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When food isn’t a friend



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.



Is your child eating enough oil?



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.


The nose knows – using our senses to support learning


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.

Omega-3 benefits learning: Fact or fiction?



There’s quite a lot of hype going around about the miraculous effects an omega-3 supplement may have on a child’s ability to learn, attend and behave appropriately. There is no doubt that these oils are needed for building the brain in young children and having it function well throughout our lives. We know how the brain utilizes the oil so it seems logical that having too little may negatively affect the brain.  Yet the evidence for supplementation isn’t consistent. 

For example, research from the University of Oxford in 2008 found that dietary supplementation with Omega-3 improved both reading progress and behaviour in children from the general school population who were struggling with reading.  Disappointingly, the same research team duplicated this study in 2018 and this time found no evidence that Omega-3 helped or improved the reading ability or memory of underperforming school children. The results were entirely different.

Contradicting this recent finding are two further studies. One, published in 2016, was conducted by the University of Sweden and found that children with attention problems may be helped sin their reading with the addition of these fatty acids.  In particular, they found significant improvement in the children’s ability to read a nonsense word aloud and pronounce it correctly and read a series of letters quickly.

The second study, reported in 2018 in the journal, Aggressive Behavior, found that children taking omega-3 over a year showed decreased psychological aggression and improved behaviour, effects that seemed to encourage less fighting and arguments between caregivers. This is the first to suggest that improving child behaviour through Omega-3 supplementation could have long-term benefits to the family system as a whole.

It seems sensible to address this somewhat contentious issue with caution especially as good Omega-3 supplements are expensive. Certainly personal experience by ILT practitioners shows that some children benefit markedly by regular, long-term supplements of Omega-3 as well as eating more foods containing this oil. Others show less dramatic improvements.

We cannot always blindly believe research studies but if your child shows unusual difficulty in learning, consider first whether or not she shows some signs of Omega-3 deficiency. These include:

Dry skin


Frequent urination


Soft, brittle or easily frayed nails

Scaly, ‘crocodile’ skin

Cracked skin on heels or fingertips

Chicken skin bumps on backs of upper arms or thighs

Dry, unmanageable hair

Dry eyes

Excessive thirst

Tiredness, weakness, frequent infections, lowered immunity (always sick) and allergies.

If you can’t afford supplements, encourage your child to eat cold water fish, such as snoek, pilchards, salmon, hake (but grilled or baked – not battered and deep-fried) and walnuts and pumpkin seeds. Flax seed oil is cheaper and not as strong-tasting as fish oil and can be hidden in smoothies, salad dressings, milk over cereals and so on.

To conclude, don’t expect that your child’s problems will miraculously disappear once you start on an Omega-3 supplement. Give it at least 4 months before seeing results.  In addition, oil deficiency may not be the one underlying cause of the child’s challenges. There may be other areas needing intervention.  Try to have a comprehensive evaluation of all the factors that may be impacting on a learner’s ability to cope with the demands of school and life.


The nose knows – Part 2: Sensitivity to smell


Last week I wrote about using the link between smell and memory to aid learning. This week, it might be interesting to consider the significance of being hypersensitive to smells (hyperosmia).

Sensitivity to smells are fairly common in children who have sensory processing irregularities. Such children are also frequently picky eaters and may be anxious, quickly experience sensory overload with lots of meltdowns and find it difficult to calm themselves.

Smell affects the workings of our nervous system – in particular, the system that controls our flight or fight response to triggers in the environment.  This means that some smells can trigger negative reactions (causing fear, aggression, withdrawal) but others can work positively, calming the system down and helping to regulate feelings.

The key is knowing which smells to avoid and which to use to help the child restore or maintain emotional balance.  Some smells can even cause a physical reaction, such as gagging or vomiting. The child may show flushed cheeks, develop a headache and even a slight fever. This is not deliberate ‘over-reaction’ of the child in an attempt to avoid a situation but a neurological response originating from a powerful sense! On the other hand, other smells may help a child feel ‘grounded,’ in control and even improve attention, focus and task completion.

Some children cannot cope with perfume, food cooking, the smell of room fresheners, aromatic candles and even their own smells emanating from toilet use.  Try to exclude these as much as possible and if you know you’ll be taking the child into an environment that will unbalance him, teach him how to use nose plugs. These can be a life-saver!  Keep windows open during and after cooking to freshen the air.  Do keep your house as well-aired as possible.

Experiment a little to find one or more smells that have a positive effect on the child.  A shop supplying essential oils will be able to suggest which oils are suggested for varying sensory needs.   For example, lavender has traditionally been associated with calming.  If it works for your child, use lavender soap in the bath, essential oils in the home and so on.  Remember though that a little goes a long way – you don’t want to overdo it.

At this point, it might be helpful to focus on children who are picky eaters.

Some picky eaters avoid certain foods because of the smell rather than taste or texture. You need to respect that they really are sensitive to the smell of these foods but, at the same time, know what to do.  You can’t avoid ever cooking certain foods again, after all!

Try to involve the child in finding helpful ways to avoid distressing mealtimes and desensitise themselves to smells they can’t tolerate.  For example, warn the child that you’ll be cooking the offensive food and ask her to open windows to help dispel the odours.  Even better, have the child help you to cook the food.  Raw broccoli, for example, is often tolerated but as it cooks, it emits a stronger smell.  If the child is helping you cook it, she gradually becomes more and more aware of the smell, which might help her adjust rather than entering the kitchen to be overwhelmed by the surprise of cooking broccoli.

If food offends at the table, try moving it away from the child, or covering it up. Also try putting a drop of a favourite essential oil on her wrist so that she can use that to override the smell of food at the table.

Lastly, if you are the parent of a smell-sensitive child, you’ll know to avoid scents in your home.  But what about the school?

Some children are thrown by the smell of the cleaning products used in the bathrooms and other areas.  They can also be tipped off-balance by the products used innocently by teachers. For the sake of those relatively few children, schools should be encouraged to use natural products with as little odour as possible to maintain hygiene, and teachers should be made aware of the possibly negative effects of perfumed deodorants, perfume, scented soaps and hairspray.  Minor changes can have big effects on the lives of small people!


Summer heat and young brains


The fact that schools and higher learning institutions close for the summer holidays might not be based on neuroscience but is nevertheless wise. It has to do with the effect of heat on our brains. 

I’m sure we can all relate to the experience of not being able to focus and cope with mental work in extreme heat.  The same can be said for children, struggling in a hot classroom. 

A recent study finds a link between heat and lower academic achievement.  High school students who were tested during hotter years had lower scores compared to their test performance after a cooler year. Another study concerned university students who were given two tests a day of basic addition and subtraction, cognitive speed, memory, attention and processing speed for 12 consecutive days during a particularly hot spell. Those students who lived in air-conditioned buildings scored significantly higher than those who did not.  Yet another researcher[1]wrote that taking an exam on a day where the temperature reaches 32 degrees Centigrade leads to a 10.9% lower likelihood of passing a particular subject (e.g. Algebra). 

So our hot South African summers cause some brain drain and possibly our youngsters could benefit from schools staying closed during January and February, the hottest months of the year.  Of course, air conditioning seems to offset the damaging impacts of heat on academic achievement but we know how expensive it is to install and run air conditioners in   schools. We also know that air conditioners release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which is not good for our already struggling environment. 

But summer heat can cause physical problems for children as well. It’s important to remember children are at high risk for heat-related illnesses, as their bodies heat up 3-5 times faster than those of adults. When the weather is extremely hot and humid, the body’s ability to cool itself down is compromised, and both adults and children are at risk if the temperature rises above 32 degrees Centigrade.

Dehydration is a major concern and it should be remembered that often children don’t feel thirsty when they are engaging in physical activities out of doors.

  • Before outdoor physical activities, children should drink freely.During activities, they should have water available and take a break to drink every 20 minutes.
  • Sports practices and games played in the heat should be shortened and there should be more frequent water breaks.
  • Clothing should be light-coloured and lightweight. Limit clothing to one layer of absorbent material to help the evaporation of sweat. If their shirts become sweaty, they should change to dry clothing.
  • Children complaining of feeling dizzy, lightheaded or nauseous should be allowed to move into a cooler environment.

There is no doubt that heat and dehydration can make children sick.  Apart from dehydration, children can also suffer from heat exhaustion, heat cramps and heat strokes.

Your child may not tell you if they’re feeling bad, so it’s critical to recognize the signs and symptoms of these heat-related illnesses in order to take proper action and prevent further injury.

If your child develops any of the following symptoms, it might be wise to call your pediatrician immediately:

  • Feeling faint
  • Extreme tiredness (e.g. unusually sleepy, drowsy or hard to arouse)
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Intense thirst
  • Not urinating for many hours
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Breathing faster or deeper than normal
  • Skin numbness or tingling
  • Muscle aches
  • Muscles spasms.

With the long summer holidays looming every closer, plan to protect your children from the heat by playing outside in the early mornings and late afternoons (apart from swimming).  Children may become restless if kept indoors for too long so make sure you have entertainment planned in the form of indoor games and activities. 

But don’t forget to limit the amount of screen time!

 [1]R. Jisung Park, Assistant Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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