Health and Wellness

Nutritionally Speaking: Support cognitive function

This is a time of year with the upcoming start of another school year that I am asked by parents for tips and alternatives to medications for those students who struggle to pay attention in the classroom. With our current pandemic situation, which can add more stress, parents and teachers are even more challenged to support their young students’ study goals. Many bright students struggle with maintaining focus on their school assignments, and may be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). 

Studies show that children diagnosed with ADHD often have diets higher in sugar, lower in protein, and also are deficient in EFA’s (essential fatty acids), particularly Omega 3 as found in flax seed, chia, hemp seed and especially cold water fish oils and their high levels of EPA/DHA, pasture-raised chicken eggs and meat. While the typical Standard American Diet (SAD) is high in omega-6 fats found in corn, canola, margarine and other vegetable oils, most people are missing the omega-3 oils which play an important role in brain and nerve tissue development and maintenance. In Paleolithic times we had a 1:1 ratio of omega-6 fats to omega-3 fats, but these days it is common to have a 40:1 ratio … with less than optimal results.

These omega fats are described as “essential” since we cannot make them in our bodies and they must be part of our diet. One of the healthy sources of omega-3 is Flaxseed oil, available in stores that carry dietary supplements. Flaxseeds can be ground and added to smoothies or salads and whole chia seeds can be added to smoothies and other beverages or used in healthy desserts. Hemp seeds are another healthy option, with each seed packed with healthy oils, fiber and protein to boot. The omega-3 fats support healthy levels of inflammation, and conversely the omega-6 fats and sugar that are plentiful in poorly balanced diets contribute to inflammation which directly impacts cognitive function. If we start at a young age, we can often get our youngsters to enjoy sardines and salmon which are replete with EPA/DHA; otherwise, a dietary supplement can be used. The liquids taste great, usually lemon or orange flavored, and one brand, Carlson’s even has a bubble gum-flavored fish oil!!

Protein is important as the amino acids that are the building blocks of protein are important for brain function and the production and regulation of the brain’s chemicals. According to a George Washington University School of Medicine study: when hyperactive children being studied had a high protein meal, they performed as well or better than non-Hyperactive children in a control group. At Oxford University, a study evaluated the effects of essential fatty acid supplementation on children diagnosed with ADHD. The children taking the EFA (omega-3) supplements showed significant improvement as compared to the control group receiving a placebo. 

ADHD is the most common behavioral disorder in children, often treated with stimulant drugs such as Ritalin. Studies show that children with ADHD who are treated with Ritalin, and without any dietary changes, such as limiting sugar intake, and increasing protein and EFA intake, are still at high risk for problem behaviors. 

Many children start their days with a sugary high carbohydrate bowl of cereal, and would probably perform better in school if their days started out with some healthy proteins and fats. Studies show that once the sweet tooth is “switched” on with that first bowl of sweet cereal, the tone is set for the day. 

Some better choices for breakfast are scrambled eggs, or whole grain bread with peanut or nut butter. Another option is a yogurt and fruit smoothie with whey protein powder and flax oil, flax seeds, chia and/or hemp seeds added. 

Studies show that it may take 10 to 12 weeks of improved nutrition, including healthy proteins and fats to see improvement of ADHD symptoms. This change could be a great New Year’s resolution for the whole family, any time of year. With reduced sugar in the diet, the cravings diminish, especially when the day is not started with sugary cereals, pancakes or doughnuts. 

Contact Yaakov, a Functional Nutritional Therapy Practitioner, at [email protected].