4 Natural Remedies to Help Children with Learning Disabilities
A growing number of children are struggling with learning, focus, sensory processing, memory and executive functioning skills. Children with learning disabilities are often diagnosed with another developmental disorder such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Parents whose children are struggling with learning often seek out complementary, alternative treatments to help improve academic performance, social interactions and self-esteem. Recent research indicates that natural supplementation can boost inadequate or impaired elements that, at normal levels, directly and definitively benefit brain cell material but are lacking in affected children.
Essential fatty acids
One of the most effective natural treatments relies on repair and support of the cell membrane. Omega-3s improve cognitive function through their ability to support cell membrane health. This includes the outer cell membrane, which supports communication between cells, and the mitochondrial membrane, the heart of energy production which is vulnerable to membrane damage. Brain function, directly related to mitochondria’s ability to produce energy, therefore depends heavily on cell protection. The benefits of taking EPA and DHA, two of the omega-3 fatty acids, are clear improvements in focus, attention, behaviour, reading and math.
Through their effect on cell membranes, omega-3 fatty acids are one natural treatment that nourish the brain’s ability to communicate via neurotransmitters. While significant, most physicians, parents and naturopathic doctors would agree that omega-3s alone aren’t enough to support optimal learning in most learning-challenged children. If we break down the components of the cell membrane, its “fat shuttle” (the method of omega-3 delivery) and the energy “factories” that support brain function, we can appreciate the need for a more comprehensive treatment.
The very system that distributes omega-3 fatty acids to cells is also an important part of their clinical benefit. The “carnitine shuttle” delivers omega-3s to be broken down by mitochondria, providing fuel for the brain. Carnitine shuttling is highly sensitive to toxic exposures and vulnerable to low levels of antioxidants. The more effective the carnitine shuttle, the more successful the delivery of essential fatty acids. Research is showing promising results for children with ADHD supplemented with carnitine; and for children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), this treatment has shown significant improvements in cognitive function.
Phospholipids make up the cell membrane, impact every element of cellular function and are an exciting and important new aspect of alternative treatments for learning disabilities. A supplement called phosphatidylserine (PS), for example, has been clinically proven to help in a wide range of cognitive functions. PS energizes the human brain and is deeply involved in the production, packaging and delivery of key neurotransmitters (the communication highways between cells), including serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid), which are essential for learning.
Serotonin is a fundamental brain chemical that has been identified in the physiological abnormalities of ASD and ADHD. It is responsible for regulating learning, memory, sensory processing, noise sensitivity, mood, sleep, appetite and behaviour.
Dopamine receptors have abnormal form in children with ADHD, autism, OCD and Tourette Syndrome. Low dopamine levels impair attention and focus. High dopamine levels cause the mind to race and increase sensory perception, inducing “brain overload”. Dopamine is responsible for regulating sensitivity and processing of information, perception of change, relaying information, motivation, social-emotional responses, attention, focus, transitions and, the fundamental brain function, cognition.
GABA is a calming neurotransmitter. It is created from glutamate with the help of B6, zinc and taurine. The majority of pediatric developmental disorders involve elevated levels of glutamate or glutamatergic abnormalities. Deficient levels of GABA or problems with GABA receptors are thought to play a role in the excitatory elements of autism and ADHD.
In studies, PS has been shown to improve memory, learning, cognitive function, mood, focus and attention. It has also demonstrated benefit in helping the brain cope with emotional or physical stressors.
Repairing the cell membrane and stabilizing cell signalling may be another way that essential fatty acids, carnitine, phospholipids and other treatments like antioxidants are improving learning in children diagnosed with developmental disorders. The cell membrane is extremly sensitive to toxins. A recent study pinpointed a potential source of autism symptoms originating in the “cell danger response” (CDR). The CDR disrupts cellular communication and is triggered when the cell is exposed to chemicals, physical trauma, nutrient deficiencies or microbes. Once the CDR is turned off, the cell repairs itself and communication resumes. The proposed problem in autism, and other chronic disease, is that the CDR doesn’t turn off because of continued cell damage or metabolic dysfunction.
The phospholipid, glycerophosphocholine (GPC) protects cells from toxicity. It is abundant in the cell and protects not only cells but body tissues and organs. GPC is a readily available source of choline for the brain, which supports cell growth during all phases of life. Supplementation with GPC improves mental clarity, mental performance, focus, attention, and memory. Perhaps one of the most exciting benefits is in its ability to coordinate the brain with the rest of the body. Improvements in speech, articulation, coordination and gross and fine motor skills are some of the benefits of this supplementation.
The last natural support that I will touch on is the use of antioxidants. Oxidative stress has been implicated in many developmental disorders including autism, ADHD, Cerebral Palsy and Down Syndrome and it occurs when the body’s own protective antioxidants can’t compensate for the level of toxic exposure, inflammation, nutrient deficiencies or infection. Oxidative stress can damage cell membranes and contribute to a continual cell danger response. Antioxidant therapies including curcumin, green tea extract, pycnogenol and vitamin E help prevent damage to the cell membrane. For children diagnosed with learning disabilities and developmental delays, this treatment along with an antioxidant-rich diet helps to support cognitive function.
Given the complexity of developmental disorders, it is not surprising that treatment would be multi-faceted. This closer look at the cell membrane helps to highlight the importance of supplementing essential fatty acids, carnitine, phospholipids and antioxidants in children experiencing difficulties with learning, focus, behaviour and overall cognitive function. Alternative therapies offer a safe, effective and comprehensive treatment approach for children who could benefit from cutting edge neurological treatments.