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Got kids? You might have noticed, if they’re school age, that their teachers start to get itchy, usually around fourth grade. For many traditional elementary schools, that’s when the game changes. More sitting, less moving, more producing written work, higher reading expectations, and the type face for reading gets smaller. Many kids just aren’t there. Next thing you know, the teacher or principal uses the “m” word (which, by the way, is a legal minefield). Is it medication time?

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Other kids have dramatic challenges from day one of circle time in pre-school. They can’t sit without poking a peer, jumping up and bolting for a favorite activity or toy, or shouting a lot.

You don’t need an official ADHD diagnosis to support children with these symptoms – they can learn and function more easily, more naturally, more innately either way. Here’s the first five things I do when a child comes into my office needing support for attention, ADHD, and learning, below. For more detail and further strategies, pick up a copy of Special Needs Kids Go Pharm-Free.

1) Food. The classic profile of an ADHD kid coming into my office is a kid who eats processed food often, plus a lot of starchy stuff, not enough protein and healthy fats, and sometimes, a lot of dairy. The bad news: Even if you chose the organic Cheddar Bunnies or the gluten free goldfish crackers instead of the regular ones, organic or no, either way, it’s still empty, starchy, over-processed stuff that doesn’t serve a growing brain well when eaten by the bowlful every day. Pretzels, power bars, yogurt tubes, corn chips, potato chips, bread, bagels, pizza, noodle bowls, breakfast cereals… All of it can be low for the minerals and protein that the brain needs to run its neurotransmitter loops, plus high in sugar or simple starchy grains and void of healthful fats that the brain needs.

Even if this was organic, it's still starchy junk

Even if this was organic, it’s still starchy junk

Solution: Real food. Though kids can be fiercely picky, and making changes is hard, the rewards can be great. Yes, it takes extra time and planning, but even one or two good whole food meals or snacks a week is a step in the right direction. Think of eggs for breakfast as well as organic bacon; hash with last night’s roasted potatoes or parsnips plus some chopped garlic, pepper, and sausage; porridge made from pumpkin and whole coconut milk instead of cereal grains, with some sesame tahini, molasses and cinnamon. If bars are your kids’ thing, check out these recipes for ideas that are way better than the processed stuff from the store. Try some different smoothie recipes in the morning that let you build in minerals, protein, and fats. Move away from refined or sugary breakfast cereals, even if they are organic – they’re still sugary refined food. Check out BalancedBites.com for an avalanche of ideas and recipes.

For portable school snacks, work in some raw or roasted nut and seed options and avoid things roasted in GMO oils, like canola, soy, corn, or cottonseed. Brain-safer oils are organic sunflower, safflower, or olive oils, or just choose unfrosted (raw) nuts or seeds. Make a trail mix of your own (a few chocolate chips and raisins won’t hurt); introduce your child to a simple crunchy option like raw whole almonds, which go well with pepperoni slices, raisins, and a smidge of raw goat or cow’s milk cheese. Nut butters are an option, though many are sugary, so keep these in less frequent rotation rather than daily.

For kids who like crunch, pick from naturally crisp and sweet veggies like orange, yellow, or red bell peppers or young asparagus. Bell pepper slicesPack finger food sized slivers or stems. A dip like hummus or white bean dip will add protein, healthier carbs, some minerals, and fats. Familiar favorites like apples and grapes may work better for your child as a Waldorf salad (which adds some fat and protein) than on their own (just carbs). Vary this with other fruits like mango, cantaloupe, or kiwi, and add any tolerated nut or seed plus a healthy fat like mayonnaise, avocado, olive oil, or sesame tahini. A variation that always vanishes in my home is this salad, to which we add sunflower seeds and dates. For protein snacks, experiment with organic beef or turkey jerky; cold curried chicken salad with raisins, sunflower seed, celery and mayo; hard boiled or deviled eggs; organic salami slices with raw almonds and a few chunks of cheese. Long short, work toward more, not less, whole unprocessed protein and calorie sources. These give the brain a variety of amino acids, fats, and minerals to work with toward easier neurotransmitter signaling and cell to cell flow.

2) Fats. Eat more of these. Most kids I encounter with ADHD, ADD, and problems with focus or attention don’t eat enough total fat. I see this when I review their food intakes – they’re skewed heavily for starchy carbs. How much fat is good? Exact grams per day will vary  per your child’s age, weight, and other needs, but bank on at least 50-60 grams per day from food for starters. Fats are critical for kids’ brains to grow and function normally; without them, serious impairments in brain and growth will occur. Besides allowing more total fats, vary them – that is, fats and oils should come from a variety of whole foods (vegetables and vegetable oils; nuts, seeds and their butters; meats and poultry; whole coconut milk, butter or ghee, fish if you eat it), not one source (as in, just cheese or hot dogs), not processed foods (hot dogs, cereals, power bars, crackers, chips). I definitely encourage organic especially for fats, since fat tissue and oils are where pesticides,heavy metals, and other toxins accumulate in plant foods, fish, and livestock. Expensive, but when you can afford it, buy organic.

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What about fish oil, and omega 3 fats? Yes, use these, if ADHD, ADD, dyslexia, and other learning or visual processing issues are on deck. I’ve found that many families are attempting fish oils at potencies that are too low to get a benefit, don’t use it daily (as you should, just as you would for a medication), give up too soon, or don’t give a format their child will accept. My clinical experience mirrors what is seen in many clinical trials: Omega 3 oils do work for ADHD and learning, if used consistently (daily for at least 3-4 months), and at the right dose. Omega 3’s offer multiple benefits (anti-inflammatory effects, less anxiety, better visual processing, calmer behavior, to name a few) without side effects. One of my least favorite side effects of stimulant medications for children and teens is the impact on weight, growth, and gain. These medications can suppress appetite and impair growth; I’ve seen it many times. This in turn injures focus and learning. Children should not have to trade a nourishing, adequate food intake in order to focus and learn!

How much is right? For DHA omega 3 (docosahexaenoic acid), I start children at 800 to 1000 mg daily at least, and may go up to 3000 mg. I rarely see a therapeutic effect below a gram (1000 mg) daily for DHA, which is noted for improving focus/attention and tasks like the visual tracking that permits reading or writing across the whole page. EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) omega 3 fatty acid is my go-to when there is more mood, tantrums, or volatility in the picture. In that case, same idea: Dose higher than you might expect. I typically see shifts starting at 2000-3000 mg of EPA per day; some kids may go as high as 6000 mg. Caveat: If your child uses any psychiatric medication, let your prescriber know if you’d like to use fish oils. EPA and DHA omega 3’s can be used together. Brands for purity, potency, acceptance (will your kid eat that?), and most rigorous screening for toxicity? Pharmax and Apex Energetics. You can purchase these brands through Nutrition Care For Children if you like, or surf the web to find them. Nordic Naturals is my next choice, and this is widely available in stores.

I’m always asked: What about flax for omega 3’s? I do have some young vegetarians in my practice, not to mention a few who won’t touch fish oils no matter how good they actually taste when manufactured well. Flax is my lesser choice. It takes a good bit more of it to dose effectively, and at higher doses, it may interfere with thyroid function. That said, a tablespoon of ground flax seed daily is a useful addition to smoothies both for its added healthy fats but for fiber as well. It helps smoothies thicken up into a creamy texture too. Meanwhile there are some products from Barlean’s that meet needs for the super picky tasters out there, though these don’t entirely replace whole food sources of healthy fats, which your kids should be eating every day.

Stay tuned for part two of natural supports for ADHD, focus, and learning – where I cover my next three punch list items for helping kids learn the way they were built to learn. Thanks for dropping by!

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