Managing Anxiety and Building Resilience in Kids: How Nutrition Can Help

Managing Anxiety and Building Resilience in Kids How Nutrition Can Help

Anxiety used to be seen just as an innate condition of an emotionally fragile child or something triggered by significant life events. But medical science now understands more about the array of underlying physical and chemical imbalances that can trigger excess worry, anxiety and overwhelm.

This post will help you arm yourself with information about some of the life changing links between common nutrient shortfalls and metabolic imbalances, to help your child live a happier, healthier, calmer life whilst also building resilience in the longer term.

Picky Eaters?

If you have a child who is sad, angry or anxious then he or she may also be a picky eater too. If so, this could be a sign of where to focus. It has been well documented that there is a significant relationship between unhealthy dietary patterns and poorer mental health in children and adolescents. So, especially if changes in eating patterns started in the months running up to the mood changes or they have always struggled with eating a healthy diet, then this may well be part of the overall picture.

Sometimes even children with great diets face periods of difficulties with their mental health. This can still sometimes be due to nutritional shortfalls because of specific metabolic needs or due to a compromised ability to digest and extract the optimum nutrition from the food they eat.

For a child (or anyone) to cope with stressful and anxious situations, they need the right store of nutrients to produce the correct balance of neurotransmitters to keep them happy and calm. Ongoing worry and anxiety can in themselves deplete nutritional reserves further, so this is why the right diet and/or food supplement support is crucial.

A Happy Gut A Happy Mind

The scientific and medical communities now understand the importance of our individual gut microbiome and how it can directly change brain activity and behaviour via the microbiota-gut-brain axis (which includes the immune, neuroendocrine, and neural pathways). In turn, this relationship directly influences stress-related and psychiatric issues including anxiety, depression, and OCD.

A very important first step to help your child can be the supplementation of probiotics, particularly if your child has had several courses of antibiotics (recently or in the past), or tummy issues such as gas, constipation, bloating etc.

A healthy, balanced diet full of real food, (fresh natural ingredients), meat and fish, fresh veggies and fruit, healthy fat and minimal refined sugar and processed food will all support a healthy gut.

Does Your Child Have Enough Magnesium?

For centuries, magnesium has been used as a relief for many ailments including mood swings, insecurities, and headaches. Magnesium is crucial for the functioning of the central nervous system and optimisation of your mitochondria (the powerhouse of every cell in our body) and thus essential in the prevention of cell health.

During periods of stress, magnesium is quickly used up by the body, which in turn can create more anxiety, which then has the knock-on effect of again depleting the levels of magnesium through stress.

Historically we all ate a diet that included higher levels of natural magnesium; but modern food production techniques have dramatically reduced the amount of magnesium found in many food, increasing the need for supplementation and possibly increasing anxiety and mental health issues.

A fun and simple way to increase your child’s magnesium levels are adding Epsom salts to the evening bath. Natural food sources of magnesium include nuts, seeds, oily fish, dark leafy greens, bananas, strawberries, buckwheat, cocoa, molasses and natural yoghurt. Magnesium supplements might also be a good option to ensure your child’s stored levels remain consistent, especially if they have a narrow range of foods that they will eat.

High Cortisol

If the body perceives a threat or stressful situation it goes into “fight or flight” mode, and this can create physical sensations, such as, dizziness, a rapid heartbeat, difficulty breathing, sweatiness or shaky hands and feet. These are caused by a rush of adrenaline and other stress hormones that prepare the body to make a quick getaway or “flight” from danger.

Cortisol is one of the chemicals produced by our adrenal glands, instantly giving the body the energy to cope with stress or danger. However, if these cortisol levels stay high for a sustained period, i.e. we are constantly in a state of stress, it can lead to various health concerns and in little people and teenagers alike, these can include mental illness, weakened immune system, weight gain, poor sleep, and a restricted production of serotonin (our happy hormone). Often leading to a sense of overwhelm, anxiety, low energy and depression. These symptoms can also create cravings for foods high in sugar and carbs which sadly exacerbate the situation.

The simplest and arguably most effective solutions are changing your child’s diet and exercise. Avoid or cut down on foods with a high sugar content and reduce white carbohydrate intake. Try and ensure a meal isn’t just carbohydrates but includes protein and fat too. Look to increase protein-rich foods and healthy fats. Aim for every meal also have a good source of dietary fibre and fruit & veg. Additional considerations are ensuring your child’s diet is rich in omega-3, zinc and magnesium, introducing liquorice, chamomile and green teas. B vitamins can be helpful too.

Regular movement and exercise are great at reducing cortisol levels and thus relieving stress and anxiety. A good run around the park, kicking a ball, riding a bike or a simple walk in the countryside can make a big difference. Mindfulness and yoga are also great stress reducers for young kids and teenagers.

Lack of B Vitamins & Iron?

B vitamins and iron can play a key role in a supporting your child’s nutrition. Many children are unable to methylate efficiently, which means they can’t break B vitamins down into a usable form for the body and they need specialist methyl forms of these when taking supplements. Low levels of vitamin B12, B6 and folate are associated with some neurological diseases and psychiatric disorders. Often the production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, noradrenaline and adrenaline are inhibited, which directly impact on your child’s brain’s ability to create a balanced stable mood, sense of well-being and ability to feel happiness.

Blood tests or urine tests can be organised through a highly experienced naturopath or nutritional therapist to establish if your child needs supplementation. Grass-fed red meat, eggs, wholegrains and green leafy vegetables can help in the meantime.

More Omega-3?

Omega-3 essential fatty acids have had more research about mood and brain health than any other nutrient. Oily fish is the best way to get enough omega-3 to feed the brain, which in turn will help to calm anxiety and many other mental health problems.

Signs of an Omega-3 deficiency can include keratosis pilaris, a skin condition in which the top of the arms or even face are dry and rough bumps, often called chicken skin. Dry skin and hair and a thirsty child may also point towards a need for much more omega-3. If your child is allergic to fish or is a “fish-phobe” then other sources of omega-3 include flax seed, chia seed, walnuts, omega-3 rich eggs and organic milk.

Low Vitamin D?

With more children having high levels of screen time, indoors and living in colder climates north of the equator and overuse of sunscreen, most physicians now recognise supplementation of vitamin D as essential for many children.

Even for children living south of the equator, genetic variations called VDR can block the body’s ability to absorb vitamin D; and in this case, vitamin D levels will need ongoing support, sunshine or not.

Cod liver is the best natural form of vitamin D. Rosemary and sage help the body to absorb vitamin D, so use plenty of these herbs in your cooking to optimise your family’s vitamin D levels.

Inflammation

Inflammation within the body has recently been found to be linked to anxiety and depression. Inflammation is caused by the body’s natural defence mechanism to illness and disease as well as being the direct result of some diseases that are by nature inflammatory. To exacerbate the situation, once inflammation is switched on, it becomes self-perpetuating as inflammatory cytokines travel throughout the body causing oxidative stress to the powerhouse cells, the mitochondria. Inflammation markers have been shown to shoot up during depressive episodes and drop off in periods of remission.

Inflammation within the brain creates anxiety-provoking chemicals like quinolinate, in turn creating symptoms called “sickness syndrome” such as lethargy, sleep disturbance, decreased social activity, mobility, libido, learning, anorexia. Researchers have found patients with higher levels of inflammatory markers are more respondent to anti-inflammatory treatments than to antidepressants.

Inflammation within the body can be reduced through regular exercise (interval training has been shown to be particularly helpful), relaxation and meditation and healthy eating – a diet free from refined sugar, grains and carbs and preservatives and high in natural fats can help to dramatically reduce inflammation. The yellow Indian spice turmeric can help significantly with bringing down inflammation so add this to your cooking on a regular basis or add in a specialist turmeric supplement.


About the Author: Lucinda Miller (MGNI MRNI MH)

Lucinda has around 20 years of experience as a naturopath and gained a diploma in Naturopathic Iridology and Western Herbal Medicine (MGNI MRNI MH) from The Holistic Health College. In 2008 she gained a further diploma from Functional Medicine University and is a fully qualified NLP coach and mentor for kids with ADHD and Autism.

She is a full member of the Guild of Naturopathic Iridologists and the British Herbal Medicine Association and the Association of Master Herbalists. 

She is a mother of three children, aged from 8 to 16.

Find out more about Lucinda’s work on her website, naturedoc.co.uk or at The NatureDoc Shop, which stocks a wide selection of world-class child-friendly supplements to support your kids’ health needs and wellbeing. It is the proud UK supplier of Hey Warrior by Karen Young.

8 Comments

propolis 1000

Thanks , I have just been looking for information approximately this subject for ages
and yours is the best I have came upon till
now. But, what about the bottom line? Are you positive concerning the source?

Reply
Shannon

This is interesting in regards to my anxious child. He is a very picky eater and in addition to that has severe food allergies (milk & eggs). He is scared to eat most things that do not come from our own kitchen (and even then he questions if the food is safe). I’m just beginning my reading into helping him cope with anxiety and never thought diet may be a big part of it. Thank you for this insight.

Reply
Sim

This is brilliant.

I was able to completely remove my severe anxiety by including these supplements and reducing inflammation (eating more potassium in fruits and starchy carbs which helped my thyroid, which then helped my estrogen dominance which then stopped my iron loss).

One step can fix so many. Its like a domino affect. I wondered how many people knew of the anxiety and food/nutrients relationship. Looks like the knowledge is in good hands.

Reply
Tracey L Lee

Hello this article is so interesting. I have a child that has always had gut issues and her attitude to life is very negative and she seems to have little joy in her life. What would you suggest for someone like her. My husbands family has a history of depression or more of a serotonin lack as when they go on medication they are different people?

Reply
joelle

you seem to imply parents do not feed their kids properly…. but sometimes it is the kids themselves who refuse all healthy foods and systematically refuse to eat… so what would you recommend then?

Reply
Karen Young

There is nothing here that suggests parents aren’t feeding their children properly. Fussy eating is very common in young ones and generally has nothing at all to do with parents. It’s something many of us parents have wrestled with from time to to time.

The point of the article is that if you can, tweaking diet in certain ways can make a difference to mental health.

Reply

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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