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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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