I wait outside the door of the classroom, hoping to chat with my son’s teacher for a minute to check that he’s adjusting well to the new school year. The teacher is harried, as were other teachers we’ve had in prior years. We’re familiar with reports of his high levels of activity and tendency to lose focus and joke around. It can wear people out.
This time, it’s different. “Your son is the most active child I’ve ever taught, in 25 years of teaching”. The comment is meant kindly, but the underlying exasperation and frustration is apparent. I realise, with the full weight of parental responsibility bearing down on me, that my child is not conforming to expectations and we are staring down the barrel of an ADHD diagnosis if we seek it.
This is where our story might deviate slightly from the norm.
We live on a farm, near a small rural community between Melbourne and Adelaide. The medical care is great here, and there are skilled GPs, counsellors and psychologists available.
Across the western world, Ritalin, and equivalents like Vyvanse and Concerta are readily available first-line treatments. There is a big focus on these types of prescription medications in medical literature, and medical practitioners are grateful to have an option for parents and carers to address problematic behaviour.
Examples of the type of behaviour that might warrant this form of medication include inattention, restlessness and fidgeting, procrastination, difficulty starting and finishing tasks, and frequently losing things. This is identified as problematic if it is causing ‘moderate to severe’ impairment at both home and school.
At this stage, the conventional medical wisdom is that dietary modification and support are not necessary.
Having children who are able to focus on the task at hand, work carefully and keep their belongings organised are crucially important to the sound management of a classroom, and a child’s ability to perform well on standardised testing.
This is the basis of our educational model, and has for many years offered opportunities to children who can adhere to these principles to access higher education and training, and to establish themselves in a productive career to the benefit of society more broadly.
To be successful in this setting, a child is required to retain focus, to some degree, over the course of a 5- to 6- hour day.
The curriculum requires a teacher to adhere to a syllabus. Disseminating information to a classroom full of energetic youngsters is no mean feat. In my eyes, it must require the patience of a saint and genius skills in social communication and organisation!
Classroom discipline, quiet focus and concentration, and children who remain calmly in their seats, are necessary for this model to be successful.
Unfortunately, for boys in particular, higher energy levels and a more kinetic style of learning can mean that some don’t readily adapt to this environment. Over time, this can lead to a loss of confidence and joy in learning, and a dissociation from the education system itself.
This is a tragedy, and has profound implications for our society as a whole.
Witnessing this cycle has caused me to ask questions of my parenting style and our home life. As any parent would know, we are constantly juggling as our children adapt and grow, finding a balance between nurture and freedom.
Living on a farm has put me close to another cycle that I think also has profound implications for how our children grow and thrive. Despite our modern, hyper-connected world, we remain deeply complex living organisms. It can be easy to forget, when we live in air-conditioned high rise apartments in the middle of densely populated cities that we are totally dependent on the natural world for our survival.
I’d moved to the farm over 10 years earlier. Over that time, I’d come to realise how intimately our existence is tied to the rhythms of nature. Rainfall at the wrong time, heatwaves that burn young shoots, unbalanced soils that can cause the healthiest prime cattle to die overnight.
I’d begun to recognise, too, that much of the food my children were demanding was highly-processed, salt-laden and sugary.
If I made the trip into town to collect the kids from school, their first request was always a visit to McDonald’s. The food chain had opened its first branch a year or two earlier, part of a push into ever-smaller communities to keep turnover growing as traditional markets matured. The kids were entranced by the idea of receiving a toy with their food, and little cardboard boxes, shaped like houses, promised delights inside that didn’t ever quite measure up to their imagination.
I’d learned to bring home-made snacks with me in the car: happily, I love cooking, and acceded to these demands with cakes and biscuits like a traditional farmer’s wife might have made 50 years ago.
Our meals also tended to the traditional: farm-raised lamb, beautiful vege from our vegetable patch.
I know that this life is now becoming a rarity. In fact, I had to move 5 hours’ drive from my home to live this way, and gave up my career to become a farmer’s wife and mother. Our lives on the farm are ruled by the seasons. The start of the winter rains brings adorable new lambs, their little coats snowy white against the emerald green grass. They follow their mothers around closely for the early days, but soon form a little creche where they play on logs, leap high in the air with delight, and snuggle close in together when human visitors venture too close.
Most crops are planted here during this rainy winter season too. The farms have consolidated since the early soldier-settler blocks became unsustainably small. Over time, neighbours buyout neighbouring farms, machinery got larger and more efficient, and crops became increasingly homogenous: canola for oil, wheat and oats for milling, barley for brewing or for stock feed.
Successful crop harvests are acquired by the major grain trading groups, and subsequently sent overseas for processing. There are relatively few local food producers now: our manufacturing sector here in Australia is becoming ever-smaller, and the crops we are producing fill the supply chain set by seed growers, processors and chemical companies that manage pests and disease.
This is a huge change from the life my mother-in-law lived when she first moved to this area in the 1960s. Despite growing up in a family with live-in help, by the time she married she milked her own cow each morning. Baking your own bread daily was common, and her power came from an unreliable generator. Frequently, families would barter: trading mutton (mature sheep meat) for a bag of sugar or flour, a consequence, even in Australia’s rural heartland, of the disruption to the supply chain that occurred during the Second World War.
Small local schools have closed, and industry and commerce are centred on a few larger rural towns and cities. Even there, shops in the main street are closing: despite loyal patronage, the challenge of the internet and the emptying out of rural communities to the cities mean that local demand is often not sufficient.
It led me to begin questioning whether, despite all of this, some of the problems our children are experiencing could be likened to the way our crops can sicken if they don’t receive adequate nutrients in their demanding growth phase. Or our young lambs are weak and don’t grow quickly enough to fend off the foxes?
And if this is the case for us living so close to nature on our farm, what of all my friends whose lives don’t allow them access to the luxury of preparing slow-cooked meals? Of those who can’t get home between school pick-up and after-school sports and must resort to takeaways several nights a week? Of those whose children have sensitivities that mean anything ‘green’ must be avoided like the plague?
Recently, I’ve been inspired by the work of Prof. Julia Rucklidge. For anyone who knows me, the fact that I’m drawn to academic papers as the ‘gold star’ approach to problem solving would come as no surprise!
Prof. Rucklidge is a leading exponent of a new field of science called Nutritional Psychiatry: broadly, the idea that the food you eat directly contributes to your mood and mental performance.
What is different about her research is that it advocates a broad-spectrum approach to supplementation. Much work has been done into the ‘single-bullet’ idea that one compound might make a dramatic difference to conditions like ADHD or Autism (ASD), depression or anxiety.
Instead, Prof. Rucklidge’s work shows great benefits in providing people with a very broad range of vitamins and minerals, at much higher doses than are usually offered. Research has also been done to establish that these formulations are safe and benefits actually compound over time.
For me, sharing the benefits of this research has become a personal mission over the past 18 months. It’s been a legislative minefield, but we have developed a new listed medicine, called achieve+ junior, which is based on Prof. Rucklidge’s research.
We’ve sourced native Australian ingredients for the formulation to help people remember that the diversity of our food and our environment are directly connected to how we thrive. We've included the beautiful Kakadu Plum plant for its high levels of vitamins and minerals, and to serve as a reminder that often our modern fruits and vegetables have been bred more for taste, appearance and shelf-life than for their nutritional value.
We’re starting clinical trials in Melbourne soon, to broaden the research base and spread the word. We’re incredibly excited and honoured to have been invited to Boston to participate in the Harvard University/ MIT Healthcare Innovators bootcamp. As for so many others, COVID-19 has put a dent in these plans, but we will look forward to sharing what we learn once the course has been re-scheduled.
After all, this isn’t just a problem for one family on a farm. All around the world, our big-food, big-pharma, big-agricultural systems contribute to a way of life that is slowly starving our bodies and brains, and incrementally stealing our children’s future. It’s time to do something about it.
achieve+ junior, our nutrition drink powder for kids, is now available online at: https://www.mindfulnutrients.com/products/achieve-junior-150g.