Mood, Food, & Learning in Children

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~ Dr. Christina Vlahopoulos, ND

Many of you may be familiar with the sleepy feeling associated with a large turkey dinner or the sugar rush that comes after a sweet treat. But what about children who have a complete melt down after lunch or who are unable to sit at their desk at school while trying to learn? Various learning challenges seen in children are a growing concern for parents and educators. The increased demands on educators make it more problematic to provide children the attention they need to excel scholastically. That may be one piece of the puzzle.

The other piece may be what children are putting in their mouths, how their body is reacting to what they are putting in their mouths, how they are nourishing themselves and more importantly how they are nourishing their brain. Some may perceive a child’s learning challenge as a disability and therefore go for a string of tests to assess what the disability is/are.

However, in some cases the child could be acting out based on the foods they are consuming. It has been well established scientifically that there is a connection between the gut and the brain. This connection or communication from the gut to the brain, or vice versa, can be accomplished through the autonomic nervous system and the immune system. Behaviour in young children is a basic form of communication and when potentially allergenic foods, additives or chemicals are consumed, it may contribute to their behaviours – especially in school. For instance it has been demonstrated scientifically that certain chemical additives can exacerbate the symptoms of ADD/ADHD. Things like artificial colours and/or sodium benzoate used as a preservative have been shown to increase the level of hyperactivity in children – this connection has been known for quite some time.

There can be other contributing factors in school-aged children with respect to mood, food and learning. For instance, a recent research paper just published the connection with beneficial microbes (such as in probiotic supplements formulated for children), in the gastrointestinal system and how this can have an impact on anxiety – something many school aged children feel but do not possess the vocabulary to express.

In some cases a child may have a hard time sitting and listening because of blood sugar imbalances. The mid afternoon melt down may happen if a child has a high simple carbohydrate meal (white pasta with butter for instance). If there is no protein to aid blood sugar then a child may feel more edgy and less likely to want to sit down to learn.
Finally, behavior issues in school could be because a child is eating something that is a food sensitivity for them. Food sensitivities could include a wide variety of foods. A number of non-invasive tests could be used to assess gastrointestinal health, and in older children, a food sensitivity test could be done to rule out offending foods.

Even if a child is on medication, there are still ways to support the child through nutrition and potential supplementation. By exploring the mood/food connection, a parent can begin by paying attention to how their little one behaves after certain meals. With the help of a Naturopathic Doctor, you can explore the world of foods as medicines and use foods to heal.