Nutrition and children's mental health– Louise Mercieca
According to the Mental Health Foundation, mental health problems affect about 1 in 10 children and young people. The term mental health is, thankfully, becoming more accepted and understood as are the variety of issues that have come to be known under the general term of ‘mental health’. These include; anxiety, depression and conduct disorder.
In children it can be, understandably, difficult at times to recognise and identify behaviour triggers that may require intervention. Children often can’t communicate in the same way an older teenager or adult might, but there are many steps we can put in place to ensure that the groundwork for emotional resilience is in place. For me, this starts with nutrition but, before I go more into this, let’s have a quick look at some of the reasons that we might be seeing these increases in statistics: -
- There is now less stigma and fear around mental health issues so people are more likely to disclose them
- We are more aware so can identify and address issues with increased ease, meaning that there are now more reported cases
- We are living in an extremely fast paced environment. In fact, I often say that we have created a world that we are struggling to keep up with and trying to keep up is damaging our physical and mental health
- Our natural in-built ability to manage emotions comes largely from the foods we eat. With our changing diet many of us are not eating the foods that control and support our emotional state
- We have more additional stimuli than ever before, this coupled with the fast pace of life can lead to us feeling more ‘on edge’ with our emotions
When it comes to the role nutrition plays in our children’s mental health it’s a big one but it’s a complex one. Nutrition and mental health starts with nutrition for brain development and the importance of the first 1000 days, but we will have to be for another day! For now, I shall have to summarise the influence of nutrition and brain development whilst mainly focusing on our theme – the link of nutrition with mental health.
Nutrition, Brain Development and Emotions
There are many nutritional elements essential for children’s rapidly developing brains. In terms of macronutrients, it’s essential to include Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs). Essential for a reason! These fats make up 40% of the brain and are crucially important for intelligence, mood and behaviour. Alongside this, fatty acids are also involved in brain growth and development.
The main food sources of EFAs are;
- Oily fish (salmon etc) rich in Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)
- Egg yolks
- Fat from dairy products
- Flax seeds and chai seeds (Omega 3 – Alpha – linolenic Acid)
- Sunflower seeds, walnuts, pine nuts, hemp seeds, pecans, brazil nuts, sesame seeds, avocado, almonds (Omega 6 Linolenic acid)
It’s quite common to see deficiencies in these EFA’s in children and the deficiency traits may present challenges with concentration, focus, memory and attention or might be noticed through signs of difficulty in comprehension or with grasping new concepts.
It’s not only these ‘macronutrients’ that can have this influence. An area of particular importance is that of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), of which there are many which are specifically linked to aspects of brain development, cognition and emotional resilience in children. When levels of these are low, they can have the following deficiency impacts: -
Zinc – A deficiency in zinc has been linked with poor memory and difficulty grasping new concepts. When a zinc deficiency is coupled with low serotonin this deficiency can increase a tendency towards violence, depression and anxiety. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter- more on those shortly!
B Vitamins, (B1, B12, B5) are all needed to make acetylcholine a brain chemical involved in memory.
This is a huge subject, which we won’t explore in too much detail – for now lets’ recap the role of nutrition;
Nutrition is fuel for the growing body, including the brain. The brain is highly influential over our emotions and ability to control them. Nutrients are needed for cognitive development, focus and attention. Consider a child lacking in those and, in a learning environment consider the frustration, the day-dreaming, the inability to grasp a concept and think about how that may manifest itself as a behavioural trait? The child isn’t misbehaving, being a dreamer or ‘not keeping up’ - they are having a biological response! Imagine this over a day, week, month, term and, gradually, the issue escalates. This can be where emotional/mental health implications come to cause issues;
- Feeling frustrated can lead to behavioural issues
- Behavioural traits may be a direct result of a deficiency
- Low self-esteem as feeling ‘not keeping up’
These are the body’s chemical messengers! Part of the many roles of neurotransmitters is transmitting signals which alter our mood. We should be able to, biologically, do this at the times we need to. Take the fight or flight response; When we are faced with a situation of danger those chemical messengers kick in, giving a short term burst of dopamine, adrenaline and noradrenaline - enabling a biological response to a situation. We deal with the situation and then we go back to ‘normal’. When it comes to managing emotions and the neurotransmitters associated here it isn’t quite so straight forward and we can, often, get it wrong.
I am going to get a little bit scientific here, stay with me! I am going to use protein (& amino acids) as an example of the food that we eat. Our food goes on a journey (biosynthetic pathway) within the body. The amino acid precursors I am going to use as examples of these biosynthetic pathways are outlined below: -
- Tyrosine will act as a building block to make the neurotransmitter Dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with the pleasure and reward centres of the brain.
- Tyrosine the body also uses this amino acid to produce Norepinephrine. Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter that facilitates alertness, concentration and motivation.
- Amino acid = Tryptophan will act as a building block to make the neurotransmitter Serotonin. Serotonin is considered a mood stabiliser and is linked with blood sugar regulation, blood pressure and sleep.
- Choline - this amino acid is the building block for the neurotransmitter Acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is essential for thought and memory and for concentrating and maintaining focus.
Tyrosine foods: eggs, dairy, lean meats, seeds, wholegrains, fish, cottage cheese, seaweed (spirulina), soy protein.
Tryptophan foods; cottage cheese, milk, red meat (lean), fish, chicken, chickpeas, bananas, almonds, sunflower seeds, spirulina, peanuts.
Choline foods; eggs (especially the yolk), wheat germ, whole wheat, soya beans.
So hopefully you can see how eating the right amino acids from the right foods can have a huge influence on our mood and mental ability.
Very quickly, two other influencing factors are the health of our microbiome (gut health) and the amount of sugar consumed in the diet. The two are linked and they are linked to all of the points we have already covered. There is too much about both to whizz through here so I shall be back to give them the time they need! But consider your gut health to be crucial to the extractions of nutrients and, therefore, highly influential in the biosynthetic pathways required to make neurotransmitters. Also consider the consequences of fluctuating blood sugar levels and the impact these have on children. This is particularly apparent when children have a high sugar breakfast, there can be visible personality changes as the sugar levels drop (approx. 90 mins after breakfast) leaving the individual irritable, restless and sometimes even feeling aggressive.
This is such a huge subject as I am sure you will agree, there are many points which could have taken up the article in its’ entirety but I have tried to cover a run through of the big issues linked with nutrition and the role that food plays not only for our physical health but our mental health too.
Health Sciences Academy – course materials for Advanced Child and Brain Nutrition Advisor
Dr Mercola – speaking at the Restorative Medical Conference on Iodine and Child IQ
Vitamin D and Depression: Where is all the Sunshine? US National Library of Medicine – National Institutes of Health
Medical News Today February 18 – What is Serotonin and what does it do?
How Food Shapes Your Child
Listen to your Gut - Stephen Mordue - https://www.cachealumni.org.uk/Public/News/Articles-folder/Listen%20to%20your%20gut%20It’s%20amazing%20what%20it%20might%20tell%20you%20about%20your%20health%20Stephen%20Mordue.aspx?WebsiteKey=f50a7342-ef7c-4741-9b60-1983d5c33bab
Louise Mercieca is an award-winning Nutritional Therapist, Author and Presenter with her own food channel for Early Years nutrition, which you can more about here; https://www.earlyyearsfood.tv/. She’s passionate about formative nutrition and also works with adults on preventative nutrition. You can find out more about Louise and her way of working by reading her introductory article for CACHE Alumni here; https://www.cachealumni.org.uk/article/the-impact-of-food-louise-mercieca/