Supporting Children's Mental Health

Sep 21, 2023

Many countries around the world have reported that there is a mental health crisis among adults, teenagers, and children. This crisis is occurring closer to home too. The Alberta Children’s Hospital reported a surge of children needing mental health care and this was before the pandemic. As expected, it increased during the pandemic and it hasn’t waned.

While the cause seems to be multifactorial, there may be some easy and affordable solutions to assist with this mental health crisis. Here are some “Back-to-Basics” recommendations for you to consider.

Proper Nourishment

While there are ways to incorporate more healthy foods into your child’s diet (zucchini carrot muffins for the win), not every child can meet their nutritional requirements through foods alone. This can be due to taste/food texture preferences, allergies, environmental exposures, and/or digestion issues.

Children should continue to consume nutrient dense food, first and foremost, and adding some supplements to their diet when needed. Below are some nutrients that are required to support brain health.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (EPA, DHA, ALA) are important building blocks for brain & eye development, mood support, and overall cognitive health in children.

Some evidence indicates that a low intake of marine omega-3’s increases the risk for numerous mental health issues, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, bipolar disorder, depression and suicidal ideation (1).

Out of the three main types of Omega-3 fatty acids (alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosatetraenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), it is one of the only sources of EPA and DHA found in food. While very small amounts of ALA (flax seeds and walnuts for example) can be converted to EPA and DHA, the best way to obtain these powerhouse omegas is from consuming cold water fish and other types of seafood.

Omega-6 to Omega-3 Ratios

While Omega 6 fatty acids have been touted as being “bad”, it’s more about the proper ratio between the two. In the Standard American Diet, the ratios can be as high as 40:1 which is a problem as a diet higher in omega 6 fatty acids can cause inflammation and, in some cases, can be linked to depression (2).

The standard ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 is 4:1, but if there are cognitive impairments/concerns then you should speak to your practitioner to see what amount is right for your child.

It can be hard to obtain enough 0mega-3’s from diet alone, especially if your child doesn’t like seafood, so a supplement might be a great option here. Note: If your child is a vegan or vegetarian, you can still get EPA/DHA directly from an algae source (supplement form).

Vitamin A & Carotenoids

Vitamin A is important for regulating synaptic plasticity in the brain which is essential for learning, memory, and overall cognitive support (3).

There has been some interesting research on Vitamin A and Autism. In one study, 77% of children with Autism were deficient and Vitamin A and after supplementation, there was a significant improvement in their autistic symptoms (4).

If you want to learn more about Autism and development disorders, I would suggest the Book: The Nemechek Protocol for Autism and Developmental Disorders: A How-To Guide For Restoring Neurological Function by Dr. Patrick Nemechek and Jean Nemechek. His protocol is very simple and has had some amazing results.

Because Vitamin A is relatively easy to get from a well rounded diet, most children do not need a supplement. It is also important to note that getting too much Vitamin A can be toxic, especially in children, so if you are considering a supplement please speak with your practitioner.

Brightly colored fruits & veggies (yellow, green, red, orange), cod liver oil, beef liver, cold water fatty fish, eggs, full fat dairy are great sources of Vitamin A & Carotenoids.

Choline

Neurodevelopmental disorders in children are on the rise and while there are other contributing factors, it seems that nutrition may play a role.

One contributing factor could be a choline deficiency, particularly during the key stages of brain development, which includes the first 1000 days of life. Choline deficiency can be associated with autism, ADHD, and dyslexia (5).

One study found that Choline supplementation during pregnancy was associated with positive effects on overall cognition & behavior and prevention of mental illness (6).

Another study for the BC Children’s Hospital and University of British Columbia shows that over 70 per cent of one-year-olds and over 50 per cent of two-year-olds are not meeting the recommended adequate intake for choline. While it seems more research needs to be done, ensuring you are including choline-rich food into your child’s diet is crucial for brain health (7).

Foods rich in Choline include: Eggs, dairy products, liver, fish, soybeans, shiitake mushrooms, cruciferous vegetables, beef, chicken, wheat germ, and lima beans

Folate and Vitamin B6

Folate is crucial for forming myelin and making chemical messengers (neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline) that transmit signals in the brain.

Low folate can lead to many brain disorders, such as autism, seizures, psychosis and schizophrenia, ADHD and mood problems such as depression and bipolar (8).

Getting folate from food is your best option, but some people have issues metabolizing folate so a supplement in its methylated form might be necessary.

Foods rich in folate include: Dark leafy greens, eggs, asparagus, whole grains, legumes, liver, sunflower seeds, avocados, broccoli, brussel sprouts

Vitamin B6 also helps make neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and GABA that can help regulate mood and reduce symptoms of depression (9). Furthermore, B6 also helps reduce homocysteine which high levels can be associated with certain mood disorders (10).

One study among young adults taking an elevated dose of Vitamin B6 reported feeling less anxious (11).

Foods high in B6 include: Dairy, salmon, eggs, liver, beef, dark leafy greens, bananas, chickpeas, sweet potato, fortified cereals.

Morning Sunlight in the Eyes

Seeing the sunrise with naked eyes is one of the most beneficial things you can do for your mental and overall health. Signals from the sun reach photoreceptors in our eyes and sync our bodies internal clock with nature’s rhythm. This is important because it initiates hormone production like serotonin, enzyme function, and many other processes at the right time, throughout the day. For example, we know the right amount of serotonin is important for mood support.

The light at sunrise contains mainly red infrared and long-wavelength light with a small amount of blue light. There is just enough blue light to wake you up in the morning and initiate hormone production. The combination of IR and red light helps to prep your skin for UV light later in the day, provides energy, supports mood, and improves sleep (12, 13).

Limit Blue Light Exposure

Full spectrum light from the sun is approximately 50% infrared (IR), 45% visible light, 5% UV light and contains much longer wavelength light such as yellow, orange, and red. This is important because, mentioned above, the IR and red light wavelengths provide many benefits to our overall health.

Artificial light contains only visible light and way shorter wavelengths such as violet, indigo, blue, and green. So basically, almost all of the warmer colors are gone in most of the modern LED lights we use today.

When we are constantly exposed to artificial blue light at night from our tvs, phones, and laptops, this unbalanced light spectrum is signaling our brain that it’s the middle of day. This, overtime, can lead to insomnia, mental health disorders, and whole other plethora of problems (14).

One study in Japan found that adolescents had suicidal feelings and self-injurious behavior that were associated with cell phone use at night (15). Another study on adolescents found a link between problematic cell phone use, disturbed sleep, and risky behaviors including suicidality (16)

Try limiting artificial blue light 2-3 hours before sunset, which I know can be tricky in the winter months. If you must watch tv, be on your phone, etc., purchasing blue blocking glasses (red lenses) can mitigate the exposure. You can also try replacing your LED lights with red light bulbs (contain no blue night) for the winter months and/ or simply have a few dim lamps around the house instead of overhead bright lights.

Note: There are photoreceptors in our skin as well so even if we are wearing proper blue light blocking glasses, our skin and our eyes are relaying mixed signals to our brains. Best to avoid blue light at night all together.

Grounding out in Nature

I know I am not alone when I say that that I sleep better and just overall feel rejuvenated when I spend more time outside, directly touching the ground. This is because when we connect directly to the earth, the free electrons in the ground are conducted onto our skin and into our bodies.

This electron transfer is the basis of all antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity within the body. When you are in direct contact with the earth, the limitless supply of negatively charged electrons flows into your body and mitigates free radical damage (17).

Another benefit of grounding is that it can switch the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) to a parasympathetic (rest and digest) state (18). With chronic stress increasing among children, this can be an effective, free tool to help manage our stressful world.

While there are many other benefits to grounding that I didn’t mention, we can clearly see that it is important to keep our bodies systems working in balance, as nature intended.

Tip: Our modern-day cities may contain a lot of “stray” voltage running through the ground, so it’s probably best to ground out in nature as much as you can.

Reduce Social Media Use

Whether your child uses social media or not, the research is clear that limiting the amount of time on our devices is for the better, especially for susceptible adolescents.

Adolescents from age 10 to 19 are going through a highly sensitive time for brain development and it’s typically when mental health issues will emerge (19, 20).

During this time, frequent social media use may be associated with changes in the developing brain in the amygdala (emotional learning and behavior) and the prefrontal cortex (impulse control, emotional regulation, and moderating social behavior), and could increase sensitivity to social rewards and punishments (21, 22).

One study found that adolescents who spent more than 3 hours per day on social media faced double the risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes, including symptoms of depression and anxiety (23).

Of course, it’s not all negative as social media can be a positive experience for many, but its seems that moderating their use and monitoring what your child is exposed to might be beneficial for their mental health.

Limit Environmental Pollutants/Toxins

It’s impossible to avoid all environmental toxins these days but the good news is that we can limit our exposures by making small changes to our home, lifestyle, and the food we eat.

Household Cleaning Products

Switching to natural, eco friendly cleaning products can reduce the amounts of irritants and toxins that your child might be exposed to. VOC’s (volatile organic compounds) can be found in conventional cleaning products which may cause irritation and inflammation in the airways.

Flame Retardants

These are not as common as they used to be, but flame retardants may be associated with endocrine disruptor properties and developmental effects in children (24, 25).

Lead

The days of using lead paint are long gone, but lead can still be in the environment and cause negative side effects in children (and adults). Even small amounts of lead detected in the blood can cause damage to organs, tissues, and nerves (26). Young children are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning because they absorb 4–5 times as much ingested lead as adults (27).

Lead can be present in the water (older homes with lead pipes), living close to a refinery or recycling plant (burning waste), contaminated soil, and lead-contaminated dust among a few sources.

Bisphenol A, Phthalates, and Phytoestrogens

While there are ongoing studies to determine the negative side effects of these toxins, in several animal studies it shows that they can interfere with hormone production (28).

Some sources include plastics (especially when heated), personal care products (topical and inhalation), and some plumbing devices. Best to choose glass containers and use clean, toxic free personal care products to limit your exposure.

Pesticides

Many pesticides, like glyphosate, are known to be neurotoxic to children and even low levels of exposure can cause neurological symptoms (29, 30).  Since children’s brains and nervous systems are in an important stage of development, avoiding or minimizing their exposure can help to prevent current problems and future negative repercussions.

Buy organic, non-GMO fruits and veggies as much as you can. While washing your conventional produce properly can eliminate some pesticide residue, it unfortunately doesn’t remove it all. The amount can vary drastically based on the type of produce, pesticide, and cleaning method (31).

A special note on glyphosate

While this could be a whole topic on its own and more research needs to be conducted, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans,” by the U.S.

One study reported that pregnant mothers living near agriculture areas that used glyphosate found their child had an increased risk of liver inflammation and metabolic disorders into young adulthood (32).

Another study found that glyphosate exposure in the early stages of life caused oxidative stress, neuroinflammation and mitochondrial dysfunction, as well as the appearance of behavioral and motor disorders (33).

Glyphosate is used consistently on genetically modified crops such as corn, soybeans and wheat, oats, and legumes. It is also in many lawn care products for home and commercial use.

You can check out the EWG’s 2023 Shopper’s Guide to see which foods contain the highest traces of pesticides.

While these are just some recommendations, it is evident that making small adjustments can have a positive impact on your child’s mental and overall health.

This is not medical advice. All information presented and written within this Article are for educational and Informational purposes only. Any nutrition, lifestyle and product recommendations are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Before starting any new supplements, diet and exercise program please check with your doctor or practitioner.

(1)          https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7468918/

(2)          https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7468918/

(3)          https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/10.1146/annurev-nutr-122319-034227

(4)          https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29122693/

(5)          https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10343507/

(6)          https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7331361

(7)          https://www.bcchr.ca/research/stories/we-have-lot-learn-about-choline-study-shows-toddlers-may-not-be-getting-enough

(8)          https://primarycare.ementalhealth.ca/Toronto/Folate-and-Mental-Health/index.php?m=article&ID=83462

(9)          https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9577631/

(10)       https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17729191/

(11)       https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9577631/

(12)       https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2290997

(13)       https://amerisleep.com/blog/benefits-of-morning-sunlight-for-sleep/

(14)       https://health.selfdecode.com/blog/health-effects-bluelight-at-night/

(15)       https://academic.oup.com/jpepsy/article/37/9/1023/890950

(16)       https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20426807/

(17)       https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28987038/

(18)       https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3151462/

(19)       Trends in cognitive sciences, 19(10), 558–566. https://doi.org/10.1016/j. tics.2015.07.008

(20)       Annual review of psychology, 65, 187–207. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev  psych 010213 115202

(21)       JAMA pediatrics, 177(2), 160–167. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.4924

(22)       Nature communications, 9(1), 588. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-03126-x

(23)       https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/sg-youth-mental-health-social-media-advisory.pdf

(24)       https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20056561/

(25)       https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28089583/

(26)       https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6982419/#R30

(27)       https://cps.ca/en/documents/position/lead-toxicity

(28)       https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24781428/

(29)       https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10414793/

(30)       https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4247335/

(31)       https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6388112

(32)       https://publichealth.berkeley.edu/news-media/research-highlights/childhood-exposure-to-common-herbicide-may-increase-the-risk-of-disease-in-young-adulthood

(33)       https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9101768/

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