How Adequate Blood Sugar Levels Affect Your Child’s Attention Span

February 26, 2013 by DrDonna

blood sugar and attention spanHave you ever wondered if there was a food or supplement that could improve attention span in your child?

If you ask nutritionists that question, you’ll hear two consistent answers:

  1. Protein
  2. Omega 3 fats

However, the answer is often more complicated than that. What has to be looked at regarding diet often includes what are the foods and drinks the child is consuming? Is he currently taking any supplements? Has he been tested for any nutrient deficiencies?

Attention span can wax and wane during the course of the day. Evaluating the composition of meals and snacks and their relationship to attention span often uncovers new answers as to why cognitive skills aren’t consistently high.

We’ve been reporting on the effects of low blood sugar on children in this blog for a few weeks and know that many parents find an influence of hypoglycemia on their child’s attention span. This, in turn, affects overall learning.

Attention Span Studies

One of the earlier studies on this connection between blood sugar and attention span came from the Department of Psychology at University College in Wales. Researchers wanted to see the effects of blood sugar levels on attention span in young adults. They gave a glucose drink or a placebo to participants and then tested their attention via a Rapid Information Processing Task and a test called the Stroop Task.

What is the Stroop Task?

The Stroop Task is named after John Ridley Stroop. It tests the ability to quickly perceive words. If you look at words written in black ink with an occasional word written in green or blue ink, the Stroop Effect would be obvious if a person has difficulty noticing the word blue was written in green ink. If someone is asked what color the word blue is, the answer is usually blue, not green.

This task is performed in the brain by a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate, located between the right and left halves of the frontal lobe.

Two Types of Attention in All of Us

In an interview, Raymond De Young from the University of Michigan commented on the difference between two types of attention, directed attention and involuntary attention.

Directed attention is where you directly focus on a specific topic or activity. You use directed attention when you read a book; it keeps you on the task of reading. Directed attention wears out as time goes on and at the end of the day.

Involuntary attention draws the mind to other things you aren’t focused on, such as looking at a large truck coming towards you as you are crossing a street. For a child in a reading environment, involuntary attention draws the mind to distractions in the room.

When we have to focus for a long time, directed attention fatigue sets in. The fatigue reduces our mental effectiveness and interferes with the ability to think about long-term goals and concepts that are abstract . It also results in irritability and impulsivity.

If we need to restore our directed attention, we have to rest it for awhile. By getting into nature where there’s a lot of involuntary attention activity, directed attention will restore itself.

In our modern world, we spend time in an indoor environment where there are a lot of distractions. We have to use more directed attention if we want to accomplish things. This is why walking to school is actually a good idea for children compared to a car ride, especially if they live within a half-mile of school.

Results of the Wales Study on Attention

The researchers used the Rapid Information Processing Task and the Stroop Task as ways to measure what was happening when blood sugar levels were higher. They gave the children in the study a glucose drink. Those who received the drink had faster Rapid Information Processing Task times and better Stroop Test results, too.

They concluded that higher levels of glucose in the brain were most likely associated with better attention spans and better memory.

What your child eats definitely has an influence on what’s happening inside his brain and his attention span.

 

Sources:

1.  http://www.snre.umich.edu/eplab/demos/st0/stroopdesc.html

2. Blood glucose influences attention in young adults, Neuropsychologia, May 1994, Vol. 32, Vol. 5, 595-607.