With mental health problems in British children rocketing, many people think that the wrong nutrition and poor sleep are contributing to the problem. In my practice, when I ask children how they are feeling, they often say they are exhausted and very run down, as well as being low, angry or agitated, and this is where a healthy diet and proper sleep is fundamental. Thanks to the collaboration between The Duchess of Cambridge and Huffington Post UK with their Young Minds Matter campaign, we can talk about these issues more; and understanding the problem is the first step to fixing it.
Conventionally in the UK we tend to first look for emotional problems that might be triggering mental health issues such as bereavement from losing a parent or a sibling, divorce or even abuse. However, there are also children with stable and loving families who turn up at my clinic with low mood, invasive and repetitive thoughts and self-harm for no obvious reason. When you talk to the children and dig a bit deeper you usually find that they are picky eaters, poor sleepers, their immune system is low and they almost always complain of chronic tiredness. Then, when you start to address these key areas you very often see a child with a much cheerier outlook, with better focus and able to overcome many of their mental health battles.
It’s hard to miss media reports at the moment about children eating too much sugar or a sugar tax. But the main focus of the media and government is on sugar causing obesity, and its knock-on effects, such as type 2 diabetes. What is being forgotten is that too much sugar can also cause a roller-coaster effect on appetite, with sleep and immunity also at risk; all of which can affect mood and outlook. So therefore too much sugar can also be a trigger for kid’s mental health issues. Commonly when you ask the kids with mood challenges what they eat, they will report back a sugar-loaded diet full of white carbohydrates, sugary drinks and sweet yoghurts. Low levels of essential fatty acids and vitamin and mineral deficiencies are also common in the UK and typically kids with mental health challenges are low in Omega 3, zinc, magnesium, iron and the B vitamins. White carbohydrates and sugary foods tend not to contain many of these key nutrients. When you start to give kids more foods containing protein, healthy fats, fruits and vegetables full of the key building blocks to health, there can be quite a dramatic change in sleep patterns and mood.
Vitamin D deficiency is also a major problem, and when a child is low in vitamin D the immune system and mood may well be compromised. The best way to synthesise vitamin D is through the sun and since sunshine is rare during several months of the year in the UK, many children need more support to keep them healthy. Maybe a routine vitamin D test and supplementation for kids struggling with their mental health could be rolled out to help support them?
Kids getting to sleep too late and waking up too early means that they are chronically tired. Children can often hide the signs of tiredness and it often manifests in hyper behaviour, poor concentration and negative actions. As adults we are acutely aware that sleep deprivation is the number one trigger for brain fog and low mood. Parents getting in from work late or too many after school activities can mean late bed times. Even losing half an hour’s sleep every night can impact on mood and school performance. Children that struggle with their sleep and cannot be helped by simple changes to the routine should look at getting help from a sleep expert to establish if there is any underlying cause of their wakefulness.
All of these issues are important to identify, but changing them can be a challenge. Actually, kids tend to adapt very quickly to the right behavioural nudges, and the sticking point can be with parents, who often don’t know what to do. When I help kids change health habits, it is very much a partnership with the parents as well as the child.
It would be wonderful if better nutrition and sleep patterns could be looked at when assessing a child who is struggling with their mental health. If we can get this right then it may mean less need for medication and other services. It could make a difference to them as they are growing up and may well help to prevent the problems digging in deeper when they are adults. Young minds matter!!