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Dyslexia, ADHD and the Essential Fatty Acid Connection – What You Need To Know


Essential Fatty Acid Deficiency and the ADHD & Dyslexia Connection

If there is one nutrient that has made the most headlines with dyslexia treatment as well as ADHD and other cognitive and mental health disorders it is Essential Fatty Acids. Countless studies in recent years have found what studies as far back as the 1980’s also discovered–many children (and adults) who live with dyslexia, dyspraxia and learning differences as well as ADHD demonstrate deficiency in these fats–as well as other key brain nutrients.

Your Brain – Fatter than You Think

Low fat diets have been encouraged for the last few decades and our brain health and hormones have suffered as a result. Consider this:

  • Your brain is 60% fat when dried and 20% of that fat is DHA (long chain fatty acids).
  • 30% of the fat in your retina is also DHA (long chain essential fatty acids)
  • The area of your brain that has the highest concentration of DHA is responsible for maintaining focus and attention.
  • Fats are needed for the proper absorption of fat soluble vitamins
  • Individuals who have poor co-ordination, balance and dexterity are often deficient in EFA’s (DHA)
  • Fats are essential for manufacturing our hormones

Signs of Essential Fatty Acid Deficiency

  • Bumpy, ‘chicken skin’ on backs of arms
  • Dandruff or dry hair
  • Inability to focus, sit still, hyperactivity
  • Anxiety, depression
  • Slow wound healing
  • Decreased immunity
  • Excessive thirst
  • Dry skin, eyes

Understanding Why Boys are More Frequently Diagnosed with Brain Disorders

A 1981 study from the Medical Journal ‘Medical Hypotheses’ found not only were hyperactive children much more likely to test for essential fatty acid deficiency but also that boys had a tendency to metabolize essential fatty acids much faster and often required up to three times higher doses compared to girls. It was also found that boys who had ADHD and learning difficulties also had significantly lower rates of essential fatty acids in their blood. This may account for the reason why boys are statistically more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD and learning disabilities compared to girls.

Your Brain on Essential Fatty Acids

Sufficient amounts of essential fatty acids is necessary for eye health as well as how the brain processes vision. Deficiency is even more detrimental in a child’s brain since their brain is undergoing massive change and development and insufficient fat (the right kind!) can result in poor brain development. DHA, a type of EFA is crucial for neural maturation in both a developing fetus as well as infants. DHA is the component of fish oil which has made the most headlines due to its beneficial effects on the brain and vision. It impacts motor skills, speech, memory, as well as influencing retina function and its ability to adapt in the dark (a trait that many dyslexics lack).

Your Brain Cells Need Fat to ‘Talk’

Nerve cells in the brain communicate with one another through a biochemical language. The common denominator with all of the symptoms related to dyslexia, ADHD, dyspraxia and learning differences is that brain cells cannot effectively communicate with one another. Fatty acids are essential for this process as EFA’s are transported across cell membranes to aid in different neural and cognitive functions. Deficiency can result in difficulty concentrating, poor sleep quality, learning disabilities, visual challenges as well as issues related to behaviour such as explosiveness, impulse control and hyperactivity.

What Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, ADHD and Learning Differences all Have in Common

Dr.Jacqueline Stordy, previously Senior Lecturer in Nutrition at the University of Surrey, conducted some ground-breaking research with children who had brain disorders. She found that dyslexic, dyspraxia and ADHD children all had one commonality–they were deficient in long chain fatty acids. Upon studying the essential fatty acid levels of dyslexic and non-dyslexic children, it was determined that the non-dyslexic group had significant deficiencies in essential fatty acids compared to the non-dyslexic children. (Taylor et al., 2000)

Dyslexia and Dyspraxia – One Beast, Two Names

EFA’s are necessary for the brain to have proper co-ordination and muscle control a function that is both lacking among children with dyspraxia as well as in the visual processing among many people with dyslexia. In fact, The International Health News Database in Guildford United Kingdom reported that “dyslexia is closely related to dyspraxia.”
In his book, Optimum Nutrition for the Brain, Dr. Holdford describes a study by Dr. Alex Richardson at a London, England hospital which found the severity of dyslexia was directly linked to the degree of essential fatty acid deficiency. Symptoms of dyslexia improved among the study group as their essential fatty acids consumption increased.

EFA’s and the ADHD, Dyspraxia, Dyslexia Umbrella

A similar study that was carried out at Purdue University discovered that hyperactive children have difficulty converting dietary EFA’s to the long chain EFA’s needed for vision and brain function. Deficiency can often lead to poor sleep, impulsivity, hyperactivity as well as temper tantrums and aggression.
I have written before about how and why dyslexia, ADHD and dyspraxia often overlap. There is often confusion among parents and teachers if a child is actually dyslexic (has difficulty decoding symbols that represents phonemes) or if they are having difficulty learning and reading because they can’t maintain focus long enough to learn or read. There is the other possibility that a child can’t be attentive because they are actually dyslexic as opposed to ADHD (or unable to pay attention). In this case the learning is over their head and they are bored senseless so they appear to exhibit the symptoms of ADHD when it is in fact a problem with decoding words.

Focusing on Brain Support Not Labels

Obviously specialists can help to identify the actual problem, but it is important to remember that there is overlap with many of these children because their brain is disorganized. Addressing the underlying reasons and symptoms without getting too focused on labels is the wisest approach. Labels are for jars and are often unnecessarily dehumanizing and limiting.
The need to focus less on labels and more on the cause of symptoms is evident in a study which was conducted on dyslexic children who also struggled with ADHD. They were given either EFA supplements or a placebo. After three months the children receiving the EFAs supplement demonstrated significant improvement in their ability to learn, memorize, maintain focus and they displayed less symptoms related to anxiety and inattentiveness.
Whatever the ‘disorder’, their symptoms improved and more importantly they had an increased ability to learn and be attentive. Often it is not simply one nutrient that is lacking but a combination of diet and lifestyle therapy that is required to help them brain become better organized.

Vision, Dyslexia and Essential Fatty Acids

There are many factors that work together to make decoding and reading comprehension possible and among these is obviously our eye health and function. It is not uncommon for dyslexic students to complain of letters being blurry or that letters are moving. A substantial percentage of dyslexics more frequently demonstrate vision problems that go undetected on standard eye exams. They may have a 20/20 vision score, but unknowingly have difficulty coordinating their two eyes, known as ‘binocular instability’ or they may find it challenge to focus both eyes on a close target.
Dr. Jacqueline Stordy, made a ground-breaking discovery when she determined that dyslexic children may indicate no vision problems on a standard eye test, but had poor night vision, dark adaptation and often had a sensitivity to light. Usually this occurs only among individuals who are deficient in Vitamin A, but she found this phenomena could be treated by supplementing with EFA’s. Both night vision and dark adaptation improved as well as dyslexia symptoms.

Dyslexics Inefficiently Metabolize Essential Fatty Acids

Dr. Stordy also learned that atypical essential fatty acid metabolism in the eyes of dyslexics was common. This finding is supported by a study that was carried out at Hammersmith Hospital which found through brain imaging that fats were inefficiently metabolized in the brains of dyslexic children.
Is it any surprise that Dr. Stordy found that supplementing essential fatty acids showed significant improvement after 12 weeks for all children who exhibited symptoms of dyspraxia (similar to eye instability, dyspraxia is linked to coordination, balance and dexterity challenges) among even those individuals who scored in the bottom 1 percent of the population? In the same study, Dr. Stordy found that essential fatty acids improved symptoms of dyslexia in just four weeks. At the end of this four week trial, night vision and dark adaptation had been restored to that of normal function that is seen in non-dyslexic individuals. This nutrient therapy combined with the eye training and tracking that is part of the Cellfield Reading Intervention Program can prove to be effective at correcting vision problems related to dyslexia.

Optimum Nutrition for the Brain  Patrick Holford
Superimmunity for Kids: What to Feed Your Children to Keep Them Healthy Now, and Prevent Disease in Their Future by Leo Galland and Dian Dincin Buchman
The LCP Solution: The Remarkable Nutritional Treatment for ADHD, Dyslexia, and Dyspraxia by B. Jacqueline Stordy Phd, Malcolm J. Nicholl
Cure Your Child with Food: The Hidden Connection Between Nutrition and Childhood Ailments  by Kelly Dorfman (Paperback)
Healing the New Childhood Epidemics: Autism, ADHD, Asthma, and Allergies: The Groundbreaking Program for the 4-A Disorders by Kenneth Bock, Cameron Stauth