Nutritional Considerations in Learning Problems
“You are what you eat”
How many times have we heard that? Often, mothers use it as a velvet bludgeon to get their kiddos to clean their plates. Yet, we recognize the kernel of truth in the statement, whether or not we go ahead and alter our diet (i.e., go ahead and eat Mom’s lima beans) over the long run.
Each cell in the body, no matter its function, is a tiny manufacturing plant: raw materials are needed, a product or action results, and waste materials are a by-product. The intercellular fluids provide a milieu: a chemical environmental bath-in which the cellular factory functions. Each cell needs appropriate supplies of the raw materials (the amounts are determined by the level of our activity), an intact manufacturing process, and an efficient waste removal system. If the environment bathing the cell were deficient over long periods, the cell would not function properly. Short periods of exposure to an abnormal intercellular fluid environment probably do not permanently harm the cell, but we cannot ignore the possibility that longer-term exposure to distressful fluids will alter cellular function and perhaps even permanently affect a tissue system’s function.
[Before proceeding further, please understand that nutritional problems are not the main cause of learning problems. But as we will see as we review this topic, it is known that nutrition has specific relationships to nerve function and learning difficulties: deficiencies can cause abnormal excitability, hyperactivity, distractibility, disorganized behavior, faulty perception, fine motor impairment, and emotional instability. Some of these effects are direct, others indirect.]
Let’s check some of these out:
- IRON – Iron deficiency has been known to result in learning difficulties, especially dealing with attentiveness. Iron is difficult to absorb (only 10% of what is consumed is absorbed, at best) unless there is an adequate level of acids to chemically break it down. Ascorbic acid – Vitamin C – is needed in one of the steps of iron absorption. Iron is in most meats, especially liver, and dark green leafy vegetables (remember Popeye) and egg yolks. Iron aids blood cell formation and helps the blood to carry oxygen.
- CALCIUM– Calcium deficiency is a great concern for older females, but in each of us, cells use minute amounts of calcium as a messenger inside to carry information from the cell surface into the inner recesses of the cell. Calcium has been implicated in the very process of memory and efficient learning. Dr. Lendon Smith, in his book Improving Your Child’s Behavior Chemistry, reports that low calcium levels may prevent the release of norepinephrine, a transmitter of nerve impulses. (Also, of no small matter, the brain needs norepinephrine–one of the biogenic amines-for neuroplasticity, the restructuring of the brain as it learns.) In his later book, Feed Yourself Right, he implicates Calcium deficiency if restless, hyperactive behavior is affecting learning. Muscle stimulation requires calcium, and too low a level causes muscle cramping and tingling in the extremities. The body begins to scavenge the bones for calcium for the cells when levels drop too low. Calcium needs good acid levels in order to be absorbed, just like iron, and also is aided in absorption by Vitamins A, C, and D. Calcium is made available primarily in milk and dairy products.
- MAGNESIUM– Calcium won’t be absorbed without a correct proportion of magnesium to balance it out. Magnesium is also essential in the cell’s use of sugar – the cell’s power source – and if the calcium levels are reduced, then magnesium will be lost The lack of magnesium causes confusion, depression, irritability, poor memory, anxiety, sensitivity to noises, and disorientation, among other signs. It is readily found in fresh green vegetables (cooking removes it), nuts, seafoods, and milk.
- MANGANESE- deficiencies of this mineral can affect neuromuscular functions, muscle weakness and the failure of muscle coordination, and lead to hearing complications. Whole grains, egg yolks, nuts and seeds, and green vegetables are sources of this mineral.
- POTASSIUM – Potassium works with calcium to regulate neuromuscular activity and also helps with sugar metabolism to provide cellular energy, but too high an intake of refined sugar is antagonisuc toward potassium. Stress, both physical and mental, can deplete potassium. Potassium deficiency causes nervous disorders, muscle weakness, sensorimotor problems, poor reflexes, and poor muscle tone. All vegetables, oranges, potatoes, and bananas are sources of potassium.
- B VITAMIN COMPLEX – performance anxiety produces stress and B Complex vitamins are lost under stress. Certain of the B-complex vitamins are necessary for nerve functioning and they may be the single most important factor for the health of the nerves. Since they are water-soluble, they are not stored and therefore must be rep1aced continually The B vitamins are so interdependent, that they must be taken together — large doses of any one may be valueless or cause the loss of the others. In nature, none of the B vitamins are found apart from the others. Sources of the B Complex vitamins are yeasts, green vegetables, and natural intestinal bacteria that grow on milk sugar and small amounts of fat. (In our diets these can be killed by antibiotics, resulting in deficiency after an illness where antibiotics have been deemed necessary).
- VITAMIN C – since humans are only one of a very few vertebrates that don’t make vitamin C (as a hormone or enzyme, in effect) we must add this essential vitamin to our diet. Speculations on primitive diets suggest that we would be getting at least 1.1 grams daily. Scientists tell us that the minimum daily requirement is 60 mg., but this doesn’t tell us what we need for optimal health. Sixty mg. is merely the amount needed to keep our body pool of C at the levels scientists believe are safe. The unfortunate fact is that we just don’t know what is needed for health. It certainly is higher than 60 mg., and probably is a lot closer to a gram, if not more. Cooking foodstuffs with Vitamin C in it destroys the nutrient.
Under stress, the first measurable physiological change is the loss of Vitamin C from the adrenal gland, the “powerhouse” for the stress response and major storehouse for Vitamin C. So stress from real sources, or from threats or needs that are merely perceived and are not real, results in a constant catch-up game being played with the a child who is anxious over his performance or who believes he is in a threatening environment, real or not This then affects Iron absorption, as mentioned above, as well as connective tissue growth and repair, and immuno-allergic response. Dr. Smith reports that Vitamin C can help the brain think clearer because it raises stimulus thresholds, thus allowing the person to pay less attention to incoming stimuli and therefore may make the person less distractable, This might play a factor in Attention Deficit Disorder.
- VITAMIN D – sunlight will make vitamin D in the skin when it is exposed directly to the sun, unfiltered by glass. Unfortunately, recent surveys indicate that the average American receives only about two minutes of direct sun exposure each day. Vitamin D greatly affects the regulation of Calcium in the body, but this is best accomplished with Vitamin D3, found in fish oils (especially along with the Omega Oils, recently found to be related to cognitive function). Vitamin D is a regulator of calcium and phosphorus — needed in cells, as noted above. An ophthalmologist, Dr. Arthur A. Knapp, has associated Vitamin D deficiency with myopia (nearsightedness). He believed the root of the problem to be the effect on calcium metabolism.
It seems to be so very complicated. What should we do? Actually, it can be just as easy as telling you that your child needs a well-balanced diet, but that’s easier said than done. Three things can get you well on your way: first, make more of your family’s flour consumption whole-grain whenever possible, minimizing refined white flour products; second, reduce the consumption of refined sugar to a practical minimum; and thirdly, reduce your family’s consumption of pre-prepared foods and cook your vegetables the minimum necessary, stir-fry fashion. Plan your family diet as if you lived in a garden, with a fishing stream running down the middle and a steady but limited amount of firewood available.
There’s no good reason that your child should be having problems in school from any of the conditions that can be solved by providing a diet that’s adequate, but not necessarily elaborate. If you recognize any of the symptoms described above and you knew that your child is lacking in diet, please consider making the above changes or check with your family physician or a registered dietitian.