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As we head on back into the school year, whether you are an adult or a child, there are some important facts that you should know about to keep you thinking critically, recalling information easily and staying focused!

  • The brain is 80% water so make sure you’re drinking enough water during the day. Drinking a big glass of water a half hour before an exam will help you perform better on your tests.
  • The average lipid (or fat) composition of the brain is 50%! Getting enough of the crucial omega 3’s in your diet is so very important for the functioning of every cell in your body, the whole nervous system and of course, your brain!
  • The brain has 100,000,000,000 (100 billion) neurons so support your nervous system with foods rich in B vitamins such as brown rice.

If you or your child is having trouble concentrating and learning or has been diagnosed with ADHD or another disorder then it is even more important to make sure that you do some research into what makes the brain tick. Sometimes all is needed is a few dietary and lifestyle changes. There may be food intolerances, additive or preservative sensitivities, nutritional deficiencies, hypoglycemia, parasites, heavy metal toxicity, environmental sensitivities or even an imbalance of bacteria in the intestines.

There is a new and evolving field of study that looks at what’s going on in the gut and how it affects the human brain. 100 million (or  ½) of the body’s nerve cells are located in the gut. This is the same number of nerve cells found in the spinal cord. Add all the nerve cells together in the esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines and there are more than in the peripheral nervous system. This system is referred to as the ‘second brain’ or the ENS (enteric nervous system). Neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine are all found in large amounts in the gut as well as the brain. The gut actually produces more serotonin than the brain and so you can imagine that this plays a huge role in how you feel.

The average human body contains many species of microbes. The actual figure is somewhere between 4000 and 10,000, depending on the health of your system and the balance therein. This translates into about 3 pounds of bacteria living and thriving inside your digestive system. This bacteria is responsible for your health in profound and far reaching ways. If your gut is happy and full of good bacteria then you will be absorbing nutrients efficiently and producing all those neurotransmitters that you need.

Food intolerances are not an immune reaction like a food allergy, but a digestive issue. Foods that you eat are not being broken down and absorbed the way they are supposed to and may very well be at the root of behavioural and attention issues. The most common problem foods are dairy, wheat, soy, eggs, citrus, sugar and yeast. Lack of proper digestion leads to inflammation of the intestinal wall, which then creates an imbalance in the intestinal flora (dysbiosis) and this causes digestive upsets, ‘leaky gut syndrome’ and a great deal of stress on the rest of the body, especially the liver. Antibiotics, mercury, yeast and sugar all contribute to this condition.  A strict diet with probiotics, digestive enzymes and liver support may be required.

Additives, colourings and preservatives have been well documented as causing behavioural changes in children. The only way to avoid them is to read labels when grocery shopping and avoid processed foods. This includes avoiding MSG and artificial sweeteners. My general guideline is “If you don’t know what it is and can’t pronounce it, then don’t eat it”. Only eat whole, nutritionally dense foods. Ask yourself “Could I pick it, grow it or raise it?”

Children with ADD/ADHD as well as ASD have been shown to have zinc, magnesium, Vitamin C, B vitamins, iron and Essential Fatty Acid (EFA) deficiencies. Supplement your child’s diet with good quality whole food supplements. Don’t buy any old brand off the shelf. Not all of them are easy to absorb, especially for a child with digestive issues. If your child has a difficult time falling asleep at night give them a calcium and magnesium supplement at dinner time. Make sure they are getting enough healthy fats for proper brain and immune system development. These are the fats found naturally in fish, seeds, nuts, butter, coconuts and avocadoes. Unhealthy fats block the beneficial properties of the good fats so eliminate hydrogenated oils, commercial cooking oils, deep fried foods and margarine (all contain trans fats).

Heavy metal and environmental toxicity is the result of exposure and also the body’s inability to excrete these substances. We are bombarded by toxins every day and our liver must detoxify and get rid of them. If we have a tired liver or are low on enzymes that do the job, then we will begin to have a build up of metals and toxins. Avoid them as much as possible. Limit canned tuna consumption and keep seafood consumption to a minimum (wild salmon seems to be a safe choice). If your child needs a dental filling, request composite instead of silver amalgam which contains mercury. Some vaccines also contain aluminum and mercury. Vitamin C, cilantro (the fresh herb), fiber and exercise help to detoxify and protect the body.

There are many things you can do to boost you and your child’s learning power (I’ve just skimmed the surface) even if they don’t have learning or behavioural issues. A good breakfast in the morning containing protein and complex carbohydrates (not a sugary cereal), an EFA supplement and good wholesome snacks and lunches will go a long way in helping them make it productively through the day. Each meal should contain a healthy protein, fat, whole carbohydrate and fresh vegetables or fruit as well as good clean water!

Some great foods to support the brain are salmon, pumpkin seeds, broccoli, eggs, whole grains and brown rice, blueberries and black currents.

For more information on the gut and brain connection, visit www.gaps.me (Gut and Psychology Syndrome).

Written by Kira Neumann, Registered Holistic Nutritionist.

You can visit her at Healthyway 

September 7, 2011