Brain Food: Paying attention to the right fats can help your child tame ADD

Author: Janice McColl, B.S.P. M.Sc., M.H.

Does your child have difficulty in school, is distracted easily, forgets homework, is unable to finish anything he starts, and often does not listen? Or has your child’s teacher complained that your child fidgets and squirms, blurts out answers, and interrupts others? Has your child’s teacher insisted on testing your child for ADD? If so, your child may be suffering from a common disorder – attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The alarming increase in the number of children diagnosed with these disorders, along with the escalating use of stimulants such as RitalinÒ has many parents worried. Unfortunately, children with the disorder are too often labeled as “problem children”. They are given prescription drugs that are designed to treat the symptoms, but do not address the underlying cause of the problem. The diagnosis is often discouraging since these problems can persist into adulthood. Modern pharmaceutical treatment is far from satisfactory, and fraught with problems such as side effects and abuse.

What you may not know is that your child’s disruptive behavior may be related to deficiencies in the diet. Researchers at Purdue University have found that children suffering from ADD tend to have low levels of certain essential fatty acids (EFAs). EFAs are “good fats” that we must obtain from food sources or supplements. Similar to vitamins and minerals, EFAs are equally important for good health and are vital components of every living cell in the body.

Essential fatty acids are unsaturated fats, which means they are more fluid and flexible than the hard and rigid saturated fats. The brain is more than 60% fat, and it functions far better when it is fortified with healthy, fluid essential fatty acids. Unfortunately, the typical diet in Canada contains a lot of saturated fats (think lard, butter, and animal fats), and other bad fats such as trans fatty acids (think fried foods and other processed “junk” food). At the same time, we eat very little of the good fats (think flax seeds, avocados, walnuts, and fresh salmon). Saturated fats and trans fatty acids are hard and less flexible and also interfere with how our body uses essential fatty acids. Consumption of sugar and junk food further compounds this problem.

Over time, the imbalance of fats in the diet can result in behavior problems, learning disorders, dyslexia, and symptoms of ADD such as inattentiveness, impulsiveness and hyperactivity. Deficiency of essential fatty acids is most severe for infants and children, whose brains are still developing. EFA deficiency can also cause a host of other symptoms ranging from eczema, dry skin, and other skin problems, to allergies and fatigue. In fact, children suffering from ADD and learning problems have a higher incidence of eczema, asthma, and other allergies, all of which are associated with essential fatty acid deficiency.

For children suffering from these disorders, supplementation with essential fatty acids can be beneficial. EFAs are found in borage oil, flax oil and fish oil, or in a balanced blend such as Sangster’s EFA 3-6-9.  This blend supplies equal amounts of the EFAs alpha linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPO) and gamma linolenic acid (GLA). Studies have established that this combination of fatty acids is important in maintaining brain function.

These essential fatty acids are also found in human breast milk, and studies have shown that breast fed babies do better intellectually than bottle fed babies. Recognizing the importance of fatty acids for infant nutrition and for the normal growth and functioning of the brain, some regions like Japan and Europe fortify commercial infant formulas with essential fatty acids from borage and other oils. Capsules containing EFAs may also be opened and added directly to an infant’s formula. For older children, the oil can be mixed directly in food such as yogurt and pudding. As is true for nutritional supplementation of any kind, it is always advisable to consult your health care practitioner before starting EFAs.

Upon supplementation, the good fats are slowly incorporated back into the tissue of the brain. Over several weeks or months, improvement may be seen in behavior, learning and symptoms of ADD. Continued supplementation is necessary to maintain positive results, although intake may be lowered after about four months of continuous supplementation. Individual requirements can vary depending on age, lifestyle and other factors.

Clinical studies have confirmed that supplementation with essential fatty acids can improve symptoms of ADD, as well as many other mental disorders and dysfunction including depression, learning disorders, dyslexia, and cognitive decline in the elderly. Essential fatty acids may be the answer you’re looking for.