Do you know the signs of Dyslexia? The earlier it is diagnosed the better, read the warning signs here.
Dyslexia is a subject close to my heart as my daughter is very dyslexic and, to a lesser extent, my husband. (Who only realised he was dyslexic when my daughter was diagnosed!). While we started out in a state of shock and uncertainty, thinking that life would be more difficult for our lovely little girl, we rapidly came to the conclusion that this is just who she is. More recently I have actually begun to get excited about the opportunities that dyslexia will open up for her. The dyslexic brain is an amazing thing and can do certain things much better than the normal brain!
If you are struggling with your own or your child’s diagnosis, I highly recommend you read “The Dyslexic Advantage” by Brock and Eide. There is so much negativity surrounding dyslexia and this looks at the positives- very refreshing!
However, on life’s journey there is one thing which we all have to go through-School! Unfortunately, dyslexia and school can be an uncomfortable mix so anything which can ease that process is a good thing. There has been a lot of research into the role of diet and learning difficulties and this post hopes to shed some light on the findings.
So, are diet and dyslexia linked? Channel 4’s “The Food Hospital“ looked at studies of ADHD, which quite often goes hand in hand with dyslexia and dyspraxia. One startling fact emerged: removing artificial food colouring from the diet was 30 to 50 % as effective in improving behaviour and attention span as taking medication and it doesn’t have any side effects (see diet and adhd-Harvard). This is the first thing to try, go through your diet and check labels, it’s surprising where additives can hide.
Some adult sufferers also think that intolerances to wheat, nuts or dairy products can aggravate symptoms so it is worth keeping a food diary and excluding these one at a time to see if there is any effect. If you decide to exclude wheat or dairy long term then make sure your diet includes replacements, talk to your doctor if you are unsure what to replace them with.
The best approach is a varied diet of fresh, whole foods which will keep blood sugar levels stable, plus a diet rich in omega 3s and Vitamin D3 (see The Diet piece of The Dyslexia Puzzle). The next section looks in more detail at the role of omega 3 and essential fatty acids.
According to Dr Alex Richardson (who is Senior Research Fellow in Neuroscience, Mansfield College, Oxford) there are many conditions which can be linked to a deficiency in fatty acids. This includes ‘allergic’ conditions such as eczema and asthma as well as psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and depression. The focus here is on dyslexia but there are two other common developmental disorders of learning and behaviour – dyspraxia and ADHD.
Dyslexia alone affects at least 5% of the general population in a severe form, as does ADHD. Dyspraxia remains less well-known, but appears to have a similar incidence. There is considerable overlap between all three as well as autistic spectrum disorders, and each can occur with differing degrees of severity.
Current evidence suggests that up to 20% of the population may be affected by one or more of these conditions which usually persist into adulthood.
The Role Of Essential Fatty Acids
The truly essential fatty acids (EFAs) cannot be synthesised by the body and must therefore be provided in the diet. They are linoleic acid (omega-6 series) and alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3 series).
These are extremely important for normal brain function, two fatty acids (AA and DHA) make up 20% of the dry weight of the brain and more than 30% of the retina. Two others (EPA and DGLA) play a more minor structural role but are also crucial. The brain can usually synthesise the longer-chain highly unsaturated fatty acids (HUFA) that it needs from these EFAs.
Unfortunately, various dietary, lifestyle and disease factors can interfere with this conversion process, such as excess saturated fats, hydrogenated fats or ‘trans’ fatty acids in the diet; deficiency of vitamins and minerals (notably zinc); excessive consumption of alcohol or coffee; smoking; diabetes, eczema, asthma and other allergic conditions, and ‘stress’.
Children with dyslexia, dyspraxia and learning difficulties are very often deficient in these essential fats and/or the nutrients needed to properly utilise them, and the benefits of increasing the intake of these fats have been clearly documented in many studies (see references below). A high concentration of essential fats is needed in the eyes before they can manage the very rapid movements associated with vision.
To identify people who could benefit from supplements, the following list of symptoms may help:
• Physical signs of fatty acid deficiency (all of which could have other causes and if persistent, should be discussed with the GP) e.g. excessive thirst, frequent urination, rough, dry patches on the skin (especially if this is ‘bumpy’ in appearance and feel), dull or dry hair, tendencies to dandruff, and soft or brittle nails.
• ‘Allergic’ tendencies – tendencies towards eczema,asthma or hay fever seem to be more common in people with dyslexia, dyspraxia or ADHD and their relatives. Fatty acid deficiencies can play a role in these allergic conditions.
• Visual perceptual problems – visual perceptual problems seem to be a good predictor of a positive response to HUFA supplementation.
• Attention/concentration problems.
• Mood swings/undue anxiety/low ‘frustration tolerance’.
• Sleep problems.
Fish oil contains two major omega-3 fatty acids: EPA and DHA. Both are necessary, but until recently, it wasn’t at all clear which of these was more important in producing the benefits reported for ADHD and related conditions. However, the latest research makes clear that it is EPA, not DHA, which is more effective in reducing the problems with attention, perception and memory that are associated with ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia. So supplements with a high ratio of EPA to DHA are likely to be most effective.
In summary, while diet and supplements cannot take away dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD they can help improve certain symptoms by giving the body everything it needs to work effectively. This can be particularly helpful for children who need to be in optimum health to get the best out of school.
A. J. Richardson and J. Wilmer, Association between fatty acid symptoms and dyslexic and ADHD characteristics in normal college students, paper given at British Dyslexia Association International Conference, University of York, April 2001
M. H. Jorgensen et al., ‘Is there a relation between docosahexaenoic acid concentration in mothers’ milk and visual development in term infants?’ J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr, Vol 32, 2001, pp. 293-6
A. J. Richardson et al., Fatty acid deficiency signs predict the severity of reading and related problems in dyslexic children, paper given at British Dyslexia Association International Conference, 2001
A.Richardson & P Montgomery, Pediatrics, 2005, 115(5):1360-1366
A. J. Richardson et al., ‘Abnormal cerebral phospholipid metabolism in dyslexia indicated by phosphorus-31 magnetic resonance spectroscopy’, NMR Biomed, Vol 10, 1997, pp. 309-14
B. J. Stordy, ‘Dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyspraxia – do fatty acids help?’, Dyslexia Review, Vol 9(2), 1997, pp.1-3
B. J. Stordy, ‘Benefit of decosahexanoic acid supplements to dark adaptation in dyslexia’, Lancet, Vol 346, 1995, p. 385