Brain food for working memory in dyslexia, dyspraxia and attention deficit disorder

Dyslexia, dyspraxia and similar learning differences can be very frustrating, but being able to think differently can be a huge advantage. We have a son with dyspraxia, and he was what sparked my interest in nutrition for children’s learning and development. Even before this I always saw learning differences as a super-power. I love how kids with dyslexia and dyspraxia think out of the box, have lateral minds and can see the world in 3D – they tend to have amazing entrepreneurial skills and are often very creative.

However, very often schools are not adequately set up to support dyslexia or dyspraxia and many teachers are not trained how to teach kids with working memory issues –  this means that many kids with dyslexia and dyspraxia feel they are square peg being pushed into a round hole – it can make things super stressful, tiring and hard on the kids’ self-esteem and mental health. Often poor working memory is picked up late and the parents wonder why things like phonics, spelling and reading have eluded their kids for so long. We find that when a child has both the right teaching support and nutrition then these makes a great combination to help the child thrive. 

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Working Memory

Working memory is part of our short-term memory – think of it as a holding bay in our brain that we use for spellings, times-tables or to problem solve. It’s important for reasoning, learning and comprehension skills. It’s also our inner eye that helps with visuospatial memory important for reading and helps us understand the differences and similarities between objects. It can help us follow instructions and be organised.

Interestingly children with attention deficit disorder and dyspraxia (developmental coordination disorder) share the same underdeveloped working memory as dyslexics and often children are diagnosed with several learning or behavioural differences that boil down to the same issue. Research has found that when you support working memory development in dyslexia, dyspraxia and attention deficit disorder this can also help organisation skills, emotional regulation and impulsivity.

Feeding The Brain

What I love about the nutrition approach to supporting working memory related issues is that it only helps to take away the tricky bits associated with poor working memory and the super powers of the dyslexic brain remain – research has found that the right nutrition can help with eye tracking for reading; it helps with working memory and processing; and it can help to give them more energy and focus – all good for the self-esteem too!

The key is a diet full of all the good stuff – lots of nutrient-dense food ingredients with plenty of healthy fats, protein and veg as well as much less of the sweet stuff. Cooking from scratch really helps, as convenient ultra-processed foods tend not to contain the important brain fuel ingredients needed for these kids to be brain sharp. A hearty breakfast is very important and this needs to contain lots of protein and healthy fats to help with focus during the school morning which is the critical learning time of the day. Choose bacon and eggs for breakfast vs cereal with semi-skimmed milk if your child is struggling with working memory. A good protein and fat-fuelled snack after school can also help with homework which is usually the hardest time of the day for kids with learning differences.  Choose a peanut butter or smoked fish pate wholemeal sandwich over a packet of crisps if you want to make homework time easier.

As well as nourishing nutrient-dense foods, there are four key nutrients that have been found to help tracking, working memory and processing:

Omega 3 – The DHA form of Omega 3 is the important brain food and eye food that is found in oily fish, organic milk and grass-fed meats as well specialist fish oil supplements. DHA helps with brain development and is critical for the development of a good working memory, helps to regulate the parasympathetic nervous system which is important for emotional regulation, optimal digestion and restfulness. DHA is important for eye health and this in turn helps with tracking when reading. The good news is that omega 3 has also helped to improve working memory in young adults, so it’s probably not too late to give this a go.

Choline – Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that is critical for learning, memory and emotional regulation. It is another key part of keeping our nervous system well balanced and plays an important role in stress response. Sunflower seeds, eggs, liver pate, wholegrains, dairy and peanut butter are great food sources of choline and you can buy supplements with additional phospholipids (DMAE, phosphatidylserine and phosphatidylcholine) to support learning and to help mature working memory.

Lactobacillus – This is an important gut microbe that is found in fermented and cultured foods like yoghurt and kefir. As well as helping to digest milk, lactobacillus is also an important building block for creating acetylcholine for learning and memory and GABA which keeps us cool, calm and relaxed and is important at modulating impulsivity.

Lactobacillus levels tend to be in lower quantities in the tummies of dairy-free kids and those who have taken antibiotics or proton pump inhibitor medication for reflux. It can be built up again via dairy-free cultured foods like coconut kefir and sauerkraut or by taking lactobacillus rich probiotic supplements in the longer term.

Magnesium – super important for the anxious ones and also an important nutrient for helping learning and working memory – often the dyslexic brains work too fast and this can help to mellow things up. Regular soaks in Epsom salt baths or taking magnesium supplements are good to top up on eating lots of nuts, seeds, greens and cocoa, which are great sources of magnesium.

Focus on Meares-Irlen Syndrome
The lack of brain fats is particularly marked in a type of dyslexia called Meares-Irlen Syndrome where there are poor signals between the eye and the brain lead to tracking problems and intolerance to bright lights.

As well as depleted essential fatty acids like omega 3 and low phospholipids levels like choline, these kids are also often found to have very low cholesterol. Cholesterol is an important carrier of essential fatty acids to the retina and if the cholesterol is low then the transport of the omega 3 to the eye is going to be less efficient. Total cholesterol ideally should be between 4.17 and 5.0 in the blood and this can easily be checked in a standard blood test via your GP.

Cholesterol helps to strengthen brain cell membranes which are important for cellular signalling and neural connections. Cholesterol also helps the uptake and creation of vitamin D and sexual hormones including oestrogen and testosterone. All animal food products including meat, seafood, poultry, dairy, and eggs contain cholesterol because all animal cells need cholesterol to thrive.

At NatureDoc we like to make growing up and learning as easy as possible for children and getting the right nutrition to fuel their brains is something that you can easily learn to do and will set up healthy habits for your children for life. If you would like to take a personalised nutrition approach to your child’s working memory issues, then get in touch as our paediatric clinical team who have a wealth of experience with a range of learning differences.

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  1. Super helpful article which has really helped to focus my mind on how best to help my lot – also good to know it’s not too late for teens to benefit from Omega 3 in supporting their disorders… thank you!

  2. Hi, my son is 5 and has a diagnosis of Asperger’s, dyspraxia and ADHD inattentive. He is so fussy with foods. He eats salmon and chicken and cheese but that’s all for protein. I’m worried about him not getting enough iron and magnesium in his diet. I so much want to help improve his concentration as he can’t focus on anything at school for longer that 2 mins. Is there anything you can suggest?. I’ve tried omega 3 supplements but he won’t have them as they taste too fishy.

    1. Hi Jan – very happy to help! If he eats salmon then give this to him at least 3 x a week as then he probably won’t need the fish oil too. I would give him Epsom salt baths for the magnesium and then either a Better You iron spray which is very tasty or SpAtone iron which you can hide in juice. If this is not enough please book in with our paediatric nutrition team.

    2. Can you give the dha drops to a 7yr old? I don’t think my son would be able to swallow the soft gel tablets of omega focus.

  3. Another fascinating and informative article thank you. Alongside diagnosis there should be all this information to support fully.

  4. Hi my son is 9 year old and he was diagnose with ADD and he was recently test founding out that he has a lot of problems with his short term memory, he is struggle at school with comprehension but he reads and decodes all the words perfectly but even though he is on 4th grade his comprehension level is for a kid from 2 nd grade what supplements or strategies can I use to help him improve his short term memory or his working memory? Thanks for your help

    1. Hi Claudia – I would try the omega 3 and the choline rich foods and supplements, as well as some lactobacillus live bacteria that helps to create acetylcholine in the gut which is thought to help memory. I hope this is helpful. Lucinda