How Sensory Integration and Nutrition Interact

by Kelly Dorfman, MS, LND, co-founder, Developmental Delay Resources

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.  (Is the soup hot or cold?  Did the bee sting hurt?  Where are my arms and legs?  Do I need to go to the bathroom?)  Using sensory information efficiently enables us to function smoothly in daily life.

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 molding playdough, are “food” for the brain.

Children with SI dysfunction, however, misread sensory input, often under- or over-reacting to it.  If a child’s sensory processing is disorganized, he may be hypo- or hypersensitive to temperature, pain, and the way his body works.

If behavior becomes out of sync with life, therapy may be recommended to re-integrate the nervous system.  Activities designed to supplement a child’s poor sensory diet may include brushing, heavy work, deep pressure, or cross crawling.

While a good sensory diet is critically important to correct SI imbalances, its effectiveness is limited by the quality of the connections making up the neural network.  A well-nourished nervous system is strong and flexible.  If the neural network, however, is composed of “malnourished” wires, sensory therapies sometimes may be insufficient to produce efficient sensory integration.

The sensory diet must be supplemented with minerals, essential fats, B vitamins and fat-soluble antioxidants, such as vitamin E, which are equally important to the nervous system; sensory integration and nutrition must interact.  Vitamins and minerals do not work alone; if one is deficient, it is likely that others are, too.  For example, if magnesium is given, but vitamin B-6 is lacking, magnesium may not be absorbed.  Similarly, if essential fats are given, but there is not enough zinc, magnesium, selenium and B vitamins, the fats will not be properly utilized.

Magnesium is an essential mineral.  The nervous system needs it to transmit electrical information.  When a mild deficiency occurs, nerve signal transmission is inefficient.  The signals may arrive a little more slowly or less accurately than normal – the very problems associated with SI dysfunction.  Severe deficiency results in heart arrhythmia, muscle twitching and hyper-excitability.

Magnesium alone has a potentially dramatic impact.  One study demonstrated that it actually protects the nervous system from overloading.  Servicemen given magnesium supplements avoided nerve damage to their ears from exposure to loud artillery fire significantly better than those who did not get this supplement.

If servicemen with sufficient magnesium can avoid hearing loss, it may follow that youngsters with good magnesium levels better resist the hearing damage, auditory processing problems and sensorimotor difficulties associated with frequent ear infections.

Kids with SI issues have higher sensory and nutritional needs.  These children have not only a poor sensory diet, but also poor, self-limited food diets because of oral defensiveness and/or hyposensitivity to smell, taste, and textures.  Their foods are often either crunchy or creamy.  The “crunchy diet” consists predominantly of white or brown processed foods like pretzels, French fries, crackers and chips.  The equally popular “creamy diet” is heavy on milk products, bread and pasta.

Although aware that these diets can be deficient in many nutrients, parents feel stuck because the child cannot be encouraged, bribed or threatened into eating anything else.  However, eating behavior can be modified, using specific desensitizing oral-motor activities focusing on the lips, face, and mouth.

A good start to improve a child’s diet is to avoid the worst, empty calorie foods.  Remove them from the house and close the nutrient gap with supplements.  Use a broad spectrum of nutrients.  If a child has low tone and lacks stamina, higher levels of B vitamins may be helpful.

If the child is hyperactive and irritable, give lower levels of B vitamins; increase gradually, watching for increased agitation. Minerals such as magnesium are also usually needed.  Whatever is used, view the program as a long term support system. Changing the structure and function of the nervous system takes time, and direct results may be hard to measure or tie directly to nutrition.

Try to think of “diet” in broad terms. By providing both a nutritious food diet and a healthy sensory diet, parents can assure a strong, well-regulated nervous system, which, in turn, supports efficient cognition and behavior.