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Nutrition & Behaviour Problems in Children & Adults


Nutrition & Behaviour

A Simple & Effective Approach to Cutting Crime, Delinquency and Antisocial Acts

Michael Sellar

There’s been a great deal in the news lately about the unacceptable behaviour of British youths. The Government has outlined various measures to deal with yobs, louts and thugs, but like all Government measures, they deal with effects, not the underlying causes of the problem. As Vernon Howard states in The Power of Psycho Pictography, an awakened individual “sees society’s problems in an entirely different way from the social authorities who are called upon to solve the problems.”

One such awakened individual is the chef Jamie Oliver who has been running a campaign to improve the quality of school dinners. He took his campaign all the way to Downing Street together with a petition signed by over a quarter of a million people.

More money will be spent on school meals, and dinner ladies will get better training. It’s a start, but it will take much more than this to change long established poor eating habits.

Want An Xbox? Eat Vital Mix

Personally I prefer the approach tried in Scotland. Here, the authorities are concentrating in an area where they have a true expertise - bribery. The Guardian reported as follows:

“In a pilot scheme, Glasgow city council awarded children who eschewed burger and chips for the healthy option on the lunchtime menu, with rewards ranging from cinema tickets to iPods and Xbox consoles.

“It has been so successful that it has now been introduced in all 29 secondary schools in the local authority.

“The scheme works in much the same way as supermarket loyalty cards. The school children use a swipe card to pay for their school dinner, which also records what they have bought and rewards points based on how healthy it is.

“If the pupil opts for the burger, it is only four points towards the iPod. Should they, however, opt for the "vital mix" - an option which changes every day but includes things like soups, filled pittas, raisins and yoghurts - they get 40 points.

“In order to get the 20GB iPod, the pupil must tot up 4,000 points - a hundred healthy meals or a thousand burgers. More easily attainable rewards are also on offer: a pair of cinema tickets for 850 points, or a £10 Amazon voucher for 1,500 points.

""Nobody is suggesting it's a panacea, but we have had remarkably good results," said Steven Purcell, the council's education convener."

Although the focus of these campaigns is to improve children’s health, it also has an impact on their brains. Teachers have reported better concentration and behaviour. The food giants will claim this to be nothing more than anecdotal and based on expectation. I don’t think so. For a start, people associate food with health, not behaviour and mental function. Secondly, there is a great deal of research demonstrating an association.

If the powers that be are serious about improving youth behaviour they will carry out policies based on research evidence rather than pandering to the financial greed of large corporations.

The Magic of Water

Let’s start with basics - water. Dehydration reduces mental performance. Just a 1% loss of body weight from fluid loss causes mild dehydration. For a 10 year old weighing 30kg, this amounts to only 300ml of fluid. Children who don’t drink enough can suffer from poor concentration, irritability and behavioural problems.

Three years ago it was reported that children weren’t getting enough water to drink because schools were no longer supplying it. In one primary school where the children were instructed to bring in water bottles each day to keep on their desks, irritability was noticeably reduced, concentration improved and learning time extended.

Vitamin B3 (Niacin) To The Rescue

Brain cells are no different from any other cells in the body. They need to be properly fed, eliminate waste and exclude foreign organisms and poisons if they are to function normally.

Doctors are very resistant to the idea that the brain could be short of nutrients because the body is bound to give priority to them. This may be true, but that doesn't mean it will be adequately nourished. This should be obvious by the simple fact of pellagra.

This niacin deficiency disease may lead to extreme insanity preceded by nervousness, loss of memory, confusion, irritability, suspiciousness, hallucinations, apprehensiveness and depression. The cure for this is to supply the missing nutrient. Sanity is restored within a week. This is an obvious case of a mental disease caused by a vitamin deficiency.

Is it so far fetched to believe that other nutrients known to be essential for proper brain functioning might be in short supply and give rise to mental and behavioural problems?

Subclinical Beri-Beri

A fascinating study was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 33 (2): 169 - 530 in 1980. This concerned juvenile offenders who had poor impulse control, were easily irritated and angered, sensitive to criticism, hostile and aggressive.

Their diets were rich in refined carbohydrates. Blood tests revealed them to be very short of vitamin B1, (thiamine). They were each given up to 300mg of thiamine for three weeks until blood levels increased to normal. When the desired level was reached, the personality traits described, disappeared. They were no longer hostile and aggressive.

Another study demonstrated an improvement in children’s learning capacity by 25%. Some even saw their behavioural problems disappear completely.

Mighty Minerals

The B group vitamins are associated with mental functioning, but it is likely that all vitamins have some role to play.

Vitamin C for instance became implicated in mental disease 60 years ago when schizophrenics saw marked improvement in their condition after supplementation. This may have occurred not because of the vitamin directly but because its deficiency raises copper levels and excess copper is a cause of mental illness.

Five studies have reported that low selenium intakes are associated with poorer mood. The lower the level of selenium in the diet the more reports of anxiety, depression, and fatigue. These findings are particularly relevant to the UK because selenium intake is below the recommended daily intake.

A study published in The Lancet back in 1976 demonstrated that zinc deficiency may make children irritable, tearful, sullen and have gaze aversion.

Other minerals known to affect mental functioning when deficient are potassium, which causes increased nervous instability and mental disorientation, and iodine which in extreme cases causes cretinism. Calcium, magnesium and chromium also have roles in mental health.

Fatty Acids Improve Behaviour

Mounting evidence suggests that a relative lack of certain polyunsaturated fatty acids may contribute to related neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorders such as dyslexia and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

A research project has been taking place across primary schools in County Durham. Fish oil (omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids) supplements called Eye Q, were given to 110 children with co-ordination problems such as dyspraxia. More than half the children also had ADHD while 20 suffered from dyslexia.

Some of the children were given fish oil supplements. Others were given an olive oil-based placebo. The trials found that about 40% of children taking the genuine supplements were seen to respond “significantly” to treatment, improving markedly in 12 behavioural areas, including inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity — all features of ADHD. Memories were also enhanced while some children saw improvements in their reading age by as much as four years. The research was published in Pediatrics, May, 2005.

Judith Pressley, head at one of the schools, said: “Children were calmer and easier to manage, when before they might have been willing to be disruptive.”

Lord Winston said he believed there was “a lot of evidence” that fish oils were beneficial. “...some of the studies are very encouraging and would suggest that they do change behaviour and cognition in children and probably adults too.”

Reducing Violence In Schools

Many studies conducted in juvenile correctional institutions report that violence and serious antisocial behaviour could be cut by almost half after implementing diets adequate in nutrients and consistent with World Health Organization guidelines for fats, sugar, starches, and protein ratios.

By 2000, two controlled trials tested whether the cause of the behavioural improvements was psychological or biological in nature by comparing the behaviour of offenders who either received placebos or vitamin-mineral supplements designed to provide the micronutrient equivalent of a well-balanced diet.

These randomised trials reported that institutionalised offenders, aged 13 to 17 or 18 to 26, when given active nutritional supplements produced about 40% less violent and other antisocial behaviour than the placebo controls.

Stephen Schoenthaler, a well known researcher in this field wanted to test the effect of nutritional supplementation not in correctional institutions but in ordinary schools to see if it made any difference to children’s behaviour.

He conducted a study to determine if schoolchildren, aged 6 to 12 years, given low dose vitamin-mineral tablets will produce significantly less violence and antisocial behaviour in school than classmates who are given placebos.

Daily vitamin-mineral supplementation at 50% of the US recommended daily allowance (RDA) for 4 months versus placebo were given. The supplement was designed to raise vitamin-mineral intake up to the levels currently recommended by the National Academy of Sciences for children aged 6 to 11 years.

Of the 468 students randomly assigned to active or placebo tablets, the 80 who were disciplined at least once between September 1st and May 1st served as the research sample. During intervention, the 40 children who received active tablets were disciplined, on average, 1 time each, a 47% lower mean rate of antisocial behaviour than the 1.875 times each for the 40 children who received placebos.

The children who took active tablets produced lower rates of antisocial behaviour in 8 types of recorded infractions: threats/fighting, vandalism, being disrespectful, disorderly conduct, defiance, obscenities, refusal to work or serve, endangering others, and nonspecified offences.

The paper concluded that “poor nutritional habits in children that lead to low concentrations of water-soluble vitamins in blood, impair brain function and subsequently cause violence and other serious antisocial behaviour.

“Correction of nutrient intake, either through a well-balanced diet or low-dose vitamin-mineral supplementation, corrects the low concentrations of vitamins in blood, improves brain function and subsequently lowers institutional violence and antisocial behaviour by almost half.” (J Altern Complement Med. 2000 Feb;6(1):7-17)

Cutting Antisocial Behaviour In Prison

Bernard Gesch et al from Oxford University tested the influence of nutrition on antisocial behaviour of young adult prisoners.

Participants were 231 prisoners, aged 18–21 years, typically serving long sentences for serious offences. They received dietary supplementation or placebo. The supplementation group received a vitamin and mineral supplement based on 100% of the Reference Nutrient Intakes and essential fatty acid supplements in 4 daily capsules (1260 mg linoleic acid; 80 mg gamma linolenic acid; 80 mg eicosapentaenoic acid, and 44 mg docasahexaenoic acid). The average time spent on supplementation or placebo was 142 days.

Antisocial behaviour was measured using incidents adjudicated by Governor reports (serious incidents such as violence) and minor action reports (for instance, failure to comply with requirements) which had been ‘proven by adjudication.’

Participants receiving supplements were 26.3% less likely to be reported for antisocial behaviour than those who received placebo (11.8 less infringements in the supplement group on average). This rose to 37% for more serious incidents including violence.

Compared to the start of the study, the effect on those taking active supplements for a minimum of 2 weeks was an average 35.1% reduction of offences, whereas placebos remained within standard error. No participant withdrew due to ill effects of supplementation and there were no adverse events reported.

Supplementing prisoners' diets with physiological dosages of vitamins,  minerals and essential fatty acids caused a reduction in antisocial behaviour to a remarkable degree. Because of the study design these differences could not be accounted for by social or ethnic factors.

The authors believe these results are unlikely to be limited to prisons because “there is no evidence that imprisonment affects the essentiality of these nutrients for human metabolism.” In fact they believe a greater impact is likely on offenders within the community because in custody, regular meals are provided. (Br J Psychiatry. 2002 Jul;181:22-8)

Nutrition & Psychiatric Disorders

There was an interesting editorial in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, December, 2001 by Charles Popper MD entitled “Do Vitamins or Minerals (Apart From Lithium) Have Mood-Stabilizing Effects?”

He starts off by stating that when farm animals engage in aggressive behaviour, this tendency can be reduced by adding vitamins and minerals to the animals’ diets.

When this information was relayed to Anthony Stephan by David Hardy, an animal nutrition specialist, he tried the approach on his children who had severe treatment-resistant bipolar disorder. Their condition stabilised with no need for medication. Hardy and Stephan have since worked with thousands of psychiatric patients.

They began a collaboration with BJ Kaplan who carried out an open trial of the first 14 adults with bipolar disorder treated with the same nutritional supplement used by Hardy and Stephan, which consists of a broad range of minerals and vitamins, plus 3 amino acids and several antioxidants.

Symptom reductions were clinically noted within 2 weeks and sustained over 6 months of observation. All outcome measures showed significant improvements (55% to 66% symptom reduction), and a strong effect size was observed for ratings of depression as well as mania. Most patients could reduce their doses of psychiatric medications, and some patients became stable without any psychiatric medication.

Kaplan went on to publish two case studies of children with unstable moods and explosive rage in 2002. Mood, angry outbursts, and obsessional symptoms improved when initially treated, returned when not taking the supplement, and remitted when the micronutrient supplement was reintroduced. Both boys have been followed and were stable on the nutritional supplement for over 2 years.

“These cases suggest that mood lability and explosive rage can, in some cases, be managed with a mixture of biologically active minerals and vitamins, without using lithium or other traditional psychopharmacologic agents.”

This was followed by another study of 9 children with mood and behavioural disturbances published last year. Yet again big improvements were witnessed.

Dr. Popper’s interest in nutrition was sparked by a case in his clinical practice. A 10-year-old with bipolar disorder was referred for treatment of severe temper tantrums, which had lasted for 2 to 4 hours daily for 4 months. The well-nourished child had no prior psychiatric history or treatment.

After 2 days on the Hardy-Stephan nutrient regimen, his tantrums showed significant improvement, with the father-psychiatrist reporting a "complete" absence of outbursts or even irritability at 5 days. After 2 weeks, the available supply of the nutrient supplement was exhausted, and tantrums returned within 48 hours.

A similar supplement, containing most of the same ingredients, was then started and produced a moderate improvement, which parents and teachers estimated as 60% of the original effect. When restarted on the original formula, the symptoms were judged to have again responded completely.

He then started his own trials. Among 22 patients who clinically met criteria for bipolar disorder, 19 showed a positive response.

Among the 15 patients who were being treated with medications when they began the nutritional supplement, 11 patients have remained stable for 6 to 9 months without psychiatric medications.


Nobody is suggesting that improved diets and nutritional supplementation will make schools, prisons and town centres on a Friday night, places of peace and tranquillity. But it should be obvious after decades of research that children and young adults are commonly deficient in the nutrients required for proper brain function and behaviour.

Although it may be impossible to persuade young people or their parents to improve their diets directly (without bribery), within the confines of a school, detention centre or prison, the authorities have a captive audience and could provide nutritious meals if they have the political will and are prepared to devote the needed training and resources.

This article was first published in Enzyme Digest No. 69, Summer 2005

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