Food allergies, sensitivities or intolerances can play havoc with a child’s ability to benefit from teaching. Before we go into this, let’s clarify what causes food (and environmental) allergies and sensitivities.
Genetics seems to be an important factor in the risk of developing allergies. It seems that children with (true) ADHD who have food allergies are also likely to have parents with similar problems.
Nutritional factors are also significant for the development and severity of all forms of allergy. When a child has less than adequate nutrition, his immune system cannot function as it should and is more likely to misfire when faced with various stressful elements in the digestive system. For example, children with deficiencies of omega-3 are more likely to suffer allergies; deficiencies in magnesium and zinc are also know to promote allergic responses. The overall quality of the diet may also play an important role. Too much processed, stale, chemically altered or nutritionally depleted foods may well promote an allergy.
Another factor is toxicological stress. Children who are regularly exposed to pesticides that are toxic to the immune system, heavy metals (lead, mercury, cadmium), plastic residues and solvents may be more prone to allergies.
Developmental markers may also play a role. Breastfeeding may significantly reduce the risk of later developing food allergies. Ideally, babies should be breast fed exclusively until at least six months of age – longer if possible. The reason for this is that a young infant’s gut is naturally leaky and for a good reason. Large molecules, for example the antibodies in the mother’s milk, can cross through the gaps to enter the baby’s bloodstream to protect her from infection while her immune system is still immature. This is a vulnerable time and if other molecules enter the blood, the developing immune system may see them as threatening and becomes non-tolerant of them. This is exactly why mothers are encouraged to not only breastfeed but to carefully and slowly introduce solid foods one food at a time, starting with foods least likely to generate an allergic response. This ‘educates’ the baby’s immune system and helps the body develop a tolerance towards each food as it is introduced.
Intestinal parasites are worth a mention as well as they may also cause upsets in the digestive system and underlie the emergence of allergies. For this reason, regular treatment is advised for the whole family and not just for the fur children!
Non-food allergies such as hay fever can raise the severity of food allergies. If these types of allergies are particularly active in some months of the year, such as Spring, pre-existing food allergies may become more predominate at the same time.
When the immune system is not involved in a child’s reaction to foods, we refer to them as having a food intolerance. Knowing the difference is important because it will impact on the success of treatment. The most frequent reason behind food intolerance is inadequate digestion of particular nutrients. Lactose, or milk sugar, is probably the most common example of an intolerance due to digestive difficulties.
Take a long, serious look at your child. Sometimes allergies and food intolerances show up in his or her physical appearance. Some children can show a characteristic ‘spaced out’ or even an almost ‘demonic’ look when they suddenly become impossible. These looks can sometimes be accompanied by sounds such as throat clearing or clucking. This last noise is typical of a dairy or milk sensitivity. Some slur their words or begin to speak very rapidly. A few children whine or repeat the same phrase over and over. In addition, they may develop a hoarse voice or red ears or cheeks after exposure to a certain food or chemical.
Other signs include dark rings under the eyes, which can be grey, black, blue and even reddish. Nose rubbing, skin-scratching, wriggly lets, small horizontal wrinkles under the eyes and facial twitches and tics are very common in some children.
Abnormally rosy cheeks are particularly characteristic of allergic children between the ages of two and four years (and of adult women who have multiple food or chemical allergies).
Some children show hives, which look like mosquito bites or more generalized rashes.
And lastly, a bloated or abnormally large abdomen may also be a sign of problems – not always of a food allergy or intolerance but possibly of a yeast infection or parasites in the gut.
Next week we’ll continue this theme and describe the behaviours that so often accompany food intolerances – and are mistakenly thought to be ADHD, oppositional or even defiant behaviour caused by mental disorders.
The media has been focusing for quite some time on the benefits of fats and oils in our diets. It seems that finally the world is realizing that saturated fats are not the killers we once thought they were and we are becoming aware that not all oils available in supermarkets are as healthy as marketers would have us believe.
Standing out from this muddle of misinformation over the decades has been the fact that Omega-3 oil is a key nutrient for brain help.
None of us would disagree that learning takes place largely in the brain. It follows that if the brain is deprived of the nutrients that it needs to be healthy, it won’t be able to fulfil its learning function.
We can all be labelled as ‘fat heads’ because our brains are predominantly made of fat. Almost all of its structures and functions are crucially dependent on essential fatty acids. These cannot be made by our bodies but come directly from our food. Pause then, for a moment, and consider the impact of the last thirty years or so during which we were sternly told that fat was bad for us and we should consume low-fat or fat-free products. We now know without doubt that if a child’s brain is deficient in the important fatty acids (mainly Omega-3) it will still function but will process information far slower than otherwise. Imagine an outdated computer that works but processes slowly, compared to an up-to-date version, which processes at the blink of an eye
Researchers in the UK have found that a child’s blood levels of Omega-3 (specifically a component known as DHA) can significantly predict how well he or she is able to concentrate and learn. From sampling nearly 500 schoolchildren, they found that higher levels were associated with better reading and memory, as well as with fewer behaviour problems, as rated by parents and teachers
Many of the children identified as having below-average reading skills showed levels of Omega-3 that were way below the level considered optimal. Their parents also revealed that almost nine out of ten children in the sample ate fish less than twice a week, and nearly one in ten never ate fish at all. This is significant because fish is the only really practical source of Omega-3 in our diets. If a child is sensitive to fish, flaxseed (or flax oil), pumpkin seeds and walnuts provide the most commonly available alternatives.
In the light of this knowledge, it makes sense to encourage children to eat fish from an early age. We have good sources of cold water fatty fish (which are the best sources of Omega-3). Snoek, hake, trout, pilchards and herrings will all feed our hungry brains – but not battered and deep-fried – learn to grill, bake or lightly braai!
The question naturally arises about Omega-3 supplements – particularly in children who are picky eaters. I’ll be addressing this in next week’s post.
Our sense of smell is one of the earliest to develop – being operational at about two months after conception. We can’t actually use this sense in those early days because the forming nasal passages remain blocked until some 28 weeks into the pregnancy. When this blockage clears, we can and do pick up smells in the environment – one of the most significant being the smell of the amniotic fluid in which we grow. Incidentally, this is the reason why newborns are not instantly whisked away to be washed as in the past. They are put onto Mom’s chest, allowing amniotic fluid to be transferred to her body and thus giving the baby the comfort of having a very familiar smell to help overcome the traumatic birthing event and make the transition to a strange new world.
We understand that the early developing senses (others include touch and taste) are crucial to our survival and well-being and even though we no longer have to rely on our sense of smell to warn us of danger or tell us what foods we can safely eat, it has implications for our functioning and even our learning.
Smell (or more correctly, the olfactory system) is unique in the way it sends information from the sensory cells in the nose to the brain. Firstly, it is the only sense that cannot be prevented from reaching the areas of the brain that interpret and give meaning to the incoming smell. Most other senses rely on the Thalamus (the brain’s ‘gatekeeper’) to admit them to the higher cortex. Not so with smell because the neurons carrying the information bypass the thalamus. This means that all smells that we have ever encountered travel to the brain and are registered there. The area of the brain dedicated to processing smells is intertwined with the limbic system, which is responsible for our emotions. For this reason, smells last for ever in our memories and are connected to emotions. Smells from the past can trigger feelings and memory, as well as impact on mood and behaviours. This is why certain smells vividly bring back the past and the emotions that accompanied an old event.
The fact that smell is the most significant trigger of memories may be a clue to how it can be used to support learning. When we study, we try to store information, facts and figures in our memory. What if we use smell to help register and then nudge those stored memories back into our conscious mind in order to answer questions or solve problems? It’s worth trying.
If a student finds a smell that she or he considers pleasant and soothing, having that smell present in the study area will form connections between the smell and memories being formed while studying. If the same smell is taken into the test situation, it is theoretical possible that the smell will help access the memorised content
To do this, using good quality essential oils may be the best way to go. A cotton wool ball soaked in the chosen oil can be carried along to a venue in a closed container, and surreptitiously sniffed on occasion.
Smell, being an important sense, has other implications for our functioning, which will be discussed in a following post.