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What Is Irlen Syndrome & What Causes It? with Helen Irlen

Dr Daniel Amen and Tana Amen BSN RN On The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast

If you experience headaches and irritability while reading, or if certain light patterns tend to affect you negatively, you may suffer from the oft-misdiagnosed Irlen Syndrome. Luckily, there are effective methods to treat it. In the second episode of a series on Irlen Syndrome with Helen Irlen, she describes its symptoms, causes, and how it can be remedied.

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Dr. Daniel Amen: Welcome to the Brain Warrior's Way Podcast. I'm Dr. Daniel Amen.
Tana Amen: And I'm Tana Amen. In our podcast, we provide you with the tools you need to become a warrior for the health of your brain and body.
Dr. Daniel Amen: The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast is brought to you by Amen Clinics, where we have been transforming lives for 30 years, using tools like brain SPECT imaging to personalize treatment to your brain. For more information, visit AmenClinics.com.
Tana Amen: The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast is also brought to you by BrainMD, where we produce the highest quality nutraceuticals to support the health of your brain and body. To learn more, go to BrainMD.com.
Welcome back. We're here with Helen Irlen. We're having such an interesting conversation about the Irlen Syndrome. So, thanks for being with us, Helen.
Helen Irlen: I love it.
Tana Amen: And yeah, this is so much fun. Before we get started on more questions, I actually want to tell you a story because this has been so fascinating for me. And just like when I met Daniel, I'm like, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, ADD is like nonsense. So, I kind of thought the same thing when I heard ... 'Cause I'm like this neurosurgical hard charging ICU nurse, right?
Helen Irlen: Right.
Tana Amen: Trauma nurse. So, whenever I hear stuff that sounds sort of fluffy to me, I'm like, yeah whatever. But I have to tell you a story, what made me a true believer ... like a serious believer.
So, this is so interesting. I just wonder how many other people out there could benefit from this. So, my sister, we are actually ... I often say, I joke now, it's like, oh I finally have a sister, not a project. And so she's like, we actually have a relationship now. But I always thought that she was just irresponsible, and it just irritated me because one of my top values is responsibility. It's like, you have to take responsibility. And I just felt like what is your problem? Why can't you just be responsible? What is the matter with you? Because she would just do the goofiest things, and she was so clumsy. She's been in 19 car accidents, and she would be driving and just drive off the side of the road and flip a car or go into a ditch or run into something. Even when she came to my house-
Dr. Daniel Amen: Well, because she flipped the car-
Tana Amen: With me in it.
Dr. Daniel Amen: You had a-
Tana Amen: Yeah, and so it was just nonstop with this kid. And so she's nine years younger than I am, and just made me crazy. And so she's staying at my house a couple years ago, 'cause a traumatic event happened, and I come outside and she's parked on my curb, like pressed against my mailbox, and I'm like, it just never ends. I'm like literally gonna lose my mind with this girl. I just can't do this anymore.
And I'm just having these thoughts. And we're in the car, and Daniel's asked her a couple questions, and I commented about the car on the curb. And Daniel literally hits the breaks, puts his hand over his mouth. He goes, "I know what's wrong." And I go ... he goes, "I feel terrible I didn't like think of it sooner." He goes, "I know what's wrong." And he makes an appointment for her to come see you. I'm like, yeah right, okay. And like you're just giving her an excuse? Because you know I'm mad-
Dr. Daniel Amen: And she used to see, remember, she used to have visions-
Tana Amen: No, no, no. But it gets worse. So yeah, part of the problem was she literally ... part of what was irritating me so badly was ... and I was trying to figure it all out, she thought people were electronically harassing her. She thought, 'cause she would look ... If there's a fluorescent light going, she started to see laser beams. And sometimes they'd come from the floor, sometimes they'd come from the ceiling. If it was a hard surface floor, she'd see them bouncing from the floor, and so she thought people were beginning to harass her electronically.
It began to get really weird. And so she would just freak out and not want to leave the house, and she'd stay in the dark. She'd keep all the lights off in the house. It just got really weird. And so I'm like, okay, I don't know what to do with this girl. So she comes to see you, and it just changed everything. Like, it literally changed ... We don't let her drive yet. But it changed everything. She doesn't see the light beams. Now, she recognizes when we go places if they have certain lights, she's like, I just can't sit under that light, but I have my glasses on, and now I know that those are not ... I know it's from the light now. I don't feel like someone's doing something weird.
So, isn't that a crazy story? I mean, you hear them all the time, so-
Helen Irlen: I hear them all the time. Absolutely all the time.
Dr. Daniel Amen: And do you think light pollution is causing more ADD, anxiety, depression with the fluorescent lights?
Helen Irlen: If you want to say light pollution in terms of the amount of time that people are spending on electronic devices, absolutely. The clients that we see now are so much more severe than they were even 10 years ago.
Tana Amen: Oh, interesting.
Helen Irlen: They're coming in on the severe, and I used to say 17 is my high score in terms of how severe you are. And a lot of them are coming in at ... eight is severe, 17 was my top, and now they're coming in towards 17, 18, 19.
Tana Amen: And that makes sense because everything we do is on a computer now.
Helen Irlen: Everything is electronic. Absolutely. And you're under fluorescent lights that have gotten brighter and brighter, so they're under their most adverse environment trying to function, and they don't realize it.
Dr. Daniel Amen: And so it can affect them at work, it can affect them in school, it can affect them in their home. It's amazing. So, if you suspect that this might apply to you or someone you love, Irlen, I-R-L-E-N.com is just a great resource for you. There are self tests. Actually, when I'm in my office and I'm sort of suspecting this, I actually go to the website and I do the short test. And I go, so how many of these 14 symptoms do you have? And it's often people have eight or nine or 12 of these symptoms.
I had this one girl from Oklahoma, and she had been diagnosed with ADD and anxiety, and the medication helped but not as much as we had thought, and she had terrible Irlen.
Tana Amen: But it would make you anxious.
Dr. Daniel Amen: And when we got it treated, she actually saw her mother's whole face for the first time.
Helen Irlen: That's crazy.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Isn't that-
Helen Irlen: But I hear all this-
Tana Amen: But I have to say something-
Helen Irlen: I hear it all the time. [crosstalk 00:06:34]
Tana Amen: Sorry, I have to say something though. Think about this. If you are seeing light beams coming at you or you think you're being electronically harassed, or you can't read and you're in law school, that's gonna cause some serious anxiety or depression.
Helen Irlen: Mm-hmm (affirmative), absolutely. And you're trying as hard as you can, and the harder you try, the worse things get. So then what do you do, right? I brought in ... If you think of an optical illusion, and I brought an example of an optical illusion, because that's what's happening to the brain basically for my clients, the world becomes like an optical illusion for them.
Tana Amen: Oh wow.
Helen Irlen: And people don't even think, should I show one of these?
Dr. Daniel Amen: Yes.
Tana Amen: Yeah, so those of you listening, you won't see the optical illusion, but we also record this and you can see it on YouTube. So there's this swirl pattern, at least that's what I see.
Helen Irlen: Yeah, and things can happen or change. Things can flicker or flash or shimmer. Things can move up and down, things get blurry, things can disappear and reappear. And so you're getting this happening though all the time, and the only way you can make it stop happening is to stop reading or copying, or get out from under the fluorescent lighting. So, you have to get away from it, and then you get labeled. And the labels can vary from ADD to just not trying hard enough to you need to pay more attention. And the kids just blame themselves because if they look at a page that looks like an optical illusion, and they look at their neighbor's page, it looks exactly the same. So the issue is one of, well, they're seeing it just like I'm seeing it-
Tana Amen: What's the-
Helen Irlen: ... there must be something wrong with me. And the other thing you and I talked about is how we just assume a lot of the things we experience as normal. Like, reading is supposed to put you to sleep, right?
Tana Amen: Right.
Helen Irlen: You were telling me your story about that.
Tana Amen: Oh yeah, I read to go to sleep.
Helen Irlen: Yeah. And how many out there read to go to sleep without realizing it that there are people who can read for hours and hours and hours and never get tired or never get sleepy. Another comment that I hear a lot is, "Well of course, everyone's gonna get a headache. They just need to read long enough." And then you look around, and the majority of the population doesn't get headaches from reading. So, they're assuming that it's their problem, and they don't even need to report it or tell anyone, and nobody asks them.
I mean, no one asks them. There is not one test in school or psychoeducational battery that asks questions about how it feels.
Dr. Daniel Amen: So, how do people get this? What causes it?
Helen Irlen: Two ways. One, you can inherit it. So it doesn't surprise me when you talked about reading puts you to sleep knowing that your sister's severe. You may not be as severe on the continuum. So, you inherit it. And that's fun, because we always talk to the children and say, "Well, we're gonna find out if you have Irlen who you inherited it from, whether it's your mom, dad, or both." And that just immediately makes them feel better. It goes, oh, it's not my fault, right? Mom goes, "I know, it's probably my fault."
But, either way, or you can acquire it through head injuries, concussions, whiplash, or certain even medical conditions that are autoimmune related, and certain medications that make you more light sensitive. It can be one or both. In terms of the concussions and TBIs, we're seeing a lot of workman's comp cases who have had auto accidents or accidents at work, and we've worked with 500 of our military men and women who have been over in Iraq and Afghanistan and experienced multiple blast injuries ... and have been living with a headache every minute of every day that become migraines once a day to twice a day with the nauseous and dizziness. And they're all getting medically discharged, and they have families to support. They can't go back to school 'cause they can't be under fluorescent lighting. They can't read any longer. And we get them in the lenses and it changes their lives. That's what I hear from every one of them, you changed my life.
Tana Amen: Wow.
Helen Irlen: I don't suffer anymore from headaches or migraines or eye pain or eye strain. I am able to read, and I have a future. Anger is another interesting issue. I had a mother, as we do pre and post when we do follow-ups, and I was talking to one of the Marines, and I asked about anger. His wife grabbed the phone away from him and said, "Helen, I need to tell you. His anger was so bad that I would take the children and have to hide in a closet to protect us and the children." She said, "Since he's been wearing his Irlen spectral filters, we haven't been able to hide ... we don't need to be in the closet at all anymore. So I want to thank you."
Tana Amen: Wow.
Dr. Daniel Amen: All right, stay with us.
Tana Amen: That's wild.
Dr. Daniel Amen: When we come back, we're gonna talk about traumatic brain injury and the Irlen Syndrome.
Tana Amen: If you are enjoying the Brain Warrior's Way Podcast, please don't forget to subscribe so you'll always know when there's a new episode. And while you're at it, feel free to give us a review or five star rating as that helps others find the podcast.
Dr. Daniel Amen: For more information, give us a call at 855-978-1363.