How Sensory Integration and Nutrition Interact - Autism Awareness

How Sensory Integration and Nutrition Interact

By Kelly Dorfman

Sensory Integration (SI) is a complex process that makes it possible for a person to take in, organize and interpret information from our bodies and the world. Collating sensory information efficiently enables humans to function smoothly in daily life. For example: Is the soup hot or cold? Are my arms or legs going to bump into anything? Do I need to go to the bathroom?

Most people naturally get a good “sensory diet”, which nourishes the nervous system and creates healthy circuits capable of relaying accurate information. For children, ordinary touch and movement experiences, such as swinging, climbing, digging and touching provide a neurological diet for sensory system development.

Children with SI dysfunction, however, misread information, often under or over-reacting to it. If a child’s sensory processing is disorganized, he may be hypo or hypersensitive to temperature, pain, smells or food textures. If his resulting behavior makes it hard to function at home or school, therapy may be needed to re-integrate the nervous system. Activities designed to supplement a child’s poor sensory diet may include brushing, deep pressure, swinging or cross crawling. (For more information on SI dysfunction and therapy, read Physical Activities for Improving Children’s Learning and Behavior by Cheatum.)

While a good sensory diet is critically important to correct SI imbalances, its effectiveness is limited by the quality of the physical components making up the neural network. A well-nourished nervous system is strong and flexible. An undernourished system is weak, inefficient and less responsive to therapy.

The nervous system must have essential fats, minerals, B vitamins and fat-soluble anti-oxidants such as vitamin E. Missing any one critical component creates a weak spot in the system. Because nutrients interact, a deficiency in one can affect the utilization of another. Low vitamin B-6, for example, will mean poor uptake of zinc and magnesium.

Essential fats are, arguably, the most important nutrients for sensory development. The brain is 60% fat and myelin, the fatty coating of the neurons or brain cells, is 75% fat. The fat composition of the brain directly reflects dietary fat intake. At a basic biochemical level, SI dysfunction represents immaturity in the nervous system. Bad fats: Poor Maturation.

When shelf stable hydrogenated oils are incorporated into the brain, the tissue becomes less flexible. This means information will be sent and received differently than if the brain contained the more unadulterated fats found in whole foods. A balanced brain utilizes a combination of saturated and unsaturated fats from meats, fish, nuts and grains.

For optimal brain function, avoid partially hydrogenated fats. They are found in most commercial baked goods, frozen prepared meals and margarine. Butter is no more saturated than regular margarine, as the hydrogenation process re-saturates or hardens the original oil. Better to use small quantities of butter and more other oils such as olive or sesame.

Several oils are sold as dietary supplements. They all contain different combinations of two main families of essential fats, omega 3 and omega 6. The names denote the chemical placement of the first unsaturated bond. Fish, algae and linseed oils contain predominantly omega 3 fats. Evening primrose, black currant, borage and sunflower oils have more omega 6 fats. Flaxseed oil is unique because it contains an approximate 1:1 ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fats.

(For more information on essential fats and health read, The Omega 3 Connection by Stoll or Fats and Oils by Erasmus.)

Kids with SI issues have higher sensory and nutritional needs. Because they tend to be picky eaters due to oral defensiveness and/or hyposensitivity to smell, taste and textures, their nutritional status must be addressed. Start my removing the worst, empty calorie foods. Remove them from the house and close the nutrient gap with supplements. Providing a balanced biochemical and sensory diet is the best way for parents to engender well-regulated nervous systems in their children.


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  1. Tammy Elsworthy says:

    I’m in Australia and my son and I both have sensory issues, do you know of any 1here I can contact?

  2. Tammy Elsworthy says:

    Very informative but I’m in Australia

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