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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For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things 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. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

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