Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has become one of the most perplexing and prevalent disorders to arrive into our modern era. This condition, which was virtually unknown some fifty plus years ago, has reached by some estimates 3-10% of children and perhaps 1 to 6% of adults in North America. Various theories and treatments have been put forth since initial recognition of the disorder. While many may argue that this condition is probably being diagnosed far too often in what may simply be part of a child’s temperament, (this writer included), ADHD in its most extreme cases can be an extremely debilitating and difficult illness to treat. Even though no one has a definitive explanation as to its causes, probably due to the fact that the underlying factors are so complex, great strides have been made in putting some of the pieces of the ADHD puzzle together.
The first step in understanding this disorder occurred in 1937 when a stimulant drug Benzedrine was found to drastically reduce hyperactive symptoms in children. Doctors later discovered that other stimulant drugs like Ritalin were also very effective. Because these drugs stimulate the activity of the brain neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine it was first thought that ADHD was caused by a shortage of these chemicals. More sophisticated brain imaging techniques have shown structural abnormalities in both the gray and white matter portions of the brain. Further tests have also shown deficits in both blood flow and energy use in those same areas of the brain.
The brain needs healthy fats
The brain is approximately 60% fat by weight (making all of us literally “fat heads!”), and it is probably wisest to begin with the basics of nutrition, particularly the role of essential fatty acids when dealing with brain health and ADHD. Widespread deficiency of the omega-3 essential fatty acids EPA and DHA (especially in North America) is now widely recognized. It is probably not a coincidence that the increase in ADHD has correlated with the increased use of baby formula in the recent past. Furthermore ADHD seems to be aggravated by deficiencies of other vitamins, minerals and nutrients such as choline, B vitamins, zinc and magnesium. Thankfully newer formulas are putting back these much needed fats and nutrients.
Brain composition affects function
Simply put, the composition of the brain matter has a tremendous influence on how the membranes surrounding our brain cells perform their crucial functions. Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids are more fluid and less rigid in structure than saturated fatty acids—such as the hydrogenated shortenings found in commercial baked goods. With insufficient quantities of the essential fatty acids the brain will try to incorporate substitute lipids with vastly different properties. Anyone who has ever worked on a car knows the difference in fit, finish and function of a vehicle when one tries to use cheaper “aftermarket” parts as opposed to the original manufacturer’s equipment.
The brain cell membrane acts as an electrical regulator controlling the movement of ions such as sodium and potassium in and out of the cell. It also affects the movement and transmission of important neurotransmitters. Numerous studies show that the lipid bilayers composed of the proper amounts of omega 3 fatty acids seem to function best. The ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids also appears to be of critical importance. When present in excess, omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids may increase inflammation and neuronal dysfunction due their pro inflammatory breakdown by products.
It appears that the brain likes a 1:1 ratio of omega 3 to 6 as opposed to the 4:1 to 20: 1 ratio that many health experts estimate are typically consumed through diet. Readily available sources of omega 3’s include flax and fish (particularly the more fatty ones like salmon, sardines, mackerel and herring). Keep in mind that you will need to consume far more of the plant based omega 3 oils fish as the conversion process in humans of these short chain fats found in plants to the long chain ones found in fish appears to be inefficient. Lastly, choosing a good quality fish oil will also circumvent any issue there may be with contamination of the fish from mercury and any other pollutants.
With 90% of total brain growth occurring in the first three years of life one cannot stress enough the absolute necessity of giving your child adequate quantities of omega-3 essential fatty acids, as well as providing the other nutrition they need. Children may prefer the sugary cereals but for their sakes please try and provide their growing bodies and brains with enough protein and the good fats, especially in their early formative years. They’ll thank you later!