If you’re confused about the cause of dyslexia, you’re not alone. It seems there are a dozen theories all claiming to find the ‘real’ reason why some people struggle so much with learning to read. When I first plunged into this line of work–I was confused and overwhelmed myself. There was more information than I cared to find as to what causes dyslexia.
Some experts attribute it to a visual disturbance, others to a phonemic deficit, others as an over-looked gift in which individuals think in symbols and images instead of in words and still others have found success in treating dyslexia by addressing nutritional deficiencies and the brain-gut connection.
All of these theories and treatment protocols are based on scientific data and they also all have countless success stories. How could it be that so many experts were finding so many varying causes? Because all of these factors can play a role to varying degrees in different individuals.
The simple fact that dyslexia can develop as a result of a head injury in an adult who previously never had any history of difficulties with reading is proof enough that a multitude of factors can affect an individual’s ability to read. Physiologically, we are all different as are our environments and genetics. Furthermore, what has been found is that individuals living with dyslexia experience it in a multitude of ways.
How one individual experiences dyslexia can be vastly different from how another experiences dyslexia which accounts for the varying explanations about what causes dyslexia and how it is experienced. For example, there are some individuals who are able to decode words, but cannot state what they just read. This is because they are using their working memory to decode instead of a part of the brain that typical readers use. If they are using their working memory to decode than they cannot use their working memory to retain and comprehend the text at the same time. Still others struggle to simply be able to decode a text; they may not be able to sound out a few words, let alone an entire sentence.
One fact that is clear is that dyslexia and other brain disorders are on the rise in epidemic proportions. While genetics may be a factor, they cannot account for the sudden and staggering increase in learning disorders or that so many individuals have recovered from a disorder that is theorized by some to be solely genetic. I have written in another article the various reasons why childhood brain disorders are on the rise.
As I began learning about integrative approaches to understanding and treating dyslexia, I realized, dyslexia, like many other disorders and illnesses of our time has several causes. An integrative approach assesses and treats dyslexia by balancing the brain and body, correcting deficits and creating new neural networks in the brain.
Researchers who specialize in dyselxia have found that dyslexia can be broken down into different types of dyslexia. As mentioned in a previous article, the experience and severity of dyslexia is different for each person and the various factors that cause and contribute to dyslexia could account for this. Two of the common types are visual and auditory and other times these two senses may be malfunctioning together leading to problems decoding and comprehending words. This is why the Cellfield Reading Program is unique because it bonds the auditory to the visual to create new neural pathways.
1.Visual – A common experience among individuals with dyslexia is being able to rapidly and correctly visually recognize and decode the letters or phonemes that make up a word. This is known as an orthographic deficit. Dr. Jacqueline Stordy’s research on the effectiveness of essential fatty acid supplementation in correcting poor vision and coordination among children with dyslexia and dyspraxia clearly indicates the role that vision and eye health plays in reading and writing. The area of the brain known as the thalamus, processes rapid visual information that is received from the retina. It is not only the retina that requires high amounts of essential fatty acids, but the thalamus as well.
It is not uncommon for children with dyslexia to have poor eye tracking abilities–that is being unable to follow a moving object. Being unable to track the sequence of letters or words in a sentence from left to right or on a line on a page leads to the child ‘scrambling’ words and sentences as their eyes strain to track and maintain sequence. When children cannot transition from one line to another known as the ability to ‘change fixation’ they also can also become disorientated; letters can become blurred, reversed, move on the page or even disappear. Convergence occurs when a person’s eyes do not work together but instead may see separately which can result in seeing double or blurred vision. Essential fatty acid supplementation combined with other nutritional therapies as well as eye tracking exercises is beneficial for addressing muscle weakness related to eye function.
2.Auditory – Auditory functioning is rarely the first aspect we would think of as a main factor in dyslexia, but indeed it is. Like the orthographic deficit that occurs with vision, dyslexic childrenalso often have a phonological deficit in which they struggle to quickly determine the correct sequence of the sound particles in a word. A child’s ability to understand and clearly speak a language begins with being able to accurately hear basic sound units known as phonemes. If a child cannot hear properly, due to a functional problem with the ears, frequent ear and throat infections, colds or sinus infections that block the ears or other factors then their hearing may be compromised either temporarily or chronically. Unfortunately, impaired hearing is often a condition that is not recognized right away. Undiagnosed hearing problems can cause them to have difficulty differentiating between sound units or phonemes such as pad and pat, add and at, thin and pin, specific and pacific and the list goes on. Phonemic awareness is not only crucial for proper speech but for the decoding that is necessary for reading.
Auditory dyslexia is not that a person cannot understand phonemes, but that there is a problem in their ability to process sound representations and decode the representations in print. The brain of someone who is not dyslexic is able to turn printed letters into sounds that can be interpreted into words and then sentences that has meaning. Dr. Sally Shaywitz stresses the importance of detecting this phonemic deficit at an early age. The sooner this deficit is detected, the easier it is to correct which then enables the brain to make new neural connections with the various phonemes.
3.Toxicity – Toxicity is everywhere in our modern world and has been found to be responsible for the increased rates of cancer, MS as well as psychiatric and cognitive disorders that are all too prevalent in our ‘developed countries’. Children with autism have been found to have increased levels of numerous pesticides and other toxic chemicals. High levels of heavy metals such as mercury, lead and cadmium were reported in the brains of all ages of individuals with neurological disorders whether it is children with ADHD, dyslexia or autism or adults living with bipolar and schizophrenia. These chemicals, pesticides, heavy metals and even radiation creates inflammation in the body as well as the brain which creates biochemical changes with a vast array of symptoms.
While the only way to create a toxin-free environment is to live in bubble, reducing toxic insults as much as possible can make all the difference. Cleaning with natural household cleaners, using non-toxic, all-natural cosmetics and hair products, avoiding synthetically scented products like candles and air freshener and eating food that is free of hormones, pesticides, antibiotics as much as possible is a great place to start.
The best advice I heard was from Holistic Psychiatrist, Dr. Kelly Brogan, MD. She advised that getting stressed over environmental toxins is not any more healthy and to treat it like a game in which you do your best each day to reduce you and your family’s toxic exposure.
The good news is that even if you fear that your child suffers from environmental toxicity–much of this can be detoxified as you increase your consumption of healthy foods and decrease your ingestion of toxins. Even heavy metals such as mercury and lead can be cleared from the body. I had moderate to high levels of mercury and cadmium eight years ago but have since re-tested and now have low levels of both heavy metals.
4.Nutritional Deficiencies - If you have read any of my articles on nutritional deficiencies and dyslexia you will know it’s no small science linking nutritional deficiencies to increased rates of dyslexia, ADHD and dyspraxia. Omega 3’s or essential fatty acids seems to be the super-food for children with cognitive disorders which should be obvious when you consider that 20% of your brain and 30% of your retina is composed of essential fatty acids. Our decreased consumption of fish in recent decades (once our main source of omega 3’s) seems to be playing a major role in the increase in brain disorders. Zinc, B-vitamins, selenium and magnesium as well as probiotics are all crucial brain nutrients. Without them, the brain begins to mal-function in degrees that are proportional to the deficiencies. Nutrition therapy can yield excellent results in dyslexia, ADHD and autism. When nutrition therapy is combined with brain-training even better results tend to occur.
5.Poor Immunity – You may have read in my article about the intimate connection of gut-brain health and that 80% of our immune system is in our gut. Therefore a compromised gut health and immune system can affect certain nerve cells that are required for co-ordination, decoding and other such cognitive abilities. Allergies, eczema, hay fever, frequent colds and flus is common among children with dyslexia as well as ADHD and other brain disorders. Once auto-immune problems are addressed through nutrition therapy, rest and other health protocols improvement in both cognitive abilities as well as physical health often takes place.
6.Genetics – I saved this one for last because there has been insurmountable research as of late on the topic of epigenetics–which means that genetic expression can literally be turned on and off according to our diet, environment and lifestyle. This accounts for why only 50% of twins with a sibling who is dyslexic develop dyslexia themselves. However, if dyslexia was genetic than a twin study should show a 90-100% likelihood that the other twin would be dyslexic. Too often parents are told their child’s problem is genetic which often leaves them feeling like it is hopeless and untreatable–that at best all they can is manage the condition.
Dr. Stordy did find in her research that genetic predisposition was a factor in dyslexia. Some families carried a predisposition to have difficulty converting essential fatty acids so that they can be absorbed into the cell membrane and be effectively metabolized in the eyes and brain. Other research has found that dyslexic individuals inherit specific nerve cells, called magnocells which are impaired. These nerve cells are necessary for both visual and auditory timing and rapid processing and are found to be a factor in dyslexia. It appears, however that the impairment of these cells alone are not the sole cause of dyslexia, but that their inheritance can allow for the genetic expression if other factors are present.
Essentially, all of the above factors can in fact contribute together to causing the symptoms associated with dyslexia. Impaired magnocells can create difficulties in the brain’s ability to recognize and order letters and their phonemes both on a visual and auditory level. Furthermore, certain genetic predispositions can cause magnocells to be susceptible to auto-immune conditions. If this occurs when the brain is still in the crucial stages of development (as we are seeing with many young children suffering from brain-gut-immune conditions today such as Asperger’s and autism) then the individual is at an increased risk of developing cognitive disorders.
These same genetic predispositions will also cause the magnocells to be impaired more profoundly by nutritional deficiencies such as essential fatty acids, zinc, magnesium and B vitamins as well as by environmental toxins. Detoxifying the body, strengthening the immune system and gut microbiome through nutritional therapy and gut microbe re-inoculation as well as brain training are all part of treating the symptoms that cause dyslexia.