Sleep, or lack there of, is a common complaint for many parents of children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Since the day we brought our daughter home from the hospital, she has had trouble with sleeping.
It was a combination of a few factors. She wasn’t able to tune out the noises around her. She was not capable of calming her body down for rest. Sometimes, she simply could not “calm her brain” so she could fall asleep.
What we came to realize was that in order to help our sensational child get those precious z’s, we needed to help her learn to calm that busy brain. It took a combination of three things:
- Understanding how the chemicals in the brain work.
- Discovering that certain foods have specific elements that can ‘excite’ the brain. We eliminated these from her diet.
- Adding supplements to help calm the brain for sleep.
How Brain Chemicals Work
First, the brain’s main job regarding the sleep cycle, is to get the body going and to calm it back down. It does this by sending messages through neurotransmitters that carry either excitatory or calming chemicals during different times, so the body knows how to respond to stimuli.
One of these chemicals is a hormone called adrenaline (or epinephrine), which gets the body going during ‘fight or flight’ moments.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps us focus and concentrate during those stressful times.
Both of these chemicals are important at appropriate times such as when we’re in danger, nervous or under stress. However, for children, an overload of these chemicals can interfere with overall functioning.
When these excitatory neurotransmitters are present in abundance during the school day, your child may appear restless, anxious and unable to concentrate. It’s no wonder, then, if they’re overabundant during rest or sleep time, the brain isn’t able to calm the body enough to get to sleep.
Foods that Over-Excite the Brain and Prevent Sleep
Once you understand how these brain chemicals can affect functioning, the next thing to know is that many foods we consume can increase the amount of these excitatory chemicals. When we consume foods that are acting against our children, the child may appear overactive, hyper or with other similar symptoms.
Kelly Dorfman, M.S., L.N.D., co-founder of Developmental Delay Resources, states that the six most common dietary excitement inducers include:
Artificial sweeteners are made of amino acid building blocks that stimulate the excitatory neurotransmitters.
MSG, monosodium glutamate, is a common additive that enhances the flavor of certain foods. It seems to agitate different sorts of arousal receptors in the brain. Like my daughter and I, some children may experience headaches when they consume foods with MSG.
Artificial colors are known to mess with the liver’s detoxification abilities. Some children are allergic to artificial colors.
Identified or unidentified allergens cause inflammation and chemical reactions that can ‘speed up’ the nervous system.
Too much sugar turns into instant energy in children.
Caffeine gets the body going and surprisingly, it can be found ‘hidden’ in many different foods. (1)
It would seem logical, then, that the first step in helping our kids sleep better is to eliminate or reduce the amount of foods containing the items from the list above.
Brain Calming Supplements to Foster Sleep
Magnesium is an element that helps to induce muscle relaxation, as well as, to inhibit the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, an excitatory chemical. Surprisingly, many children are deficient in magnesium. To determine if your child is deficient, ask your doctor for a script for lab work.
Recommended daily allowances include:
Age 1 to 3: 80 mg
Age 4 to 8: 130 mg
Age 9 to 13: 240 mg (2)
Start supplementation by increasing consumption of Magnesium rich foods. Magnesium is found in green leafy vegetables, such as spinach. Legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, are good sources. Some breakfast cereals are fortified with Magnesium. Discover the top food sources for Magnesium.
The brain is made up of essential fats such as omega 3 and 6. Research has shown that a deficiency in these precious fats can induce hyperactive symptoms. (3) Increasing foods that are high in omega 3 and 6, such as flaxseed or salmon, can often help reduce hyperactive brains. Have a discussion with your child’s pediatrician about adding an essential oil supplement to help calm the brain.
GABA is short for gamma-amino butyric acid. This is a calming neurotransmitter. It can help to decrease muscle tension and, in larger doses, induce drowsiness. Dorfman suggests between 300 – 600 mg. Up to 1000 mg can be used in children over 13. Before supplementing, be sure to have a discussion with your child’s pediatrician.
Dorfman additionally suggests including vitamin B6 to help the body break down and use both Magnesium and GABA.
It’s not an easy road to help your child calm his brain. It was a long process for us to eliminate excitatory foods from our daughter’s diet. If you do things the natural route by understanding the brain chemicals, removing the ‘exciting’ chemicals from the diet and adding supplements known to quiet the brain, you’ll be well on track to sleep-filled nights.
(1) Dorfman, Kelly, M.S., L.N.D. “Calming the Brain.” Developmental Delay Resources. Developmental Delay Resources, June 1999. Web. 28 Dec. 2013.
(2) “Magnesium: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals.” National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Mar. 2016.
(3) Gow, Rachel V., Joseph R. Hibbeln, and Natalie Parletta. “Current Evidence and Future Directions for Research with Ome… : Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care.” LWW. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care, Mar. 2015. Web. 02 Mar. 2016.