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The Biology of Learning and Behavior

This article has been compiled from the content of three workshops I attended at the National Home School Conference in September. The information is based on sound research, most of it done in the last five years. As the mother and former teacher of a struggling learner (the "child" is now 34), I found the information intriguing, exciting and holding the potential of truly "fixing ‘these struggling kids’ problems."

The material was presented by Dr. Gregory Clark, PhD. (Synthetic Chemistry) and Dianne Craft, MA (Special Education) and a Certified Natural Health Professional. Their research showed a very high positive correlation between struggling to learn, blocked learning "gates", inability to use both hemispheres of the brain, behavior issues, ADD/ADHD as they relate to nutrition. Deficits in essential nutrients, possible allergies and lack of good absorption of the nutrients in food are key contributors to poor brain function in struggling learners.

The main problems seem to be iron and essential fatty acid deficiencies, and intestinal yeast overgrowth. This surplus of yeast often results in a deficiency of the brain neurotransmitter, serotonin. In general, iron deficiency is the most prevalent nutritional problem in American children. Approximately 84% of children diagnosed with ADHD have low iron levels. Interestingly, the lower the iron level the worse the ADHD. These lower iron levels, mostly caused by excessive sugar and insufficient protein, especially at breakfast, decrease the amount of oxygen the blood can carry to the brain. This makes it harder to think and learn. It also causes short attention, irritability, fatigue and difficulty concentrating.

Both Dr. Clark and Dianne Craft agreed on the absolute necessity of EFA’s (essential fatty acids) for proper brain function. EFA’s are specific fats and oils that cannot be produced by the body; they have to come from the person’s diet. Of the EFA’s, Omega-6’s are fairly easy to obtain through the diet. These are found in salad dressings, mayonnaise, safflower and sunflower oil. Omega-3’s, however, are more difficult to come by, especially because of our dietary changes in the past ten years and the higher levels of hydrogenated oils in processed foods we currently eat. You can get Omega-3’s in fish, flaxseed oil, wheat germ, nuts and seeds, but the primary source is fish oil. The most exciting research concerns the DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) component of fish oil. The best sources of DHA are mother’s milk, and again, fish oil.

The brain is 60% fat and 30% of that is in the form of long chain fatty acids (DHA). The forebrain, the area required for sustained attention, has the highest concentration of DHA. Also, brain synapses require long chain fatty acids (DHA) to be efficient. If a child is not getting enough EFA’s or for some genetic reason needs more than average, his brain simply will not function properly. Another interesting fact, according to Dr. Melvin Werbach, UCLA School of Medicine, boys need three times more of this fat than girls, this could be one explanation as to why more boys than girls struggle with learning issues, especially with ADD and ADHD.

The corpus callosum, the part of the brain which connects the two hemispheres, is 60% DHA. If it is not working properly, it is not getting enough DHA to function, and the two hemispheres will not work together. This creates a host of learning problems. Perhaps the most serious problem is transferring information form short-term memory into long-term memory. Does your child know something one day and the next day is unable to even recall the material? If the information a child learns does not pass from one side of the brain to the other, learning doesn’t happen. The child is still concentrating on the process.

Some of the behavioral characteristics of EFA deficiency are: inattention, impulsivity, anxiety, dyslexia, dyspraxia (&ataxia), sensory processing problems, depression, bipolar, ADD, and hyperactivity.

Some of the physical characteristics of EFA deficiency are: dry skin, asthma, warts, bumps on backs of arm, dry hair, eczema, white spots on fingernails, and chronically chapped lips.

The third problem is yeast overgrowth in the "gut" and a resulting deficiency of the neurotransmitter Serotonin. Serotonin is the brain chemical that keeps us focused, instills a sense of well being and helps us fall asleep easily. The primary reason that a person may be deficient in this neurotransmitter is the connection between serotonin levels and antibiotic therapy. These drugs are wonderful, but they may be used too often, and the damage they do is rarely addressed. Antibiotics kill the "good" bacteria as well as the "bad" bacteria. Destruction of good bacteria causes yeast or mold to grow out of control in the intestines. The yeast overgrowth eventually causes damage to the intestines called "leaky gut syndrome," and this in turn causes a deficiency in the neurotransmitter, serotonin. According to Michael Gershon, MD, over 95% of the calming neurotransmitter, serotonin, is made in the gut. The damage from "leaky gut syndrome" often prevents the manufacture of serotonin. Dr. Gershon’s book The Second Brain explains this process.

Behavioral characteristics of upset gut ecology are: mood swings, "spaciness", anger/irritability, inconsistent performance, inattention, memory problems, inappropriate behavior, sensory processing problems, Asperger and Autistic-like behavior, and depression.

Physical characteristics of upset gut ecology are: canker sores, stomach-aches, leg pains, sugar cravings, food and other allergies, enuresis, nervousness, difficulty falling asleep, and infant thrush.

All of these problems (iron deficiency, EFA deficiency and serotonin deficiency) can be overcome with proper supplements and good diet. You may need to enlist the help of your pediatrician or other health care provider. Do your homework first. Please go to www.hslda.org and click on struggling learners in the left hand column. Read everything that applies, even remotely, to your child and situation. This new feature of the HSLDA website was recently posted and is there for your enlightenment. Also, go to www.diannecraft.org and read everything there as well. Dianne is a special needs consultant for HSLDA and if you are a member you may have direct access to her for consultations. Besides the wealth of information at both of these websites, there are also suggestions for other books and resources.


Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede the growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.

For more information and articles about dyslexia go to www.interdys.org and www.dyslexia-teacher.com A good book resource is Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz,M.D. If you do not have access to the internet, please use the public library’s computers or contact our office at 770-461-3657

The International Dyslexia Association · 8600 LaSalle Road, Chester Bldg. #382 · Baltimore, MD 21286-2044

Tel: 410-296-0232 · Fax: 410-321-5069 · E-mail: info@interdys.org · Website: http://www.interdys.org

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The Association will serve and assist any home schooling family or support group in Georgia, however, GHEA is a Christian organization and the counsel and direction of the organization will be Christian.


GHEA • 258 Sandy Lake Cir. • Fayetteville, GA 30214
Telephone: (770) 461-3657 • Fax: (501) 638-5264
E-mail: info@ghea.org