Food additives and hyperactivity – a new look at an old problem
We have all experienced the problem either with our own children or with a friends; behaviour and mood rapidly changing after eating processed or highly coloured food. Naturally we make the knee jerk judgement and commit that food to the growing list of culprits responsible for turning our kids into little monsters. Few would question the benefit of changing our children’s diets for ones higher in fresh natural foods whilst avoiding the potential chemical time bombs of processed food but is there any actual evidence to say that these foods are the real triggers?
This was the topic in a recent editorial published in the British Medical Journal. When a study involving some 297 children aged between 3 and 9 were analysed some interesting results came to light. One of the key factors in this study was the fact that unlike many other investigations none of the children in this cross section had any previous diagnosis of attention-deficit or hyperactivity disorder. Despite this the results still showed an adverse effect on behaviour with an intake of additives equivalent to that found in two 56 g bag of sweets.
No one can agree – who can you trust?
Following the publication of this study the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) soon jumped in and rejected the claims in news articles that two mixtures of food colours along with the preservative sodium benzoate had any adverse effect on behaviour. However, following a re-analysis of the results the EFSA was forced to revise their view and had to re-publish their comments. The EFAS panel discovered that the figures they questioned did actually mirror the results of the original study. Their final comment on the subject was characteristically low key; “the study provides limited evidence that the two different mixtures had a small and statistically significant effect on activity and attention” This statement, as low key as it may appear, is an important step forward because if additives alters the behaviour of normal children, even in a small way, the study has profound implications for children with hyperactivity who are far more sensitive to many things including chemicals. It is true to say that food and additives are not the prime cause of behavioural problems in hyperactive children, the condition is complex and highly individual, but anecdotal reports from parents, teachers and health professionals do point a finger most certainly at foods as potent triggers. Sadly, eliminating colourings and preservatives are still regarded by some as an alternative rather than a standard approach. In light of the current studies and years of almost impossible to avoid anecdotal accounts it is difficult to understand why simply improving the diet and removing “junk” needs so much science to support its use. Despite this, the two-pronged conventional approach is still firmly entrenched primarily in drug therapy and sometimes referral for behavioural therapy. With the growing bank of evidence to support the role of diet modification it is surprising that this simple task is not tackled from the onset keeping in mind that there is, in fact, less evidence published for the benefits of behavioural therapy! This probably explains why around 50% of children attending specilist medical clinics also concurrently use alternative medicines.
The additives defiantly to avoid
Sunset yellow (E110) – Colouring found in squashes
Carmoisine (E122) – Red colouring in jellies
Tartrazine (E102) – New colouring in lollies, fizzy drinks
Ponceau 4R (E124) – Red colouringSodium benzoate (E211) – Preservative
Quinoline yellow (E104) – Food colouring
Allura red AC (E129) – Orange / red food dye
What else can be done?
A quick check of the internet will yield a plethora of cures and remedies for ADHD and hyperactivity disorders. A simple Google search for “ADAH products” narrowed down to UK sites only resulted in 81,800 sites coming up!
Among the many sites there is some good information and within this information can be found some guiding lights in the grey area that lies between alternative and conventional medicine. One such beacon in the mist is Dr Jeff Bradstreet MD. Jeff is a family doctor based in Florida where is founded the International Child Development Resource Centre. As well as his clinical work he is also a Professor of Neuroscience at Stetson University, Florida and the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Phoenix Arizona. With his feet firmly in two camps, the conventional and naturopathic, Dr Bradstreet is well placed to push nutritional research forward in the management of ADHD and hyperactivity.
Over the years Dr Bradstreet has found few nutrients that have been of particularly helpful to children with behavioural issues. In addition to the much publicised omega-3 fish oils these include phosphatidylserine (PS), the amino acids taurine and L-theanine as well as the powerful antioxidant N-acetylcysteine and the nutrient dimethylaminethanol (DMAE).
Getting the balance right
Interestingly, two of these nutrients naturally work very closely within the body, in fact PS is made DMAE. It has long been known that PS forms a vital building block supporting the structure of every cell in the body as well as playing an important role in the production of chemical substances needed for healthy and balanced nerve function. Known as neurotransmitters, these substances regulate the activity of the brain and are known to be out of balance in cases of ADHD and hyperactivity. In one study 75% of children who took PS supplements experienced increased levels of focus and attention. By using both PS and DMAE together those with poor ability to absorb and metabolise PS can still benefit since once within the body DMAE can be converted into PS. For children attending school it is good to know that neither PS or DMAE have ever caused drowsiness or reduced alertness.
Boost those alpha-waves
In all cases of ADHD and hyperactivity management the biggest problem facing parents and children alike is the common side effect of drowsiness associated with prescribed drugs. Getting the balance right is not easy, an over excited brain can’t be expected to focus on the task in hand or conform to the rigours of school or modern life.
In seeking a remedy for this Green tea appeared to offer an answer. The soothing and relaxing effects associated with Green tea are derived from its L-theanine content. This amino acid, once isolated and purified, has become a popular supplement with people suffering from anxiety and stress related problems since it produces a relaxed state of mind with no drowsiness. It was finally discovered that L-theanine enhanced the brains alpha-waves. A brain with good alpha-wave activity is associated with a state of relaxed alertness. By applying this knowledge L-theanine has been of great help to children with hyperactive behaviour and poor focus. It is a very safe supplement and well tolerated. Depending on age, 100mg taken up to three times a day appears to offer effective support. L-theanine is also found in Dr Bradstreets own formula that combines all the above into a convenient supplement.
Putting it all together
No one can say that they have the universal remedy for ADHD or hyperactivity, the condition is far to complex for any one remedy or life style adjustment to work in isolation or universally. However, the evidence is mounting from UK studies into the effects of diet manipulation while in America the nutritional supplement research is laying the foundations for additional measures. By blending the two approaches overall health can only bee seen to benefit from improved food intake and optimal nutritional support.