Hyperactivity in children, also known as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), typically manifests itself as a ragbag of symptoms including impulsiveness, problems with concentration and learning difficulties. Recently, scientists have discovered that many hyperactive children also share a gene that seems to foster a desire for new experiences. Researchers have suggested that being hardwired for thrill-seeking was a major boon for our ancestors, as it almost certainly increased the chances of successful mating. Yet while the genetic glitch associated with hyperactivity may have been a distinct advantage tens of thousands of years ago, the problem is that its less desirable consequences can wreak havoc in the lives of children and those around them now.
Conventional treatment for ADHD centres on the drugs Ritalin (methyl-phenidate hydrochloride) and Dexedrine (dexamphetamine sulphate). Essentially different forms of what is colloquially called 'speed', these drugs can sometimes bring a paradoxical calm to the nervous system of ADHD sufferers. Yet while increasing numbers of children are being treated with Ritalin and Dexedrine, some doctors are urging caution. There have been murmurings about the safety of these drugs, and last year saw the publication of a report calling for an urgent investigation into their long-term effects. For those keen to take another route, the good news is that safe, effective alternatives do exist. Scientific research has found that hyperactivity can be related to the deficiency of brain-nourishing fats in the diet. What's more, experience shows that supplementing with these fats may help counteract the learning and behavioural problems typical of ADHD.
The brain is a relatively fatty organ, and is especially rich in highly unsaturated fatty acids (HUFAs). Two HUFAs that are particularly abundant in the brain are docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Found in oily fish such as mackerel, trout and salmon, these fats are believed to play a pivotal role in maintaining health in the brain's intricate circuitry. DHA appears to be particularly important for promoting the normal structure of the brain and is thought to be critical for the organ's early development during pregnancy, infancy and childhood. EPA, on the other hand, appears to be more important for the day-to-day running of the brain, essentially helping to keep its mood and behaviour on an even keel.
Bearing in mind the crucial role that HUFAs play in brain function, it comes as no surprise that studies have found that hyperactive children tend to be short on these fats. Interestingly, low HUFA levels have also been found in children suffering from conditions often associated with ADHD including dyspraxia (poor co-ordination and clumsiness) and dyslexia. For children affected by these sorts of conditions, some assessment of HUFA status seems prudent. While sophisticated blood testing for HUFA levels exists, it is beyond the scope of standard medical practice. However, HUFA deficiency can give rise to symptoms that point to a problem, and it can be useful to keep a lookout for these. Telltale signs include excessive thirst, frequent urination and dry skin and/or hair.
Boosting intake of HUFA in children affected by ADHD or related issues clearly makes good sense. A few servings of trout, mackerel or salmon each week may help. However, my experience is that many children have an almost pathological dislike of oily fish, and simply won't eat it - supplementation is often the only practical way of getting decent quantities of fish fats into a child. This approach may well pay dividends. Earlier this year saw the publication of a study designed to assess the effect of HUFA supplementation in children with ADHD-like symptoms. Forty-one children were treated with a mix of HUFAs, including EPA and DHA, or a placebo for three months. HUFA supplementation was associated with an improvement in 10 out of 14 measures of ADHD and behavioural symptoms. In contrast, the placebo-treated children saw no benefits.
One supplement that provides useful quantities of both EPA and DHA is Eye Q (available in Boots, Tesco and Superdrug). While the precise dose of this supplement required to get a result is an individual affair, six capsules a day seem to be about right for many children. In practice, I have found the speed at which children respond to HUFA supplementation is variable; while some children react within two or three weeks, others may not benefit for three months or more. More information about the role of HUFAs in ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia can be found in The LCP Solution by Dr Jacqueline Stordy and Malcolm Nicholl (£14.99, Macmillan).
Over the past couple of years, my sense of smell has diminished. As expected, my sense of taste has dropped off, too, and I just don't enjoy food like I used to. My doctor has drawn a blank. Any ideas? I am 47, don't smoke and drink only on occasion.
Harry Parkhouse, Gillingham, Kent
A gradual reduction in the sense of smell seems to be a common problem as we age. Because the sense of taste is intimately bound to our ability to smell, this problem may exhibit itself as a desire to eat increasingly strongly flavoured or spicy foods. Loss of smell (referred to as anosmia by the medical profession) can be related to smoking or conditions, such as nasal inflammation (rhinitis) or head injury. Usually, though, there is no discernible underlying cause, and treatment options are therefore limited.
In practice, natural agents may sometimes help improve sense of smell. Zinc is often used for this purpose. Take 30mg to 45mg of zinc each day. As zinc supplementation may cause copper deficiency in time, I recommend that you also take 2mg to 3mg of copper at the same time. Another nutrient which may help improve the sense of smell is magnesium. In one study, the majority of individuals who had failed to respond to other treatments found an improved sense of smell on magnesium supplementation. Take 250mg to 350mg per day. These two supplementations may help to restore your senses of smell and taste over some weeks or months.
Nutrition news: Why breast is definitely best
Breastfeeding has been linked with various desirable effects, including a reduced risk of childhood asthma and relative protection from heart disease later in life. A recent study suggests that breast milk appears to be especially important for the brain development of smaller babies, too. Researchers from the US and Norway compared the IQs of five-year-old children who weighed in at less than 6lb at birth. Children who had been exclusively breastfed for six months after birth were found to have IQs an average of 11 points higher than children whose breastfeeding was supplemented with formulas or solids. This study appears to contradict the notion that breastfeeding alone may be inadequate for smaller babies, and gives more credence to the old adage that breast is best.
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