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The Brain Under Siege

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The Brain Under Siege

Symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, appear in one in 17 Canadian children, reported Statistics Canada following its Canadian Community Health Survey in 2003. Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder is a highly variable disorder of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness.

ADHD. The diagnosis has been pinned on your child and now you wonder: How did this happen? Does this mean Ritalin must be used? Are there alternatives?

Symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, appear in one in 17 Canadian children, reported Statistics Canada following its Canadian Community Health Survey in 2003. Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder is a highly variable disorder of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness. Onset occurs in early childhood before age seven.

What Causes ADHD?

Genetics and neurotransmitter imbalances are the major areas of medical research because ADHD will often “run in the family,” and studies have shown some differences in the ADHD brain (low dopamine levels, for example).

Are these the causes of ADHD or clues to a greater problem? Mounting evidence shows that environmental and dietary factors can and do alter neurological function. In a holistic exploration of the causes of behavioural disorders, including ADHD, the following factors deserve attention.

Allergies Common in ADHD Children

Children with ADHD often have asthma, allergies, or eczema. In fact, a 2004 New York study found that 80 percent of ADHD children reported symptoms of allergic rhinitis (hay fever), 61 percent had at least one positive skin-prick allergy test, and 100 percent had a parent and/or sibling with allergic symptoms of some kind.

In order to find the root of behavioural disorders in children, first identify and treat allergies. Investigate food allergies (or food intolerances) in particular, especially if they run in the family. Seek the assistance of a health care professional who knows about food allergy testing and elimination diets that help identify food allergies and intolerances.

Elimination diets involve identifying and removing problematic foods from a child’s diet in a systematic way and can be very helpful. A 2002 Dutch study claimed 50 percent or greater improvement in behaviour in 62 percent of children at the end of the elimination diet, as evaluated by parents.

Other researchers have found that problematic foods actually change the electrical activity in the brains of some ADHD children. Could this be the internal storm that takes place before the external storm of problem behaviour that parents and teachers see?

Eliminate Food Additives and Preservatives

If you have ever spent time at a child’s birthday party or made futile attempts to calm a child who has been let loose at the dessert table, you will not be surprised that studies are finding a link between diet and behavioural problems.

Part of the problem may be the artificial colours, flavours, and preservatives in processed food. In a 2004 study reported in the Archives of Disease in Childhood, 1,873 children with hyperactivity eliminated all artificial food colourings and benzoate preservatives from their diet for a one-week period. When the colourings and preservatives were reintroduced, parents of the children reported significant increases in hyperactivity.

Reduce Heavy Metal Exposure

Toxic metals, lead in particular, can also disrupt brain function. We are a leaded nation and our children’s brains could be paying the price for it. Symptoms of lead poisoning include “poor attention span, noticeable learning difficulty, slowed speech development, and hyperactivity,” reports Health Canada, all symptoms familiar to parents and teachers of children with ADHD.

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts analyzed hair samples from 277 first-grade children in 1996 and found that those with the highest lead levels had the worst ADHD symptoms. In a separate study, 384 six-year-old children in three German cities were evaluated for their blood lead levels and increased levels were linked with decreased measures of sustained attention.

Your child may be exposed to lead in soil, dust, food, paint, water fountains fed by lead pipes, some PVC mini-blinds, some art supplies, stained glass, leaded crystal, and even some children’s jewellery. Although only trace amounts of lead are acquired from exposure to most products with lead, the metal accumulates in the body and small children are more affected than adults.

Mineral deficiencies can lead to increased uptake of environmental lead and so it is important to ensure that adequate minerals are included in the diet. Mineral deficiencies may also affect cognitive function through other mechanisms unrelated to lead exposure and its effects. Ensure your children are getting the recommended daily dosages of these nutrients in their diet.

If your child has received a diagnosis of ADHD, attention to nutritional and environmental factors can go a long way to relieving his or her behavioural problems, naturally.

Feed the Brain

Your child’s brain is growing and developing rapidly and needs to be provided with all the right fuel. To keep the brain well-fed, include the following key nutrients in your child’s diet.

Essential fatty acids: Children with behavioural problems were reported in 2003 in the journal Lipids to have shown significant improvements in oppositional defiant behaviour when fed a good balance of EFAs. At least one study has also found that children with ADHD may have significantly lower levels of EFAs in their red blood cells than average children. A good quality EFA supplement should be on the short list of things to consider in the management of behavioural problems. Several palatable options such as chewable and fruit flavoured fish oils now exist for kids.

Iron: Low iron levels may contribute to behavioural problems. Researchers in a study published in 2004 in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine discovered that iron status was low in 84 percent of kids with ADHD, but low in only 18 percent of kids without ADHD. Low iron may also be linked to learning problems. In a study of non-anaemic girls reported in The Lancet in 1996, the girls who received iron supplements showed improvements in learning and memory scores. To ensure your children get plenty of iron-rich foods, serve red meats, fish, chicken, iron-fortified cereals, raisins, prunes, and other dried fruits.

Zinc: In a double-blind, placebo-controlled 2004 study of 400 nine-year-old children with ADHD, supplementation with 150 mg of zinc daily for 12 weeks significantly improved both hyperactivity and impaired and impulsive socialisation symptoms. For 5- to 11-year-old children taking methylphenidate (Ritalin), adding 55 mg of zinc to their daily treatment improved ADHD symptom scores from parents and teachers in only six weeks. Researchers concluded, however, that further investigations and different doses of zinc are required to replicate these findings in children with ADHD.

Magnesium: Magnesium deficiency is another factor worth exploring. In a 1997 Polish study of 116 children aged 9 to 12 with ADHD, 95 percent were found to be deficient in magnesium. When supplemented with 200 mg of magnesium daily for six months, these children showed a significant decrease in hyperactivity.

Adequate daily intake of these nutrients may reduce symptoms of ADHD.

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