The role of nutrition

Nutrition and learning: how food affects the brain
Extracted from the book ‘Smart food for smart brains’ by Shirley Kokot DEd

Nine words that gave me a real wake-up call in my life were: The way to brain health is through the gut. As a professional who is dedicated to helping children experiencing difficulties in school, I had long felt that there was a piece missing from the puzzle. This was the missing link!

Parents bring their children to ILT practitioners and describe the difficulties their sons and daughters are having with learning. The children find it difficult to cope with the demands of school and although the list is long, some of the most commonly experienced challenges include:

 Can’t attend for long enough
 Never seem to be able to complete written work
 Forget the teacher’s instructions and seem unsure of what they are expected to do
 Are slow to learn to read
 Struggle to learn times-tables
 Maths concepts are poorly understood
 Homework is a nightmare
 Shows disruptive behaviour in class
 The child is talkative and loves to chat but cannot put ideas down on paper
 Seem bright and IQ tests result in normal or even high scores, but school progress is slow and not up to the potential shown

Other behaviours are reported as well. Parents and teachers describe children as

 Demanding or defiant
 Anxious

 Irritable or restless
 Being tired for no obvious reason
 Depressed and/or suffering mood swings
 Suffering from asthma, sinusitis, upper respiratory illnesses
 Experiencing sleep problems
 Showing low muscle tone
 Having rashes, eczema
 Getting frequent headaches

These and other behaviours are the symptoms that so many children show. The trouble with these symptoms is that they don’t explain what is causing them. It’s rather like an iceberg – one sees the tip of the iceberg rising above the sea level but we are seldom aware of the size and complexity of the mass of ice floating below. Remember that only 7% of an iceberg shows above the water – the greater mass is hidden.

ILT is concerned with the underlying causes of such behaviours. Unlike therapists and practitioners who follow the ‘medical model’, we don’t try to find a diagnosis to ‘fit’ the symptoms. This merely results in labelling a child with what is usually a mental disorder or learning disability, such as ADHD, Dyslexia, Auditory Processing Disorder, Dyspraxia and so on. These labels tell us very little about the underlying cause of that behaviour. To us, it seems far more sensible to rather unravel the reasons for the child’s inability to thrive in school. In order to do so, we have to play the role of detective, looking for clues that point us in the right direction to help a child without resorting to medical prescriptions for medications or trying to control the symptoms through behaviour modification strategies.

Some people find it difficult to believe that the lists of symptoms above are very often related to food intolerances and/or poor gut health. There is, however, a dawning realisation that the brain is dependent on the health of the digestive system for efficient functioning. I say dawning because while the study of the gut biome (the number and quality of the ‘good’ bacteria in the gut) and its relationship to health and disease is an exploding area of research , too often the role of the digestive system is overlooked when adults and children present with anything concerning the brain. Fortunately, that seems to be correcting and there are increasing numbers of doctors that are making it their business to understand the connection between the digestive system and the brain.

The brain is directly affected by the food we eat, air we breathe, and manner in which we treat our bodies . Virtually every child who shows symptoms of ADHD and other labelled disorders presents with evidence of a disturbed brain-behaviour relationship. Whether hyperactivity or inattentiveness or any other symptom is caused by nutritional deficiencies, too many refined sugars and other carbohydrates, food additives, prescribed medications or interferences in brain development, the way the brain functions often provides the clue to the answer. Behaviour is the response to the chemical signals received by the brain. Our work is to try and unravel the cause that is triggering the brain to respond to those chemical messages by instructing the body to perform the observed behaviours. Behaviours are an important clue to how the body and brain are functioning. They are the symptom, not the cause.

There is a reason why so many children who present with learning and behaviour challenges also experience allergies, eczema, decided food preferences (are ‘picky eaters’) and tend to be susceptible to illnesses. Such children may have less than adequate immune systems – 60% of which is said to be located in the gut. Amy Myers, a medical doctor specialising in the field of Functional Medicine, believes that ADHD is an auto-immune disease caused by inadequate diet and imbalances in the gut. The reason behind her belief is that so many children with the label of ADHD have what medical people term Gastro-Intestinal (GI) dysfunction.

With this knowledge, it makes sense to carefully consider whether the child may be helped not merely by medication but by important lifestyle changes. Dr John Ratey made a telling statement in his book ‘Spark’, when he wrote: ‘Junk food equals junk brain’, a sentiment echoed by Dr Jeff Bland, the founder of Functional Medicine, who said that ‘Junk food is angry food and results in an angry immune system that will and does fight back!’

More about this important role of nutrition is available in Smart Food for Smart Brains. It is available from ILT so contact us to purchase it.


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