multi-B Vitamins – another vital nutrient for brain health is a wide range of B-vitamins. B1, B6, B12 and B4, can all enhance memory, concentration, and even help ease stress, whilst B3 and Folic acid can help with depression. A diet rich in wholegrains, vegetables, especially green leafy vegetables, meat, fish and dairy products will give you a wide range of B vitamins. Alternatively, you can opt for a good quality multi to ensure a good supply.

Magnesium – Magnesium is the giant in nutrients, being used for almost every process in the body. Neurotransmitters in the brain use magnesium, calcium and zinc to stimulate and regulate electrical activity. Magnesium also helps protect brain cells from the damage caused by poor diet, agrochemicals, heavy metals and toxins from cleaning products. Magnesium is also needed for the production of serotonin, so is a useful nutrient to help with depression and low mood.

Vitamin C – As well as boosting the immune system, vitamin C plays a crucial role in brain function and development. It has also been shown to help improve mood due to its involvement in the production of norepinephrine and serotonin.

Diet– Diet has a dramatic impact on how we function as well as our overall health. A diet rich in processed foods, sugars and refined carbohydrates causes insulin fluctuations, increases our toxic load and creates and inflamed body. This all has a negative impact on our brain health, including concentration, cognitive function, behaviour and mood. Opt for real food, packed with nutrients and antioxidants. Avoid a sugar-laden start to the day, ditch the cereals and toast and opt instead for a protein and natural fat rich breakfast.

Sleep– it is vital for health, including brain health, to have adequate sleep, especially for children. A diet rich in antioxidants and magnesium aids a restful sleep. Sleep deprivation causes irreparable damage to brain cells.

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