Recent research is showing promising findings for tackling common mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, addiction, schizophrenia, ADHD and OCD with nutritional interventions.
We are learning so much about the interconnectivity between diet, gut bacteria, the brain, mood, and behaviour, that there is a new burgeoning field called nutritional psychiatry. It may be strange to think that food could replace pharma as a treatment plan, but this seems to be where the research is pointing to.
Given the fact that the brain and body are under their most significant growth period in childhood, this is important information for parents. And in fact, some research shows very early childhood diet is linked to later adolescent mental health outcomes.
Let me share where some of the current research on diet and mental health is focused and suggest adaptations to your family menu. Please know that I fully understand that every child is different, so it's never wise to be prescriptive with nutritional advice to the masses. One size definitely does not fit all.
Any alterations to your child's nutritional program should be vetted through a trusted practitioner who knows your child and can track their progress. That said, more and more parents are becoming self-educated biohackers and taking a non-traditional route to health for themselves and their children while standard western medicine plays catch up.
So here are some basic ideas to consider when changing your child's eating and nutrition to help improve their mood and behaviour.
Reduce simple sugars
Sugar has long been the nutritional villain. It rots your teeth and contributes to obesity, insulin insensitivity, Type 2 diabetes, and inflammation.
But it also has an effect on children's mood and behaviour. Try feeding a lot of sugar to a kid before bed and they will probably become hyper before crashing and having a meltdown. Remember Halloween?
Maybe you don't feed your kids chocolate bars before bed, but sugar is hidden in a lot children's food. A glass of orange juice has six tsp. alone, and wild swings in blood glucose levels impact brain functioning.
Hypoglycemia, for example, usually follows a spike in sugar, setting off the body's stress alarm system. That alarm bell is a physiological phenomenon that also triggers feelings of anxiety, depression and anger. If you have ever experienced being "hangry," you know what I mean. Low glucose levels are also associated with less self-control and more impulsivity in children.
My advice: Start reading labels and look for hidden sugar. Try your best to have your children consume their carbohydrates in the complex form (whole grains and veggies) and serve them along with proteins which will help prevent blood sugar spikes and crashes.
Increase good fats
The brain also needs essential fatty acids (EFA's) for proper function. Fat got demonized in the '60s as being the culprit for heart disease and the general public still largely believes that fats are bad.
However, healthy fats are very good for us. Sadly, we don't have enough good omega 3 fats in our standard western diet anymore.
My advice: Why not think about eating more fish or taking a supplement? Apparently, feeding your kids cod liver oil was really the right thing to do after all!
As much as possible, we want to eat natural food in its purest form, and avoid food contaminants like mercury, mould, food colouring, preservatives, nitrates, etc. These compounds interact with our bodies and influence both mood and behaviour in numerous ways.
While this is still a controversial research area, I like Dr. Stuart Shanker's sentiment of simplicity. He is a leading expert in emotional regulation for children and he shares that all stressors put a certain load on a child's system whether that stressor be bright lights, loud noises, or bad ingredients in their food.
The accumulation of stressors is not additive but actually multiplicative. So, if we want to increase the likelihood for a child to be able to emotionally regulate, we need to stop taxing the broadband of their system. A stressed system leads to mood and behaviour issues.
My advice: When you can, eat organic. Avoid additives and avoid foods that are known to be reactive or create inflammation.
Listen to your gut
Gut bacteria is finally taking its rightful place in the spotlight. You can check out a very important New York Times story that dives deep into research that discusses how your gut microorganisms not only digest food and fight disease, but also are responsible for the production of mood-regulating chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid.
If your gut health is off, your mood and behaviour will be off too; so much so that this same pathway in our system is identified as an area of potential concern in the diagnosis of autism and other DSM mental illness diagnoses.
My advice: Feed your kids lots of probiotics like yogurt, kefir, kimchi, and other fermented foods, or consider a probiotic supplement. Always be conscientious when taking antibiotics or anything else that kills natural gut flora.
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