Exercise Your Body, Energize Your Brain

Small Changes, Big Results Series

Part IV:  Exercise Your Body, Energize Your Brain

The upcoming generation is known as Generation XXL due to the growing childhood obesity epidemic. Adding only a half hour of exercise to a child’s daily routine has not only benefits for weight management but brain function as well.

 

How Exercise Affects the Brain

Have you ever sat in a long meeting or seminar and found yourself getting sleepy, antsy, and dying for a break so you could get up and move around?
Exercise for Your Brain

Research shows that physical movement can enhance clarity, attention, and readiness for learning. Physical movement increases oxygen flow to the brain, improving alertness, concentration, and receptivity. Adding movement or physical action to a learning activity increases recall.

At the Learning Enhancement Centers, we find that integrative movements that cross the midline of the body are extremely helpful in bringing students to a calm, alert, and mentally and emotionally ready state for learning. We use the Brain Gym activities with our students. The movements can be easily integrated into the classroom or home. Here are two books that are great references:

  • Brain Gym Teacher’s Edition by Paul E. Dennison and Gail E. Dennison (www.braingym.com)
  • Hands On: How to use Brain Gym in the Classroom by Isabel Cohen and Marcelle Goldsmith (www.braingym.com)

Periodic brain breaks that involve movement throughout the school day and homework time will also improve learning, productivity, and attitude. Breaking up learning with Brain breaks help to keep the pupils in the most receptive state for learning. These short exercises increase oxygen supply, release stress, and allow learners to refocus.

Finally, deep breathing and water are also great brain energizers. Deep breathing immediately brings more oxygen to the brain and encourages relaxation, improving thinking and focus. Water improves the electrical transmissions in the brain and nervous system, providing energy for learning and attention.

 

How to Add Exercise to Your Child’s Life

Here are some links for fun, quick movement exercises that can be easily integrated into the classroom, clinic, or home:

This week, try adding some movement into your and your child’s day. My personal strategy is to work for 25 minutes and then move for 2-5 minutes. Do you notice a difference? Are you better able to focus? Do you notice that you have more energy for the task at hand?

 

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Protein for Improved Focus and Attention

Small Changes, Big Results Series

Part II: Protein

“Is your child eating protein as a regular part of their diet?”  This is a question I often ask parents, because few people understand how important protein is to our brain function and learning.  High-quality protein foods allow optimal brain function so that a child feels motivated, energized, and focused, not hyperactive or inattentive.  Here is how it works.

How Protein is Processed in the Body

Foods with high-quality protein have amino acids, which provide the building blocks for neurotransmitters.  Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers that allow the brain cells to communicate with each other.  Two of these neurotransmitters are serotonin and dopamine.  Serotonin improves feelings of well-being, hopefulness, organization, and concentration.  Dopamine is responsible for attention and focusing.  It allows you to maintain an action plan, regardless of other things trying to divert your attention. It also motivates and stimulates you to engage in life.

When protein enters the stomach, it is digested and exits the stomach as tryptophan.  Tryptophan aids in the production of dopamine and serotonin.  Tryptophan cannot cross the blood/brain barrier independently – it requires the assistance of carbohydrates/insulin – like a limo service to open the door and allow entrance.  Once in the brain, tryptophan converts to serotonin and helps us in organization, feelings of well-being, and satiation.   In fact, a study published in the September 2011 issue of Behavioral and Brain Functions showed that children with ADHD appear to have 50 percent lower levels of tryptophan.

(Although our brain needs carbohydrates to complete this process, they must be the right types of carbs.  We will discuss this topic in the next Small Changes, Big Results article, Choosing the Right Carbohydrates.)

The Small Change

As much as possible, increase protein at all meals.   Protein increases dopamine and serotonin and can stabilize blood sugar, whereas a high-carb meal increases insulin and can make your child feel foggy and have less energy.  Many children go to school after having a sugary carbohydrate breakfast, and many teens choose to go to school with no breakfast at all.  A low sugar breakfast and lunch with 12-20 grams of protein can make a vast difference in a learner’s performance.

Breakfast High in ProteinSome great sources of protein are:

  • Greek yogurt (be careful as dairy can often be an allergen)
  • Lean meats – chicken, turkey, and other lean meats
  • Eggs
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Fish
  • Plant-based protein sources – beans, barley, brown rice, broccoli, potatoes, spinach, etc.
  • Protein shakes

Often times, asking students to reduce carbs/sugar can be difficult, so a great baby step is to add a high protein food item to their meal.  For instance, if they are having a waffle for breakfast (carb), they could add a hard-boiled egg.  They could also have an apple or celery with peanut butter.  It is a great compromise, and one that can help your child feel more focused.

Remember the goal is to balance your food consumption to provide optimum brain function.

Do you find it hard to get your child to eat protein? Have suggestions of things that you found that your child likes and have been easy to implement? As always, we would love to hear your thoughts.

 

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Healthy Fats For Healthy Brains

Small Changes, Big Results Series

Part I: Healthy Fats

Every January, many adults make resolutions to get healthy by eating better, exercising more, and getting more sleep.

We seem to know that these things are important to our own health. And yet, the impact that diet, movement, and sleep have on attention and learning is frequently overlooked. As a parent or teacher, it isn’t too late to think about adding these things to your student’s daily routine (or even yours). Small changes today could bring about major changes in your child’s life.

In this series of blog posts, Small Changes Big Results, we will discuss some small changes you can make that can positively impact your child’s learning and behavior.  We will begin by looking at the importance of healthy fats to your child’s brain.

Feeding Your Brain

Studies have shown that what we eat affects how we feel, how we think, and how much energy we have. Memory, thinking, and attention are strongly influenced by food. Optimal nutrition is the most important factor in keeping your brain healthy.  Because of this fact, small changes to our children’s diet and nutrition is a great place to start making big impacts.

Let’s Look at Healthy Fats First

Healthy Fats positively impact the brain

Believe it or not, the most important nutrient for the brain is fat because the brain is actually made up of fat. Omega-3 fats, EPA and DHA, are essential for brain function. In fact 60 percent of the brain is made up of DHA. DHA is essential for the brain cells’ ability to transmit signals to one another. This is what makes learning and memory possible.

Studies have shown that dopamine activity, which is critical for brain function, is improved with essential fatty acid consumption. A study from UCLA published in the May 15, 2012 edition of the Journal of Physiology showed that fatty acids can counteract the disruption in memory and learning causing by diets high in fructose. Another study published in Plos One in June 2013, showed that lower levels of DHA were linked to poorer reading and working memory performance as well as behavioral problems in healthy school aged children. Research has also shown that children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are more likely to have low omega-3 fat levels.

In the last 150 years, our fat intake has greatly changed. We need to make sure that we are consuming the best fats for brain health. For instance, if the majority of our fat intake is from trans fats and beef fat, our cell membranes become stiff and hard like lard. This makes it difficult for information to pass from one cell to the next. However, if they are made from omega-3 fats, our cell membranes will become fluid and flexible, allowing easy communication between cells.

Where Do We Get Healthy Fats?

Omega-3 fats come from wild things, which can be hard to find in today’s society. Our bodies can’t produce enough DHA, so we must supplement through diet. The best sources of DHA are cold water fish (salmon, sardines, herring, halibut), walnuts, omega-3 eggs, and flaxseed. Dr. Daniel Amen, author of many books, including Healing ADD Revised Edition: The Breakthrough Program that Allows You to See and Heal the 7 Types of ADD, recommends supplementing dietary intake of omega-3s.

It is important to realize that not all supplements are created equal; it is important to choose quality products. Third-party testing for independent verification of active ingredients and contaminants is crucial. Also, consider from where the products are sourced.

I would love to hear your thoughts. Do you already take essential fatty acids? Are you considering adding them to your diet?

Fats are just one piece of the “nutrition puzzle.”  For Part II of the Small Changes Big Results series, we will look at the importance of protein to brain health — Protein for Improved Focus and Attention .

 

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Sensory Processing Disorder vs ADD

In our last two blogs, we talked about how weaknesses in auditory processing and reflex integration can look like attention deficit.  In this article, we talk about the impact of sensory processing on attention.

Sensory processing refers to how our brain receives information from the senses of the body and processes it.  The brain then has to decide how to respond and then commands the body to respond appropriately.  For most individuals, this is done without issue.  However, someone who has difficulty processing this information and responding appropriately is said to have a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).

Most of us are aware of the five senses:  sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing.  However, there are two other very important senses:  Vestibular and Proprioceptive.

The Vestibular sense is housed in the inner ear.  It helps us to make sense of where our body is positioned in space.  It allows us to make changes in our posture and balance.  It detects head acceleration, head position, and the pull of gravity.  (Most older people have a poor vestibular system.)

The Proprioceptive system allows our body to judge the space around us, know where we are in relation to that space, and know where our body parts are and what they are doing.   It is housed in the receptors in the joints, muscles, and ligaments.  It tells us how much pressure and force is needed to do something, and is stimulated by heavy work, pulling, pushing, carrying, jumping, hugging, etc.   Without movement affecting the muscles and joints, the receptors go to sleep.

Sensory processing can be so difficult to explain.  Some students can be overstimulated by the sensory information, while others can be understimulated.  Students can vary in how they respond.  Some will act in accordance and others will try to counteract their response.

For example, a student who is overstimulated becomes overloaded by the sensory input, and if they are acting in accordance, they will become distractible, hyperactive, or silly.  But if they try to counteract the stimulation, they might become avoidant, or rigid or ritualistic, or resistant to change.

If understimulated, the student may respond in accordance and appear bored, tired, or apathetic.  Whereas, the student who is trying to counteract this understimulation might try to get more sensory input by seeking the sensations, and seem active, fidgety, and excitable.

As my friend, Denise, says, “If you have met one kid with Sensory Processing Disorder, you have met one kid with Sensory Processing Disorder.”

Here is a very short checklist of sensory symptoms.  (A long one can be found at http://www.sensory-processing-disorder.com/sensory-processing-disorder-checklist.html)

  • Responds negatively to loud or unexpected noises
  • Holds head upright even when bending over or  leaning (i.e. Maintains a rigid position/posture during activity)
  • Seeks to make noise for “noise’s sake”
  •  Rocks/twirls/bounces frequently
  • Seeks hugs or other deep pressure
  • Avoids getting messy
  • Has difficulty standing close to other people
  • Appears sensitive to changes in lighting
  • Reacts emotionally or aggressively to touch
  • Exerts too much or not enough pressure when handling objects
  • Gags easily with certain food textures
  • Touches people or objects to the point of irritating others

 

  • Dislikes playground equipment or moving toys
  • Seeks all kinds of movement
  • Takes movement or climbing risks that compromise personal safety
  • Appears lethargic (no energy, sluggish)
  • Is sensitive to certain fabrics or clothing
  • Limits self to particular foods or food temperatures
  • Prefers long sleeved clothing when it’s warm or short sleeves when it is cold
  • Displays unusual need for touching certain toys,  surfaces or textures
  • Insists on removing shoes as soon as possible, or insists on leaving shoes on
  • Decreased awareness or response to pain or temperature
  • Chews, licks, or mouths non-food objects

 

Sensory Processing Disorder is something we screen for during our evaluation.  Learning Enhancement Centers has many strategies that can be used to help a student with SPD.  However, there are times when we feel that the student should work with an Occupational Therapist (OT) first.  Once again, this is why an evaluation is so important to make sure that the cause of the problem is being addressed, not just the symptom.

 

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