by Dr. Elisa Song
By now, your kids have probably been back in school for about a month or so. With back-to-school, it’s back-to-homework! And for some of you and your kids, it’s back-to-STRESS! Teachers complaining that your kid is daydreaming too much, or distracting the others. You pulling your hair out trying to get him to sit down and do his homework, or reminding her 10 times to put her completed homework in her backpack and she still forgets it the next morning.
Don’t lose hope! There’s so much you can do to boost your kid’s attention naturally. Check out my top 10 tips below!
Tip #1: Take Out the Wrong Foods
If you haven’t already read my blog post on Artificial Flavors, Preservatives & Dyes – OH MY!, then read it now. Artificial dyes, flavors and preservatives in processed foods can significantly impact attention and focus. Take them completely out of your kids’ diet – that’s right, completely! If your kid is having attention and focus problems, even that little sip of “Cool Blue” Gatorade® or that one little bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos® once a week at soccer practice can be enough to impact her focus and attention at school for the rest of the week!
Stick with whole, unprocessed foods as much as possible. But I totally get it. I’m a mama to 2 school-age kids, and packing snacks and lunches is challenging enough when you can’t throw in a yogurt drink or a granola bar. So what can you do if packaged items are simply unavoidable? READ LABELS. If you can’t pronounce it – DON’T BUY IT. Absolutely stay away from the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list of Food Additives, and exercise caution with “natural flavors” that can be “code word” for monosodium glutamate (MSG).
Tip #2: Keep that Blood Sugar Balanced
Think – protein, healthy fats, complex carbs.
Many kids with attention and focus issues suffer from blood sugar swings. High-sugar diets have been found to increase inattention in some kids. Ask any teacher if they can guess which kid had a balanced breakfast or not, and I’ll bet they’ll be able to tell you! Many kids are on a blood sugar rollercoaster. Eating simple carbs like pancakes and maple syrup for breakfast skyrockets their blood sugar → insulin chases that blood sugar to try to bring it back down to normal levels but overshoots so blood sugar crashes → kids get cranky and melt down or totally lose focus and crave more sugar to get back to baseline → they eat a quick “sugar-fix” snack like Goldfish® or pretzels or fruit juice which skyrockets their blood sugar → and the cycle beings all over again. You’ve seen this happen to your kid after a birthday party after a cake, juice, and candy feeding frenzy. Now, that may seem like an exaggerated response to a huge sugar load at once. But imagine – this is probably happening to your kid on a smaller level everyday.
So what can you do to help keep your child’s blood sugar balanced?
Breakfast really is the most important meal of the day.
Breakfast eaters have been found to have better energy and attention, and are more likely to achieve higher grades in school and pay closer attention in class.
Make sure breakfast is filled with healthy protein and fat. Protein and fat slow down how quickly sugar is absorbed from our digestive tract into our bloodstream, so blood sugar rises slowly and steadily instead of skyrocketing and setting them off on that blood sugar rollercoaster, That same waffle with maple syrup you’re feeding your child will have much longer staying power with improvements in focus and attention if you put almond or other nut/seed butter on it. And better yet – plan ahead and make a big batch of waffles or pancakes with added protein powder – they’re easy to freeze and enjoy all week long. Eggs, nitrate-free bacon and sausages, nut and seed butters are all great protein options for breakfast.
If your child isn’t sensitive to dairy, then 1/2 cup of full-fat Greek yogurt packs in a whopping 10 grams of protein! And if your child just isn’t a big breakfast eater, then making a fruit and veggie smoothie with Greek yogurt or protein powder is another alternative. Instead of eating your breakfast, drink it!
No, not Happy Meals! Mini meals! If your child is having blood sugar swings that are causing attention and behavioral issues, the key is to have your child eat frequently, up to every 2-3 hours. Ideally, every time she eats it will look like a balanced mini-meal with complex carbs, protein and fat. At the very least, make sure that each snack has some protein and fat in it. Pair grapes with a handful of walnuts. Give crackers with an assortment of delicious hummus. Snack on chicken skewers dipped in peanut sauce (these are my kids’ favorite chicken “lollipops”). Serve apple slices with a side of almond butter drizzled with honey. Be creative, and enlist your kids in coming up with even more yummy snack pairings!
Tip #3: Load Up on Good Fats!
Fat is BRAIN FOOD
Fat is GOOD for your brain. Healthy fats, that is. Our brain is at least 60% fat. We need healthy fats for proper brain functioning, focus/attention, memory and mood support.
What are healthy fats?
Omega-3 essential fatty acids, like EPA and DHA, have been found to reduce ADHD symptoms and support optimal brain function. You can find Omega-3 essential fatty acids in high quantities in fatty fish such as salmon, albacore tuna, herring, mackerel, trout, and sardines. Of course, we have to be mindful that our fish is clean and free of mercury and other contaminants, so make sure to check out Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Consumer Guide to find your best fish choices.
If fish isn’t a part of your kids’ palate (yet!), then taking a fish oil supplement is a great idea. Daily fish oil supplementation has been found to significantly improve attention and focus, help kids to think more clearly, and reduce hyperactivity and behavioral problems. Studies have found that fish oil supplementation can reduce ADHD symptoms by as much as 50%.
For those of you who are haunted by flashbacks of your mom chasing after you with a spoonful of horrible-tasting cod liver oil, don’t worry! There are much tastier versions of fish oil nowadays. I’m not gonna tell you that there’s ZERO fishy taste, but some of them are actually pretty good – really! There are even custard-like “swirls” that many kids find delicious! It’s important to choose a fish oil supplement from a reputable manufacturer to ensure that it’s free of mercury and other impurities. Some of my favorite fish oil brands include Nordic Naturals, Designs for Health, Metagenics, and Barlean’s.
Cholesterol (yes – cholesterol!) is also critical for brain health. Did you know that 25% of the cholesterol in your body is found in your brain? Your child’s brain absolutely needs good cholesterol for optimal attention, focus and cognitive processing. What is one of the best brain foods for our kids – the incredible edible egg! Egg yolk is chock full of brain-fueling cholesterol and choline (another critical brain nutrient)!
Other sources of good fats include avocados, coconut oil, olive oil, and of course nuts and seeds.
So don’t be shy! Load of up on those good fats! It really is brain food!
Tip #4: Boost Your Kids’ Dopa-what?
Dopamine is the primary neurotransmitter (read: brain chemical) that helps us to focus, feel motivated, and find pleasure in activities. Kids who have problems with focus and attention, memory, problem-solving, executive functioning and social anxiety are often found to have low levels of dopamine in their brain. That’s why many ADHD meds target dopamine. Our brain releases dopamine when we are doing “pleasurable” activities. This may explain why many kids with attention problems and ADHD are “thrill-seekers” and addicted to things like video games, because they need to constantly stimulate their brains to boost their already low dopamine levels.
If we DON’T want to encourage our kids to be thrill-seekers or become video game junkies, how can we boost our kids’ dopamine levels naturally? Our body makes dopamine from an amino acid called Tyrosine. Eating a diet rich in tyrosine-containing foods can help boost dopamine levels naturally. Foods with natural folate and antioxidants can help also support healthy dopamine levels in our brain as well.
Tyrosine-rich foods and foods that boost dopamine levels include:
• Egg whites
• Meats (beef, chicken, turkey, fish/seafood)
• Cheese (if your kid isn’t sensitive to it)
• Nuts & Seeds (especially pumpkin seeds)
• Beans & Lentils
• Oats & Other Whole Grains (teff, kamut, brown rice, millet, bulgur, quinoa)
• Folate-rich vegetables (green leafy veggies, broccoli, cauliflower)
• Colorful fruits and vegetables (berries, apples, sweet potatoes, carrots. THINK: Eat a Rainbow!)
Tip #5: Give Your Kids a Little Sunshine – Vitamin D!
Kids with attention problems and ADHD are often found to be deficient in Vitamin D. Load up on Vitamin D-rich foods and plenty of sunshine. But even then, virtually all kids I test have suboptimal Vitamin D levels. Of all the supplements I give my kids, I’m the most consistent with Vitamin D. I LOVE Vitamin D for its brain, immune system, mood, hormone and just-about-everything support! A general rule-of-thumb to maintain healthy Vitamin D3 levels is to take Vitamin D3 1000IU per 25 pounds of body weight. But this is assuming that you’re already at optimal levels. Your child may need more in the beginning to get to those optimal levels, but it’s a good place to start.
Tip #6: Magnesium – The Miracle Mineral
Magnesium really is the miracle mineral. So calming for those wiggly bodies and minds. So load up on those magnesium-rich foods. But does your child need to take more? Well, that depends on how deficient you are to begin with. The RDA for magnesium is about 2 milligrams (mg) per pound of body weight. But most people need way more than that. A general rule-of-thumb would be to take up to 5 times your body weight in milligrams (mg) of magnesium. So, a 50-pound wiggly 2nd grader could take about 250mg of magnesium daily. The only caveat – you want to work up slowly because magnesium can sometimes cause diarrhea…
Epsom salt baths are also an awesome, easy way to increase our kids’ magnesium levels. Pour in 1/2-1 cup in your kids’ bath and just sit back and let the calm fill her body. Epsom salts are magnesium sulfate. Our skin is our largest organ, and everything that comes into contact with our skin gets absorbed into our body, So just soaking in epsom salts will boost magnesium levels naturally.
Tip #7: Use Your Natural Medicines Toolkit
Homeopathic medicines rock!
Homeopathic medicines are safe, gentle, and effective. They have no interactions with other medications or supplements your child may also be on, even if they are already on an ADHD medicine. I have used homeopathic medicines successfully to help patients stay off of ADHD meds, or help with the side effects of the meds they’re already on.
If you’re new to homeopathy, be sure to check out my blog posts: What is Homeopathy – Part 1 and What is Homeopathy – Part 2.
Homeopathy treats kids on the principle of “Like Cures Like”. A substance that causes the symptoms your child has, is homeopathically diluted in a special way and then used to treat those same symptoms. For instance, if your kid is wired, giggly, has racing thoughts, and jumps from one topic to another, and can’t sleep because he just can quiet his mind, you might think that he had just had 3 shots of espresso. Homeopathically diluted coffee (or Coffea cruda) can actually treat those symptoms! And it WORKS! I have moms who won’t go anywhere without Coffea cruda or else their kids are a fidgety mess and can’t fall asleep for their lives! Coffea cruda is also awesome to help kids who can’t fall asleep because they’re so wired as a side effect of their ADHD meds.
Homeopathic medicines need to be individualized to your child’s specific set of symptoms, so if you’re considering trying them, it’s a good idea to find a homeopathic practitioner to help you find the right one! The Center for Education and Development of Homeopathy is a great resource to find a homeopathic physician near you.
Essential oils – do you smell that?
Essential oils are a very safe and effective way to boost our kid’s attention. The scent is transported right to their limbic system – the emotion, memory and learning center of our brain – to have direct and immediate attention-boosting and calming effects. My favorite essential oils for promoting concentration, focus, attention, and memory, and reducing anxiety are Vetiver, Peppermint, Rosemary, and Lavender.
School-age kids can even learn to use essential oils on themselves. Your child can take a rollerball filled with the appropriate essential oil(s) and rub right on her neck as her eyes are starting to glaze over and her attention is starting to fade in class. Or he can rub some essential oil on both palms, cup his hands over his nose and mouth and take a slow inhale through his nose just before his exam. You can also use a diffuser with 5-10 drops of essential oil to fill the room with attention-boosting aroma as your child sits down to do his homework, or rub some on her feet as she gets geared up for her soccer game.
Tip #8: You’ve Got to Move It, Move It!
Daily exercise, preferably in nature, is incredibly important for kids with attention problems. Kids need to get their wiggles out! Being out in nature not only increases Vitamin D levels naturally through sunshine, but can reduce the negative thoughts and worries that often go along with having attention issues. When you exercise, your brain produces more dopamine (our “attention” and “motivation” neurotransmitter) and serotonin (our “feel-good” neurotransmitter). Regular physical exercise enhances the action of dopamine on our brain cells, and enhances the growth of new brain cells at any age! That “runner’s high” isn’t just in our heads.
So make sure your kids have a daily outlet to get their ya-yas out. And make sure your child has frequent “movement breaks” while doing homework or other activity that requires prolonged focus and attention – whether it’s a 10-minute run around the block or romp on the trampoline (with the appropriate safety enclosures, of course!).
Tip 9: Go To Bed!
Lack of sleep decreases levels of neurotransmitters in our brain, including dopamine. Remember our attention friend, dopamine? Not only that, moderate sleep deprivation can impair cognitive and motor performance similar to alcohol intoxication! There’s a reason your kid is acting like he’s tipsy!
You know the feeling when you’re running on fumes and haven’t gotten enough sleep, and you can’t remember what you went to the grocery store to get, or what your partner just said even though you just saw his lips move, or what-on-earth your kid’s lunchbox is doing in your trunk instead of their backpack? Now imagine what being chronically sleep-deprived is doing to your kid’s brain!
So make sleep a priority. Start that bedtime routine half-hour earlier than you think you should. If you’re aiming for a bedtime of 8:30pm to have your child get 10 hours of sleep and then wake at 6:30am, don’t get into bed at 8:30pm. By the time they actually fall asleep, wake up a few times to toss and turn, and then settle back down, you’re looking at only about 8-9 hours of sleep, which is not enough for most school-age kids.
Sleep – it really does do a body (and mind) good!
Tip #10: Don’t Worry, Be Happy
Meditation has been found to increase dopamine and serotonin levels in the parts of our brain that control attention and regulate emotions. On the other hand, chronic stress and anxiety will reduce these important neurotransmitters and affect our child’s ability to focus and pay attention to everything she needs to.
Mindfulness and meditation can be learned at any age. Not only will mindfulness boost our children’s attention, but it will also provide lifelong tools for them to be resilient and cope with whatever stress comes their way. For great tips on helping your kids manage stress, see my blog post: Back-to School, Back to… STRESS!!!
So don’t worry, be happy! There really are lots of natural ways that you can help boost your child’s attention naturally!
If you found these tips, then please leave me a comment below and share with all your mama and papa friends! Thank you so much for following my advice and adventures! See you soon!