Many of us know that our kids could be eating better, but still, implementing healthy habits are often just too much of a challenge. In my clinical practice, this is one of the most important elements to consider, as I know how difficult it is to implement new healthy habits and sustain them for good.
Childhood is supposed to be a happy time, but it’s saddening to see how many kids walk into my office who are depressed, stressed, have ADHD or autism. Childhood, in many cases, just doesn’t seem like fun anymore.
When we talk about kids’ mental health (in terms of depression, ADHD, anxiety, etc.) the main lines of treatments are usually drugs or therapy, but we tend to neglect what role physiological issues/ diet might play. I’m not saying that nutrition is the only thing we should consider, but it should be part of the treatment plan.
In this article, I’ll be touching on how diet influences your child’s mental development and health. But isn’t diet and mental development worlds apart, you might ask? Many years ago, Hippocrates (the father of medicine) wasn’t far off when he said ‘All disease starts in the gut.’ Today there are many studies to back this up – a lot of disease and suffering could be alleviated if we pay attention to gut health. This means that one of the best things you can do for your child’s overall health is to keep their guts healthy. Let me explain by giving you more info on the microbiome (the bacteria that lives within all of us).
How does the microbiome impact your child’s brain health?
The vagus nerve is a bidirectional communication channel between the gut and the brain. It is quite a complex system as it also intersects with the immune and hormonal systems. This is called the gut-brain relationship and affects a lot of different systems in the body. It is quite fascinating that the vagus nerve is a bidirectional communication system – it’s not just the brain (thought of as the governing organ) that communicates with the gut but also the gut that communicates with the brain. A practical example looks like this:
When you’re feeling stressed about an exam/ presentation, you might have experienced that you feel a bit queasy or have an upset stomach (the brain is influencing the gut).
When you haven’t eaten for a long time or ate a lot of sugar you might feel irritated, moody or have a dip in concentration (the gut influences the brain).
Dr Natasha Campbell McBride has done ground-breaking research on this topic for many decades and has shown that it appears that the child’s digestive system holds the key to their mental development. She has further also shown that both children and adults with mental disorders such as autism, ADHD, schizophrenia and depression have the same dysbiosis (imbalance in gut bacteria). This means that we can keep our brains functioning optimally by keeping our digestive systems and the microbiome that lives there happy. So, what exactly can we do to keep our children’s microbiome happy and flourishing to keep their gut (and brain) in tip-top shape?
How to keep the microbiome happy and manage hyperactivity
- Eat Real Foods & Eliminate Food Additives
Sugar and highly processed foods feed the bad bacteria in our gut and the more bad bacteria we have, the more it will interfere with nutrient absorption. We know that nutrient deficiencies have often been linked to ADHD.
Also, food-like substances cause inflammation in the gut because the immune system does not recognise it as food which then escapes into the systemic circulation and causes an inflammatory response in the brain. Chemicals such as colourings and additives have been shown to wreak havoc on children’s behaviour and wellbeing. We also know that that many different food colours and additives, such as tartrazine (E102), have been linked to hyperactivity. The advice would be to avoid food containing chemical additives and stick to whole, natural produce. For additional benefit, choose organic foods to also avoid growth hormones, antibiotics and pesticides. I have seen in my practice that up to 90% of hyperactive children benefit from eliminating foods that contain artificial colours, flavours and preservatives.
- Avoid Food Sensitivities
The most common food sensitivities I see are gluten/wheat and dairy and it has the potential to cause chronic low-grade inflammation in the body. Food sensitivities could cause any of the following symptoms in the body:
- Face: rings around the eyes, facial puffiness, sniffling, frequent colds, earache, tonsilitis
- Skin: itches, rashes, water retention
- Digestive: vomiting, diarrhoea, stomach ache, wind
- Mental: hyperactivity, poor concentration, over-emotional, sleeplessness, bedwetting
- Respiratory: couching, sore throats, swollen tongue, asthma, respiratory infections.
Of all the avenues so far researched, the link between behavioural problems and allergy is the most established and worthy of pursuit in any child displaying behaviour or unexplained mood swings. The good news is that children respond very rapidly once the offending substances are removed.
This does not have to be a life sentence, however, because when you remove the substance and heal the child’s gut, the food can be reintroduced again in smaller amounts.
- Balance Blood Sugar Levels
The more uneven your blood sugar supply, the more uneven your mood. Dips in your kids’ blood sugar levels will lower cognitive abilities and concentration, increase aggressive behaviour and even contribute to anxiety and frustration. Eating slow-releasing carbohydrates or reducing carbs altogether are great ways of avoiding blood sugar dips. Lots of sugar with little or no fibre or protein to slow down glucose absorption will cause the levels of glucose in the blood to seesaw continually and trigger wild fluctuations in levels of activity, concentration, focus and behaviour.
- Eat Enough Fats
Our brains are made up of 60% fat, so eating the right fats are essential to speed up the thinking processes in the brain. We especially need Essential Fatty Acids (omega 3’s) as they help improve mood. This is because our neuroreceptors are mostly made from omega 3’s which means that if we have a deficiency the messages in the brain are not received correctly, and as a result, your child’s brain won’t be able to respond as it should. We also know that essential fats have a calming effect on many children with hyperactivity and it’s, therefore, not strange that many hyperactive children have an essential fatty acid deficiency.
- Eat a variety of food
Zinc and magnesium are the most commonly deficient nutrients in people with ADHD. Low levels of magnesium cause excessive fidgeting, anxious restlessness, insomnia, coordination problems and learning difficulties. Eating a wide variety of foods will ensure that you get more nutrients into your diet. Also, the gut microbiome feeds on a wide variety of food, so we should try to bring as much variety into each day as possible.
Let’s Get Practical
You might be thinking: “Very informative, thanks, Zena, but I will never get my child to eat these!! My child will only eat spaghetti and chocolate yoghurt.”
Over the years I’ve seen that it really helps if the parents are leading by example: your child needs to see you consume these foods, too! And, if you don’t have chocolate yoghurt or spaghetti in the house, then you will never get into this situation, as the option won’t be there. Try to find healthy alternatives and yes, it does take a bit of extra effort, but it will be worth it to give your child a head start in life as well as a much better quality of life now.
Don’t give up if you can’t do everything perfectly. Your child will have the occasional sugar/ unhealthy foods, and that’s okay! Whatever they’re consuming outside the house won’t cause too much harm – focus on what you have control over. You’re not perfect and trying to be will just add stress to your life. As long as you try to give them the best most of the time, you’re doing great!
Remember that the taste for sugar is acquired through eating sweeter and sweeter foods. The good news is that it can also be lost by gradually reducing the level of sweetness in foods and drinks. If your child is used to drinking a lot of fruit juices that are high in sugar, for example, a good way to reduce the amount of sugar slowly but surely is to dilute it with water. First, add just a splash of water and increase the amount each time, until it’s about 50% water.
If you’re serious about improving your kid’s health and mental development and want some guidance around what to eat but also need support around how to implement it and enable your kid to flourish, feel free to contact me for more guidance:
Written by Zena le Roux – Functional Nutritionist & Health Coach