Anxiety is an increasing problem among children for all sorts of reasons, including the pressure to “fit in”. Better nourishment for an anxious child can be one of the most important steps you can take. And this will help them cope with their day-to-day challenges. Identifying and supporting their specific nutritional shortfalls may help to get them on the road to happier and calmer times.
Usually low-nutrient reserves are relatively easy to correct or ameliorate and these steps will help to keep your kids robust, both now and in the long term. In this two-part series, I am going to show you how to help nourish your child’s mental well-being and build their resilience. In part one, I am going to share with you the building blocks of a well-nourished brain. In the part two, I am going to share with you some of the underlying metabolic issues that can trigger excess worry and overwhelm, and how you can determine if these are the root cause of your child’s anxiety.
Anxiety is very natural response to a situation that is perceived to be dangerous or stressful. Most kids have experienced worry and anxiety at some point in their life and this is really quite normal. Extreme worry and anxiety can however become a major problem when it kicks in at unexpected times, or when it takes a particularly firm hold of your child’s day-to-day life. When anxiety takes over, it can affect sleep and eating patterns, which further impacts on mood and concentration. This can spiral into time off school with other very real-seeming symptoms such as sore tummies, tiredness or headaches.
It is one of the most fundamental human desires to protect one’s young from mental health problems such as anxiety. And never is it harder as a parent than to watch your child suffer, and worse to feel helpless or unsure of how to support them or ‘make it better’. Anxiety in children can manifest in a number of ways, the most common being:
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Trouble concentrating
- Gut issues including pain, constipation or diarrhoea
- Trouble breathing
- Persistent worrying
- Separation anxiety
- Obsessions and compulsions
- Tics and involuntary movements
- Poor sleep patterns
Historically, anxiety has been assumed to be innate in an emotionally fragile child or triggered by a one-off or a series of significant life events. Frequently however there may also be an underlying physical trigger for excess worry, anxiety and overwhelm. This can be bubbling around in the background even before the anxiety has become a big problem. A response to a very real emotional life event such as bullying or moving schools can be exacerbated by an underlying shortfall in important vitamins or minerals or metabolic imbalance. It is much more difficult for a child to cope if they do not have the right nutrients stored up to produce the correct balance of neurotransmitters to keep them happy and calm. Ongoing worry and anxiety can in themselves deplete nutritional reserves further, so this is why the right diet and food supplement support is so crucial.
Adrenals On Fire?
When the body and mind react together to a perceived threat or stressful situation, we can feel physical sensations, like dizziness, a rapid heartbeat, difficulty breathing, sweatiness or shaky hands and feet. These sensations, called the fight or flight response, are caused by a rush of adrenaline and other stress hormones that prepare the body to make a quick getaway or “flight” from danger.
Cortisol is one of the fight or flight chemicals produced by our adrenal glands and it increases the rate that blood pumps through the body. This instantly gives us the energy to cope with stress or danger. However, if these cortisol levels stay high for a sustained period, i.e. we are constantly in a state of stress, it can lead to various health concerns in little people and teenagers alike, including mental illness, weakened immune system, weight gain, poor sleep, and a restricted production of serotonin (our happy hormone). Ultimately this can lead to overwhelm, anxiety and a sad, tired child. This, in turn, can have the downward spiral effect of your child craving foods high in sugar and carbs which sadly exacerbate the situation.
So What Can You Do For Your Child?
The simplest and arguably most effective change is diet and exercise:
- Avoid or cut down foods with a high sugar content and reduce white carbohydrate intake.
- Ideally never give carbohydrate on its own, and always combine with protein and fat such as eating an apple with a chunk of cheese or wholegrain crackers with peanut butter.
- It is important to increase protein-rich foods as well as healthy fats, dietary fibre, fruit & veg., omega-3, zinc, magnesium, licorice, chamomile and green teas, and B vitamins can be helpful here too.
- Also get your kids moving more. Exercise is great at reducing cortisol levels and thus relieving stress and anxiety. A good run around park, kicking a ball, riding a bike or a simple walk in countryside can make a big difference.
- Deep breathing, mindfulness and yoga are also great stress reducers for young kids and teenagers. Look for local groups or online apps to help them become ace at chilling.
An Out Of Sync Gut?
Our gut is now often known as our second brain. The balance of good and unwanted bacteria living in the gut can alter how the brain works. Studies have shown that the use of probiotics and prebiotics can improve chronic-stress and anxiety through their ability to nourish our microbiome (the microbes in our gut). These studies have shown that changing gut flora can affect how we think and how we feel. The use of lactobacillus reuteri (a gram-positive bacterium with pro-biotic properties) has shown in several studies to have the ability to change brain activity and ease anxiety.
Increasing numbers of studies have suggested that an imbalance in the gut microbiota directly influences stress-related and psychiatric issues including anxiety, depression, and OCD. Gut bacteria can change brain activity and behaviour via the microbiota-gut-brain axis (which mainly includes the immune, neuroendocrine, and neural pathways).
Adding in probiotics can be a very important first step to helping your child, especially if they have any ongoing gut issues including “minor” issues such as bloating, gas or a poor appetite. If your child has been on several rounds of antibiotics (recently or in the past) then again probiotics may be the key here. I have also detailed my top dietary tips to nourish your child’s microbiome and replenish their good bacteria in my recent blog “How To Feed Your Child’s Gut Microbiome”.
Lack Of B Vitamins & Iron?
B vitamins and iron can play a key role in a supporting your child’s nutrition. A child who has chosen to be vegetarian or stays clear of red meat and green vegetables is often low in several members of the vitamin B family. Many kids do not have the ability to methylate efficiently (unable to break down these B vitamins into a usable form the at the body can uptake easily). Those with pernicious anaemia or coeliac disease in the family should particularly look out for signs and symptoms of a vitamin B12 deficiency and low iron reserves. Those with a family history of cardio-vascular disease, diabetes or cancer may have more problems absorbing folate, so always up the raw leafy greens in these cases.
Low levels of vitamin B12, B6 and folate are associated with some neurological diseases and psychiatric disorders. They also inhibit the production of monoamine neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, noradrenaline and adrenaline all crucial in the creation of your child’s stable mood, sense of well-being and ability to feel happiness.
Blood tests or urine tests can be organised through a highly experienced naturopath or nutritional therapist to establish if your child needs supplementation. Red meat, eggs, whole grains and green leafy vegetables can help in the meantime.
High Magnesium Need?
Magnesium is essential for the functioning of the central nervous system and optimization of your mitochondria (the power house of every cell in our body) and is crucial to our health and the prevention of disease.
Magnesium has been used for centuries as a remedy for many ailments and predominantly anxiety, apathy, depression, insecurities, and headaches. It has also been shown to help calm and aid with sleep and Magnesium Taurate may be used to reduce palpitations. Epsom salt baths are a wonderful source of easy to absorb magnesium and kids love these!
Research has found that during periods of extreme stress, magnesium is often used up by the body. This results in a significant number of people and children who are magnesium-deficient, which in turn can create anxiety which will further increase their depletion of magnesium through stress.
Historically we used to consume a lot of magnesium through our food and diet, but over time, our diets and food production techniques have caused a substantial reduction of the magnesium we consume, making supplementation essential to many and potentially the key to your little one’s anxiety or health issues. Magnesium is easy to supplement and your practitioner can advise on which form is best for your child. To build up magnesium levels through diet, add in lots of nuts, seeds, oily fish, dark leafy greens, bananas, strawberries, buckwheat, cocoa, molasses and natural yoghurt.
Omega-3 essential fatty acids have had more research about mood and brain health than any other nutrient. Dr Alex Richardson runs Food & Behaviour Research at Oxford University which is a research unit dedicated to knowing how omega 3 affects the brain. The message is pretty clear that oily fish is the best way to get enough omega-3 to feed the brain, which in turn will help to calm anxiety and many other mental health problems. If your child has never been much of a fish eater or has only ever eaten white fish, then they may well be low in omega-3.
A big sign that your child might need more omega-3 is a skin condition called keratosis pilaris which looks a bit like rough chicken skin at the top of their arms or even on their face. Dry skin and hair and a thirsty child may also point towards a need for much more omega-3. If your child is allergic to fish or is a “fish-phobe” then other sources of omega-3 include flax seed, chia seed, walnuts, omega-3 rich eggs and organic milk.
Low Vitamin D?
Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin that your body synthesises from the help of sunshine exposure. Known as the good mood vitamin, vitamin D is one of the most important vitamins to support an anxious child. A big sign your child needs more vitamin D is if they become SAD or their mood is worse in the middle of the winter when they have less sun exposure. However, with more kids choosing to spend their time indoors in front of screens instead of outside in the sun and this combined with overuse of sun cream, is a real threat to the young people of today living in the UK all year round.
Even if you are lucky enough as a family to get some daily sunshine, there is a gene called VDR which can block your ability to absorb vitamin D; and in this case, vitamin D levels will need ongoing support, sunshine or not.
Cod liver is the best natural form of vitamin D so this is why a cod liver oil has been taken historically to keep kids healthy. Rosemary and sage help the body to absorb vitamin D, so use plenty of these herbs in your cooking to optimise your family’s vitamin D levels.
In this post, we have covered some important and simple nutritional sound-bites to help your child learn to cope with the ongoing pressures of life. Once you have identified the nutrient shortfalls, you can help to educate your kids to look out for signs and symptoms in the future and manage this in the longer term.
See here for the second part of this topic. I dig deeper into some of the more significant metabolic issues that children can experience and which may contribute to a more deep-set state of anxiety and overwhelm.