The word ‘dyslexia’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘difficulty with words’. Dyslexia is not a disease, but rather a language difficulty in which tiny differences in brain organisation lead to problems in processing certain types of information, such as handling verbal codes or symbols.
Dyslexia affects all types of people, of differing intellect, ethnicity and social class. Approximately 10% of the population are affected by some form of dyslexia, with 4% being severely dyslexic. Whilst the effects of dyslexia can be overcome by specialist teaching, there is a lack of resources to cater adequately for children with dyslexia.
Symptoms vary from individual to individual and include lack of phonological awareness (organisation of sounds in languages), poor short-term memory and confusion about left and right. A person with dyslexia may experience persistent and sometimes significant problems with reading, writing, spelling and even mathematics and musical notation, despite normal intelligence. However he or she may not have difficulties in other areas – many people with dyslexia are extremely creative, think laterally and have excellent problem-solving skills.
Dyslexia manifests itself in many forms. Typically symptoms include:
- Problems with reading, spelling and writing, as well as with written number skills
- Lack of motivation
- Emotional disturbance
- Sensory impairment
- Difficulty in concentrating
- Problems with short-term memory
- Poor personal organisation
- Problems in following sequences such as the months of the year and the alphabet
Genetic studies suggest a heritability rate of around 50% which could help explain why dyslexia runs in families. Scientific theory points towards problems with fatty acid metabolism and resulting deficiencies of fatty acids as a contributory factor in the cause of dyslexia. As fatty acids are required for both the structure of the brain and the function of brain chemical messengers called neurotransmitters, this association is not surprising.
Given all the obstacles a dyslexic child has to overcome, progress at school can be severely hindered. There are many specialist teaching practises that support children with dyslexia which can really help a child’s development in school. Additional one-to-one educational support can target specific difficulties children may have, helping them to improve on skills such as reading, grammar and vocabulary. Such teachings can train the brain by breaking language down, enabling children to decode words based on spelling types and syllables, and learning rules they can apply.
The brain requires adequate nutrition to function well, therefore for a child with dyslexia, it is really important they get the nutrients they need to support brain health. Correct nutrition can help the brain to process information better, helping to improve memory and making it easier for the child to concentrate. Brain-friendly foods include:
Protein rich foods will help the body to synthesise neurotransmitters, which are required for proper brain signalling. Neurotransmitters play an important role in concentration, memory and learning. As children with dyslexia often have problems with short-term memory and for some children, limited attention span due to frustration with reading, including protein rich foods with every meal may help. Foods that are a good source of protein include meat, fish, cheese, eggs, beans, lentils, yoghurts, seeds and nuts.
The brain requires high amounts of fat, particularly omega-3 fatty acids, to support both its structure and function. Fatty acids are required for controlling learning, attention and memory (Frodl & Skokauskas 2012). Deficiency in these healthy fats can mean that the brain’s neurotransmitters don’t work as well as they might do, causing problems, for example, with short-term memory. Good food sources of omega-3 fatty acids include oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and herring, all of which contain the all-important omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. Nuts and seeds are also important; they contain a different type of omega-3 fatty acid called ALA, which converts to omega-3 EPA and DHA in the body, albeit to a lesser extent.
Important vitamins and minerals
Certain vitamins and minerals are also important and again, deficiency appears to affect the production of neurotransmitters in the brain, which can lead to concentration and memory difficulties. To keep brain function optimal make sure your child has an adequate supply of magnesium, vitamin B6 and zinc; nuts and seeds provide good amounts of all three, so make sure to include these on a daily basis. Magnesium is also found in dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale, and pulses such as lentils and beans. Beef, wheat germ and cocoa powder provide plenty of zinc, and vitamin B6 can be found in fish and spices. As an added bonus, these foods can also help to balance mood and support sleep quality.
Foods to consider avoiding
It is generally more beneficial to concentrate on foods to incorporate into the diet rather than worrying about those to exclude, however if there is one food type to avoid altogether, it has to be refined carbohydrates from sugar or white flour! These foods cause blood sugar levels to fluctuate erratically, resulting in extreme sugar highs and lows, which in turn can result in reduced attention and concentration (Nilsson et al. 2012). Choosing slower releasing carbohydrates with a lower glycaemic index (GI) should help to balance blood sugar levels. Foods with a low GI include wholegrains such as porridge oats, beans and vegetables.
Supplementation with fatty acids has been shown to improve memory, concentration and general brain function and many scientists are hopeful, that fatty acid supplementation may also help with learning difficulties such as dyslexia.
Omega-3 deficiencies in children with dyslexia and the evidence
Several scientific studies have revealed a correlation between fatty acid deficiency and dyslexia. In a study led by Dr Alex Richardson, MRI brain scanning revealed abnormal brain lipid metabolism in dyslexia (Richardson et al, 1997). A deficiency in this group of children does not simply imply a low intake of these fatty acids, but rather a lack of, or malfunctioning of the enzymes that are required in the body to convert short-chain fatty acids found in foods such as nuts and seeds into the long-chain omega-3 EPA and DHA used by the brain. As previously discussed, the nutrients required for this process to function optimally in the body include magnesium, vitamin B6 and zinc. Children with dyslexia may also have increased requirements of fatty acids, explaining why they would appear to have difficulty maintaining adequate levels in the body: what they do have is used more readily. Either way, supplementation in the right form may help to counter any deficiency.
Specifically, supplementation with long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids has been found to be of help with reading speed as well as general schoolwork in children with dyslexia (Lindmark & Clough 2007). Dr Richardson explains: “Scientific evidence suggests that imbalances or deficiencies of certain highly unsaturated fatty acids (HUFA) may contribute to a range of behavioural and learning difficulties including ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and autistic spectrum disorders. This could help to explain the strong familial associations between these conditions and their common overlap within the same individuals.”
The essential functions of fatty acids in the brain accounts for the role of omega-3 in treating conditions like dyslexia. Research into brain structure in dyslexic patients has revealed unusual symmetry in areas associated with language, and differences in neuron connections. Studies observing supplementation of fatty acids in dyslexic individuals have also led to revelations that omega-3, and EPA in particular helps visual function, a factor behind several problems associated with dyslexia.
Omega-3 and omega-6 and inflammation
There is a direct link between omega-3 status and reading performance, and omega-3 to omega-6 balance appears to be particularly relevant in dyslexia, with reading performance negatively associated with the ratio of omega-6 arachidonic acid to omega-3 EPA (AA to EPA) (Cyhlarova et al, 2007). A high amount of omega-6 AA is not ideal, but can be balanced with omega-3 EPA supplementation. Although high omega-6 AA can cause problems in the body such as increased inflammation, if the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are well balanced, omega-3 EPA from fish and omega-6 GLA from evening primrose oil can work together to significantly reduce inflammation in the body by releasing hormone-like substances. It is ideal to keep inflammation at bay, as too much inflammation in the body can cause direct damage to cells, which can affect brain health.
Function of neurotransmitters
To ensure proper communication between cells in the brain, the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are required. EPA and DHA deficiency could impact upon the function of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, which can have a negative effect on attention and concentration. As low omega-3 levels are associated with low levels of dopamine, supplementing with omega-3 may improve learning difficulties associated with dyslexia by increasing dopamine levels.
Types of omega-3: EPA or DHA?
The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, EPA and DHA, are both required for brain health, however interestingly, of these omega-3 fatty acids, the latest evidence indicates that it is EPA, not DHA, which is likely to be most beneficial for children with dyslexia. (Richardson et al, 2000; Richardson et al, 2004).
The distinction between the different types of omega-3 fatty acids may help to explain why some ‘generic’ fish oils providing low doses of EPA and DHA combined have not shown beneficial effects for children with dyslexia. EPA is now becoming more widely known as the active ingredient in fish oil that provides support for children with neurodevelopmental conditions such as dyslexia. A concentrated high dose EPA supplement is therefore preferential over standard fish oil. The concentration is important to note as this determines the dose of EPA supplemented. A highly concentrated fish oil supplement will provide 70% EPA, whereas standard fish oil will only provide 18%, giving a vast difference in potential therapeutic effect!
When addressing the role of supplements, clinical research shows that when treating neurodevelopmental disorders, the higher the ratio of EPA to DHA in a supplement, the more effective the supplement becomes (Bloch & Qawasmi 2011). As DHA plays an important structural role in the brain, encouraging children to eat oily fish at least once a week can ensure that DHA stores are kept topped up.
Combining omega-3 EPA and omega-6 GLA in a supplement
Combining both EPA and GLA in a supplement is an ideal way of ensuring a child with dyslexia is obtaining all the important fats required for optimal brain health. Vegepa E-EPA 70 contains pure EPA derived from wild anchovies, and organic virgin evening primrose oil, rich in omega-6 GLA, which works alongside EPA to help reduce inflammation. For younger children, or for those who struggle to swallow capsules, our chewable version of Vegepa E-EPA 70 may be more suitable. Sweetened with natural xylitol and free from aspartame, dairy, gluten, lactose, salicylates and yeast, Vegepa Orange Chewables are ideal for young children with dyslexia who may have dietary restrictions. A good sign that fatty acid supplementation may be useful are physical indications of fatty acid deficiency such as dry skin and hair.
Cyhlarova E, Bell JG, Dick JR, Mackinlay EE, Stein JF & Richardson AJ.(2007) Membrane fatty acids, reading and spelling in dyslexic and non-dyslexic adults. European Neuropsychopharmacology17:116-21.
Lindmark L & Clough P. (2007) A 5-month open study with long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in dyslexia. Journal of Medicinal Food. 2007 4:662-6.
Richardson AJ. (2004) Clinical trials of fatty acid treatment in ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia and the autistic spectrum. Prostaglandins Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids. 70:383-90.
Richardson AJ, Cox IJ, Sargentoni J & Puri BK. (1997) Abnormal cerebral phospholipid metabolism in dyslexia indicated by phosphorus-31 magnetic resonance spectroscopy. NMR in Biomedicine 10:309-14.
Richardson AJ & Ross MA3. (2000) Fatty acid metabolism in neurodevelopmental disorder: a new perspective on associations between attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, dyspraxia and the autistic spectrum. Prostaglandins Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids 63:1-9.
Taylor KE, Higgins CJ, Calvin CM, Hall JA, Easton T, McDaid AM & Richardson AJ. (2000) Dyslexia in adults is associated with clinical signs of fatty acid deficiency. Prostaglandins Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids 63:75-8.