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So You’re Thinking About Food and Nutrition Therapy?

Controversial LD Therapies | Food Nutrition TherapyA few weeks ago, I saw a half-page advertisement in a major national newspaper and my jaw dropped in amazement. It talked about a new “memory pill” that was safe (“nutritional supplement”) and that, through “biochemical coaxing” could “help restore depleted neurotransmitters” and “enhance alertness, concentration, and memory… in as little as 30 days.” When you see these types of promotions, please turn the page (or run the other way!). And if you decide to linger a bit and read the fine print, here are some questions to ask about therapies for learning disabilities (LD) before you go any further:

  • What is the likelihood of it working? Why isn’t everyone jumping on the bandwagon? What do others who are not involved in marketing this treatment have to say?
  • What independent research has been done to prove the effectiveness of this approach?
  • How do I know it is safe? What are the contents? Are there any side effects reported? (Remember: Just because it says it says it’s “natural” does not mean it’s “harmless.”)
  • What does it claim to “fix” and can it, in reality, even be fixed?

In other words, now that you’ve read the label, start running!

Dietary InterventionsHaving a healthy, well-balanced diet is important for everyone, including individuals with LD and ADHD. A number of approaches to treating features of these disorders have been studied, and the benefits of each has been inconclusive. Most of the attention in this area has been paid to ADHD, but given the high incidence of co-occurrence, it is important for all parents and educators to have good information about what works and what does not.

When it comes to ADHD, interventions fall primarily into two categories:

  • Eliminating foods from the diet
  • Adding to or supplementing the diet with foods that are thought to be missing

Many parents (not just those who are reluctant to use medicine to control their child’s symptoms of ADHD) explore whether food sensitivities are the cause of their child’s difficulties. And everyone’s body processes and metabolizes foods in slightly different ways. Some individuals with ADHD (and maybe LD) are reported to be especially sensitive to certain types of foods containing, for example, gluten, caffeine, or food coloring, but studies are inconclusive about how to predict or even determine (and measure) whether there is any benefit to learning and attention by adding or eliminating certain elements from a person’s diet. Doing so (with proper medical supervision) is virtually risk-free. Just be careful about not going to the extreme, especially if other health or medical conditions are present. And be sure to consult with your child’s physician before making any radical changes.

Now a word about sugar. Despite almost overwhelming anecdotal evidence to the contrary, research has also shown that the simple elimination of sugar or candy does not affect ADHD symptoms. Cutting down sugar intake is probably a good thing to do anyway, but data do not point to refined sugar as the culprit in LD or ADHD.

Nutritional SupplementsNutritional supplements are hugely popular. In the USA alone, they comprise a 20 billion dollar industry, with tens of thousands of products available for easy purchase in groceries, specialty shops and via the internet. The decision to supplement one’s diet should always be discussed with a with medical doctor before taking action, especially if medications are being taken or if there is any question or concern about food sensitivities, allergies or if other medical conditions.

And remember this: while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has strict regulations about the sale of prescription medications, it does not strictly regulate the ingredients or the manufacturer claims about dietary supplements. The ingredients in these types of substances could be harmful, and even if not, the ways they interact with other medicines or food products could place you or your child at risk. Ask your physician for help determining your best options.

There are no studies that demonstrate benefits of nutritional supplements for individuals with LD. With regard to ADHD, a considerable body of literature exists about different treatments that are intended to alter and enhance brain chemistry, particularly neurotransmitters. Here are some of the latest findings:

  • Studies have been conducted to examine the impact of supplementing omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids; further controlled studies are needed.
  • Researchers have begun to look at the role of basic saccharides and whether supplements might reduce inattention and hyperactivity; some data appear to be promising but are preliminary and inconclusive.
  • Megadose multivitamins have been demonstrated to be probably ineffective or possibly dangerous, not only failing to show benefit but carrying a risk of toxicity resulting in peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage to parts of the body that are outside of the brain).
  • For children with deficiencies of nutrients of trace elements such as copper, zinc, iron, magnesium, manganese, and chromium, the connection with ADHD is unclear and correcting these deficiencies has not shown to have an impact on ADHD symptoms.
  • Introducing amino acid supplements appears not to be of any benefit to individuals with ADHD.

And there are not data to suggest benefit to individuals with LD or ADHD from supplementing one’s diet with particular herbs or spices. Once again, if you want to know more, always consult with your medical provider before you begin.

Anti-Motion Sickness MedicationThe theory behind this treatment approach is that ADHD symptoms are caused by problems with the inner ear. Proponents of this approach often recommend a combination of medications that include stimulants (most often prescribed for ADHD) in addition to drugs that are known to work well to treat motion sickness. The science in support of this approach is lacking, and the theory behind the approach is not supported by neurobiological research in the area of ADHD.

The bottom line about dietary interventions and nutritional supplements:

  • Eat a healthy diet, get plenty of exercise, and don’t look for a connection between LD or ADHD and what you eat.
  • Always consult your medical provider before introducing or eliminating foods or supplements of any kind.

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