Nurturing a child’s brain The new school year always presents children with a new set of challenges and new academic milestones to be achieved. A very practical way to support children of all ages in their academic pursuits is to ensure that they get the best in brain nutrition.
The neuroplastic brain. By the time a child is five years of age, their brain has reached 90% of its potential growth, and yet this is just the beginning of their many years of schooling and further social and intellectual development! This development throughout childhood (and even adulthood) is possible due to the wonder of neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is a term that describes the process by which millions upon millions of synaptic connections between neurons are being constantly broken down, formed and strengthened. The years between birth and adulthood are a time of intense brain development and neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity and the evolution of our brain’s wiring in childhood and adulthood is shaped by our experiences and strengthened through repetition of actions. The shaping of neural pathways contributes to the crucial development of an individual’s personality and life potential. For our school-aged patients, supporting their capacity to develop new synaptic connections is vital not only for supporting their developing intellectual capacity, but also for helping shape their behavioural and emotional maturation.
Learning and behavioral difficulties in children. The incidence of learning and behavioural disorders in children is increasing. One in 10 Australian children are diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), and learning difficulties such as dyslexia are increasing as well. This increase in incidence is linked to a variety of factors, including:
Genetic and epigenetic factors.
Maternal stress, which during the prenatal period has a significant impact on neurological and endocrinological development in the foetus.
Sub-optimal nutrition both pre- and post-natally, which interferes with crucial developmental periods.
Food intolerance can also contribute to behavioural and learning difficulties.
Poor gut and immune development, which may affect the developing brain due to increased oxidative stress and inflammation.
Home stress, school stress, abuse and/or neglect, which strongly predispose children to cognitive and mood problems.
Support mental focus and behaviour with fish oils. Support of children’s neurological function and brain health has to start with the basics: a fish oil supplement and a multivitamin and mineral formula. Research shows that behavioural disorders are associated with essential fatty acid deficiencies, and multiple trials show that omega-3 supplementation benefits a number of behavioural disorders including ADHD, autism and aggression.
Micronutrients for cognitive support. To support the production and metabolism of the chemical messengers between neurons – the neurotransmitters of the brain – key micronutrients are required. These neurotransmitters are vital for learning and brain health in children as they complete the brain circuitry required for learning, memory, understanding and communication. Altered function of neurotransmitters can affect cognitive function and behaviour. For example, reduced levels of dopamine and noradrenaline in the prefrontal cortex are implicated in ADHD, leading to the characteristic symptoms of inattention and impulsive behavior. Several key nutrients are required for production of these neurotransmitters including zinc, magnesium, iron, B vitamins, folate and vitamin C. Another key brain nutrient is iron which is essential for neuronal energy production in the brain. Iron is commonly deficient in children, leading to lethargy, irritability, apathy, fatigue, inability to concentrate, inattention and decreased IQ.
•Between 3% and 7% of American school aged children are affected by attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and 1 in 91 are diagnosed with autism.1 There are similar trends in Australia with an estimated 1 in 160 children being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).2 •During the first 2-3 years of life, many areas of a child’s physiology are still developing, including the blood brain barrier (BBB), liver detoxification pathways, the enteric nervous system and immune system. Until fully developed, these tissues are highly vulnerable to neurotoxins, heavy metals, oxidative damage and inflammatory cytokines. •Between 2002 and 2009, the number of stimulant medications dispensed in Australia increased by 87%, and males were prescribed stimulants four times more frequently than females.3 •As 70% of the body’s serotonin is found in the gastrointestinal tract, changes in digestive function or microbiota can influence a child’s central nervous system, mood and behaviour.4,5
References 1.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2011 [cited 2011 Sept 29] Available from: http://www.cdc.gov/DiseasesConditions/ 2.Autism Victoria Professional Advisory Panel, Position Statement: Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder in Australia 2010 3.Hollingworth, SA Nissen, L Stathis, S Siskind, D Varghese J, M,N & Scott, JG (2011) Australian national trends in stimulant dispensing: 2002 – 2009, The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists 4.Holschneider A, Puri P. Hirschsprung’s disease and allied disorders, 3rd ed. Berlin: Springer; 2008. P13-41 5.Grundy D. Neuroanatomy of visceral nociception:vagal and sphlanchnic afferent. Gut. 2011 Mar;60(3):288-9