How To Keep Our Kids Mentally Sound

Mental Health

By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder

It’s Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week, and there is no better time than now to focus on the mental health needs of our children.

The evidence is clear that they need our help. Why?

A recent report about how mental health issues are often overlooked in children transitioning to college, discusses a survey titled “Preparing for College: The Mental Health Gap.”

“Among health care professionals surveyed, a strong majority said they had seen more mental health issues among teens in the past 5 years,” according to the report.

  • 86% said teens have had more anxiety and stress.
  • 81% saw more anxiety disorders.
  • 70% reported seeing more mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder.

And it appears more often than not that the “solution” to treat depression and other mental disorders, like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), in children is to give them antidepressants and other medications.

For example, the most recent data from the CDC states that in 2016 the percent of all children 2-17 years of age in the U.S. taking ADHD medication was 5.2%.

And in another example, there are certain antidepressant medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) that are used to treat major depressive disorder (MDD) in children.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “...use of SSRI medications among children and adolescents ages 10 to 19 has risen dramatically in the past several years.”

“SSRI medications are considered an improvement over older antidepressant medications because they have fewer side effects and are less likely to be harmful if taken in an overdose, which is an issue for patients with depression already at risk for suicide...”

But on the other hand...

“Recently, there has been some concern that the use of antidepressant medications themselves may induce suicidal behavior in youths.”

The NIH reported that “...our knowledge of antidepressant treatments in youth, though growing substantially, is limited compared to what we know about treating depression in adults.”

In another report, British psychopharmacologist Professor David Healy stated that “clinical trials of antidepressant use in young people found no benefits at all. These trials revealed that instead of relieving symptoms of anxiety and depression, antidepressants caused children and young people to feel suicidal.”

So we may need to identify other methods for addressing our children’s mental health issues.

And this is where nutritional psychiatry comes in.

Nutritional psychiatry concentrates on using food and supplements to give essential nutrients as part of an integrative or alternative treatment for mental health disorders. Although it is a growing discipline, it is not widely accepted by mainstream medicine, according to a report on nutritional psychiatry.

“It is now known that many mental health conditions are caused by inflammation in the brain which ultimately causes our brain cells to die,” according to the report.

The amount of inflammation in your body greatly depends on whether you have good nutrition or not.

“This inflammatory response starts in our gut and is associated with a lack of nutrients from our food such as magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, probiotics, vitamins and minerals that are all essential for the optimum functioning of our bodies.”

“Since about 95% of your serotonin [your natural mood stabilizer] is produced in your gastrointestinal tract, and your gastrointestinal tract is lined with a hundred million nerve cells, or neurons, it makes sense that the inner workings of your digestive system don’t just help you digest food, but also guide your emotions,” according to Harvard Health.

It is also important that good nutrition starts at an early age.

“Research shows that half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14. Scientists are discovering that changes in the body leading to mental illness may start much earlier, before any symptoms appear,” reports the National Institute of Mental Health.

And some of these changes may be due to inflammation.

Many antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agents are found in colorful fruits, vegetables, whole grains, spices and polyphenol-rich drinks such as pomegranate juice and green and black teas.

So the good news is we may be able to lower the risk of mental illness in our children if we make sure they get an adequate intake of anti-inflammatory foods and essential nutrients.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the nutrients relevant to our kids’ mental health.

  • Magnesium

A recent studyfound that a daily magnesium citrate supplement led to a significant improvement in depression and anxiety, regardless of age, gender or severity of depression. Improvement did not continue when the supplement was stopped.”

Magnesium also plays “...a major role in slowing down the fight or flight nervous system when stress gets out of hand,” according to a report from Psychology Today.

Dietary sources of magnesium include spinach, pumpkin seeds, yogurt, kefir, almonds, black beans, avocado, figs, dark chocolate and bananas.

  • Zinc

Like magnesium, zinc plays a role in slowing down the fight or flight nervous system.

The report from Psychology Today suggests that “low zinc and magnesium are associated with depression and anxiety disorders and suicide, and studies in humans have shown that combining zinc with an antidepressant works better than an antidepressant alone in treating depression.”

Foods that contain zinc include lamb, pumpkin seeds, grass fed beef, mushrooms, chickpeas, spinach and chicken.

  • Iron

“Children with severe and chronic iron deficiency can have major developmental problems with behavioral control and learning,” (Psychology Today). Decreased levels of iron can result in apathy, depression and fatigue.

To get more iron in your diet, you can eat red meat, pork, poultry, seafoods, beans, spinach (and other leafy greens), peas, cherimoyas and iron-fortified cereals.

  • Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3s are essential for the development and function of the central nervous system. A deficiency in this nutrient has been linked to low mood, cognitive decline and poor comprehension.

To learn more about omega-3s and how you can get them into your diet, read here.

  • Probiotics

When you think of probiotics, you likely only think about how they affect your gut. But according to the report on nutritional psychiatry, “the role of probiotics – the beneficial live bacteria in your digestive system – in improving mental health has also been explored by psychiatrists and nutritionists, who found that taking them daily was associated with a significant reduction in depression and anxiety.”

Yogurts, pickles, sauerkraut, kefir and kombucha all have probiotics. You also may want to consider having your child take a good probiotic supplement, but just make sure it has been clinically proven to survive the journey to the intestines. Speak with your child’s pediatrician or doctor first.

  • Lithium.

“Another essential trace element with low intake levels associated with suicide, accidents, and violence is lithium” (Psychology Today).

“Lithium is a highly reactive, light metal naturally found in very low levels throughout the body. It is available as a dietary supplement and is commonly found in drinking water and in many foods, including grains, vegetables, mustard, kelp, pistachios, dairy, fish, and meat,” according to one source.

  • Chromium.

Some evidence has shown that this mineral may help with symptoms of atypical depression. Dietary sources of chromium include broccoli, beef, eggs, liver, oysters and chicken.

It is just as important to know that too much of a certain nutrient can be just as bad as too little of one.

“Excessive influx of calcium in the neurons is a likely cause of depression, manic episodes, migraines, and seizure disorders, though sufficient magnesium may protect against all of the above,” according to Psychology Today.

If your child is eating a healthy, well-balanced diet, he or she will likely not have excess calcium levels. And it is always good to be aware that being nutritionally balanced means avoiding deficiencies as well as an excess level of a certain nutrient.

The human brain needs nutrients to function properly. And a diet high in processed foods will actually sabotage healthy eating and nutrient intake. For example, “... a diet high in processed foods will lower mineral content, so that mineral levels in the body suffer” (Psychology Today).

Harvard Health reports that “[d]iets high in refined sugars, for example, are harmful to the brain. In addition to worsening your body’s regulation of insulin, they also promote inflammation and oxidative stress. Multiple studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function — and even a worsening of symptoms of mood disorders, such as depression.”

How can you be proactive?

  • Limit ultra-processed foods to special occasions, and meal prep at home with your kids. Doing these things will make them more likely to practice healthy eating habits as they grow older, and, as a result, they will likely be able to maintain both their physical and mental health.
  • Identify relevant resources that are available to you and your children. Recently, NIH researchers developed the Ask Suicide-Screening Questions (ASQ) toolkit. It is a free resource for medical settings, including emergency departments, inpatient medical/surgical units and outpatient clinics/primary care units, that can help medical professionals identify youth at risk for suicide. It only takes 20 seconds to administer. If your child has many mood and behavioral problems, it might be a good idea to ask about this toolkit at the next doctor’s appointment.
  • It is important to make nutrient testing available to children. Have your child take a comprehensive nutrient test to see if he or she has any nutritional imbalances. In most cases nutritional imbalances may be corrected by developing a greater awareness of relevant nutrient rich foods.  
  • Finally, I want to be clear in saying that medication is not something that should be avoided at all costs. Every child is different, and maybe there are some that even with a good diet still need medication. This is something that has to be determined after an evaluation by a competent healthcare professional. However, we need to be more proactive about good nutrition if we want to lower the alarming statistics of children with depression and mood disorders.

It cannot be overemphasized that we have to properly feed our children’s brains if we want them to have good mental health.

Enjoy your healthy life!

The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.


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