Picture this all-too-common scenario. A normal child wakes up on a normal morning and eats a normal breakfast. As mealtime ends, you — the parent/teacher — begin the homeschooling day with your normal routine. An hour passes without incident. Then, out of nowhere, your heretofore “normal” child bursts into tears, throws a fit, erupts with volcanic energy or mercilessly harasses his siblings.
Your peaceful learning environment quickly devolves into managing the emotions of your child and limiting his nuclear fallout on your family. Did an unhinged alien secretly inhabit the body of your once-sweet kid? How did this madness start?
While several explanations might be at play here, I want to suggest a dietary one. It is a fact that we are what we eat, meaning that the nutritional elements of our diets literally become the structural elements of our bodies: our skin, tissues, organs, etc. But food (or its lack) does not only affect us physically. It can impact other parts of our being, including personality, emotions, energy, immunity and mood. I am convinced that if we understood how broadly our diets affected us holistically, we would devote much more care to the subject.
Now, let’s return to the wayward child. What is happening here? One possibility is that the child feels discomfort. I’ve heard it said, “Children act badly when they feel bad.” Food-based discomfort can produce painful effects in anyone, but the feeling can be more pronounced in kids — particularly young ones — who cannot put words to the discomfort. They may act out in defiance when their tummies ache and their heads throb.
I’ve found it helpful to ask young children very pointed questions about what bothers them. I also ask them to take one finger and point to where their body hurts. Using just one finger forces the child to zero in on the problem, thus helping to identify the troubled body part and function. Typically, the pain is in the small intestine (around the belly button), but sometimes the finger goes to the stomach (under the left rib cage). A finger aimed at the lower-left region of the belly is usually the descending colon, which might indicate constipation or something worse. Wherever the pain originates, it is there you must focus your efforts to bring relief. Don’t underestimate adequate hydration, as this benefits the entire body. Also consider aloe (like this juice), glutamine, light exercise and tummy massages.
However, more often than not, the problem with a seemingly disturbed child involves a food allergy, sensitivity or intolerance. The three are not the same thing, although they may manifest similar outward symptoms. Whichever it is, the problem is that a food is not being fully digested (chemically broken down into nutrients) and absorbed into the gut’s bloodstream. As a result, a child may suffer internally (e.g., intestinal pain, imbalanced gut bacteria, bloating, diarrhea), externally (e.g., skin rashes, hives, eczema) or behaviorally (e.g., mood swings). It is easy to observe outward effects, but imagine what is happening inside your child, particularly in the brain, where learning occurs!
(Quick physiology lesson: Official allergies involve white blood cells rushing to mucous membranes and the gut, where they release inflammatory chemicals to kill the invading allergen. This leads to inflammation, which can cause “leaky gut” that over time can allow undigested food particles to enter the bloodstream. The result: additional allergies, asthma and eczema.)
It may sound odd, but I’ve also seen what is called “emotional allergies”: a food allergy that causes emotional overreactions to benign events. Not only do I have a friend whose kid has this issue, but my own child struggles with it. Consuming less than a teaspoon of added sugar will send my boy on a rollercoaster ride of high-strung emotion for 2-3 days! My child knows this about himself (and how his family dreads it), so he watches his sugar and simple sugar (wheat-based) intake closely.
This intense, long-lasting reaction may be beyond normal, but what happy home has not been disturbed by at least one child on a sugar high? (“Experts” used to claim sugar could not cause manic states, but obviously those experts were not parents of a kid who snuck a plate of cookies or cupcakes!) Now we know that sugar stimulates the same brain region that flares up for addiction. An NIH study states, “Sugar is noteworthy as a substance that releases opioids and dopamine and thus might be expected to have addictive potential.”
The point is, sugar can affect the brain negatively and thereby jeopardize learning. The culprit may be insulin, a hormone released when sugar hits the bloodstream. You probably knew this. But here’s a new tidbit: Insulin also can cross the blood-brain barrier and disrupt the communication between neurons via synapses. Too much insulin lingering too long in the brain can impact learning, particularly among children whose brains are constantly growing and forming new synaptic links (i.e., learning and memory).
So, what are parents to make of all this? Here are a few suggestions to optimize body and brain health:
- Monitor your child’s food-related discomfort. Have him pinpoint pain in the tummy region so you know where to direct your attention.
- Identify and treat your child’s allergies. You can use muscle-testing, traditional pinprick testing, blood testing, etc. Some allergies can be eliminated via NAET. Severe ones may warrant avoiding the offending food altogether. Allergies create inflammation, so find ways to reduce inflammation (see below).
- Limit sugars. Supply your child with nutrient-rich whole foods rather than processed sugary snacks that are low in nutrients and weaken the body and brain. Sugar and insulin lead to systemic inflammation and a host of other health problems. Keep healthy, non-sugary snacks easily accessible for hungry little people.
- Supplement with omega-3s and DHA. Omega-3 fatty acids and DHA protect the brain from the damaging effects of inflammation and insulin, and they promote synaptic function. In my home, we all take 1+ gram of DHA per day. (Also eat walnuts, flax meal, olive oil and deep-sea fish for better brain development.) To supplement, I recommend Nordic Naturals Ultimate Omega as a liquid or NOW DHA-500 in pill form.
- Serve nutrient-dense breakfasts. Breads, cereals and pastries may be yummy, but they lack nutrients, spike insulin and could impact your child’s mood and ability to learn effectively. Try to always supply proteins and healthy fats in the morning. Good-quality eggs are a great start to the day.
To summarize, a child’s food intake can cause physical injury that, in turn, can hinder learning, memory and peace in the home. These “injuries” make take the form of tummy pain, food allergies, emotional allergies and synaptic dysfunction. However, by being watchful over your children and diligent about their food choices, you can lay for them the foundations of lifelong health and learning — one brain cell, one emotion, one meal at a time.
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