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.

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Today was an ending and a beginning. My darling girl finished year 12. The final year at school is tough enough, but this year was seismic. Our teens have moved through this year with the most outstanding courage and grace and strength, and now it is time for them to rest and play. My gosh they deserve it. 

It is true that this is a time of celebration, but it can also be an intense time of self-reflection for our teens. (I can remember the same feelings when my gorgeous boy finished so many years ago!) My daughter has described it as, ‘I feel as though I’ve outgrown myself but my new self isn’t ready yet.’ This just makes so much sense. 

There is a beautifully fertile void that is waiting for whatever comes next for each of them, but that void is still a void. At different times it might feel exciting, overwhelming, or brutal in its emptiness.

We also have to remember that this is a time of letting go, and there might be grief that comes with that. Before they can grab on to their next big adventure, they have to let go of the guard rails. This means gently adjusting their hold on the world they have known for the last 12+ years, with its places and routines and people that have felt like home on so many days. There will be redirects and shiftings, and through it all the things that need to stay will stay, and the things that need to adjust will adjust. 

To my darling girl, your loved incredible friends, and the teens who make our world what it is - you are the beautiful  thinkers, the big feelers, the creators, the change makers, and the ones who will craft and grow a better world. However you might feel now, the lights are waiting to shine for you and because of you. The world beyond school is opening its arms to you. That opening might happen quickly, or gently, or smoothly or chaotically, but it will happen. This world needs every one of you - your voices, your spirits, your fire, your softness, your strength and your power. You are world-ready, and we are so glad you are here xxx
When our kids or teens are in high emotion, their words might sound anxious, angry, inconsolable, jealous, defiant. As messy as the words might be, they have a good reason for being there. Big feelings surge as a way to influence the environment to meet a need. Of course, sometimes the fallout from this can be nuclear.
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Wherever there is a big emotion, there will always be an important need behind it - safety, comfort, attention, food, rest, connection. The need will always be valid, even if the way they’re going about meeting it is a little rough. As with so many difficult parenting moments, there will be gold in the middle of the mess if we know where to look. 
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There will be times for shaping the behaviour into a healthier response, but in the middle of a big feeling is not one of those times. Big feelings are NOT a sign of dysfunction, bad kids or bad parenting. They are a part of being human, and they bring rich opportunities for wisdom, learning and growth. .
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Parenting isn’t about stopping the emotional storms, but about moving through the storm and reaching the other side in a way that preserves the opportunity for our kids and teens to learn and grow from the experience - and they will always learn best from experience. 
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To calm a big feeling, name what you see, ‘I can see you’re disappointed. I know how much you wanted that’, or, ‘I can see this feels big for you,’ or, ‘You’re angry at me about .. aren’t you. I understand that. I would be mad too if I had to […],’ or ‘It sounds like today has been a really hard day.’ 
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When we connect with the emotion, we help soothe the nervous system. The emotion has done its job, found support, and can start to ease. 
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When they ‘let go’ they’re letting us in on their deepest and most honest emotional selves. We don’t need to change that. What we need to do is meet them where they and gently guide them from there. When they feel seen and understood, their trust in us and their connection to us will deepen, opening the way for our influence.
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When they are at that line, deciding whether to retreat to safety or move forward into brave, there will be a part of them that will know they have what it takes to be brave. It might be pale, or quiet, or a little tumbled by the noise from anxiety, but it will be there. And it will be magical. Our job as their flight crew is to clear the way for this magical part of them to rise. ‘I can see this feels scary for you - and I know you can do this.’ 
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When our kids or teens are struggling, it can be hard to know what they need. It can also be hard for them to say. It can be this way for all of us - we don't always know what we need from the people around us. It might be space, or distraction, or silence, or maybe acknowledging and being there is enough. Sometimes we might need to know that the people we love aren't taking our need for space, or our confusion or anger or sadness personally, and that they are still there within reach.
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What can be easier is thinking about what other people might need. Asking this when they are calm can invite a different perspective and can give you some insight into what they need to hear when they are going through similar. Don't worry if you just get a shrug, or a disheartened, 'I don't know'. They don't need to know, and neither do we. The question in itself might be enough to open a new way through any sense of 'stuckness' or helplessness they might be feeling.
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Give them space to talk but you don’t need to fix anything. You’ll want to, but the answers are in them, not us. Sometimes the answer will be to feel it out, or push for change, or feel the futility of it all so the feeling can let go, knowing it’s done it’s job - it’s recruited support, or raised awareness that something isn’t right.

Sometimes the feelings might be seismic but the words might be gone for a while. That’s okay too. Do they want to start with whatever words are there? Or talk about something else? Or go for a walk with you? Watch a movie with you? Or do a spontaneous, unnecessary drive thru with you just because you can - no words, no need to explain - just you and them and car music for the next 20 minutes. 

The more you can validate what they’re feeling (maybe, ‘Today was big for you wasn’t it’) and give them space to feel, the more they can feel the feeling, understand the need that’s fuelling it, and experiment with ways to deal with it. Sometimes, ‘dealing with it’ might mean acknowledging that there is something that feels big or important and a little out of reach right now, and feeling the fullness and futility of that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days are rubbish, and that sometimes those days last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. But the learning comes from experience.

I wish our kids never felt pain, but we don’t get to decide that. We don’t get to decide how our children grow, but we do get to decide how much space and support we give them for this growth. We can love them through it but we can’t love them out of it. I wish we could but we can’t.

So instead of feeling the need to silence their pain, make space for it. In the end we have no choice. Sometimes all the love in the world won’t be enough to put the wrong things right, but it can help them feel held while they move through the pain enough to find their out breath, and the strength that comes with that.♥️

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