If your child suffers with irregular moods, if they sometimes seem calm and at other times angry, if they suffer from low moods and bouts of low self-esteem, it may be something to do with what they’re eating and drinking. There are many nutrition-related issues associated with mood disorders in children, primarily:
- Blood sugar imbalances
- Nutrient deficiencies
- Amino acid deficiencies
In this article I’ll cover each of these nutritional areas in turn. It should also be noted that allergies and food sensitivities can cause mood disorder but this subject will not be covered here.
BLOOD SUGAR IMBALANCES
“Dips in blood glucose (sugar) levels are directly associated with poor attention, poor memory and aggressive behaviour” according to Prof. David Benton of Swansea University. So how should us parents mitigate against fluctuations in bloods sugar levels? The simple answer is to base mealtimes on good quality proteins, good fats and on complex carbohydrates which are known as ‘slow energy releasing carbs’. I tend to use the analogy of the hare and the tortoise to explain this. A story which is familiar to most children and which, with a little poetic licence ;-), I have adapted slightly to suit our intended story telling objective. I explain that the hare ate a bowl of sugary breakfast cereal, a piece of white toast with jam and drank a glass of orange juice for breakfast. I then tell children that the tortoise ate porridge with some peanut butter and blueberries in. When asked who they think wins the race they may still say the hare until they’re reminded that the hare ran out of energy half way through the race and the tortoise kept on going, eventually winning the race and not slowing down at any point. Hopefully they’ll take from this that eating slow energy releasing carbs, protein and good fats helps them maintain steady energy levels and not sudden peaks then associated troughs in energy.
A lack of variety in children’s diets can lead to some deficiencies in all-important mood balancing nutrients. A common deficiency is folic acid (also knowns as Vitamin B9), which is found in leafy green vegetables, citrus fruits, nuts and seeds. Folic acid and other B Vitamins are involved in processes that help balance neurotransmitters which in turn help to keep mood stable. Many children eat insufficient quantities of dark green, leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, nuts and seeds and are therefore deficient in these key nutrients.
Low zinc levels are not only linked to poor levels of concentration they can also be linked to depression and slower mental processing. Zinc is found in seeds, nuts, beans, meat, cacao/cocoa.
Magnesium is known as ‘nature’s tranquillizer’ and relaxes both the muscles and the mind. For anxiety-prone children ensuring they consume sufficient amounts of magnesium is important. Vegetables, especially dark green vegetables, wholegrains (or pseudo grains) such as quinoa, oats and buckwheat, fruit, nuts and seeds are all sources of magnesium and should be enjoyed daily. Also your sweetener of choice could be molasses which provides great flavour and is a source of magnesium too.
Essential fats are often deficient in modern children’s diets. They can be found in seeds such as flax, chia, hemp and pumpkin but are even more absorbable in the form of oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, herrings, sardines. anchovies (fresh or tinned) or fresh tuna (sadly not tinned). Also look out for omega 3 eggs or ‘clever eggs’ as some companies are marketing them. These eggs are laid by chickens fed on an omega 3 rich diet. There’s also omega 3 rich chicken available in some supermarkets now too. Omega 3 fats are particularly helpful in addressing depression as they help build the receptor sites for the happy hormone known as serotonin.
Low mood in children is something of an epidemic these days. Some of the increase in numbers of children suffering may be explained by lifestyle. Namely insufficient natural light, insufficient exercise and too much stress. However, a lack of vital nutrients can also be to blame. Low levels of B vitamins, zinc, magnesium may contribute to low mood and low self-esteem symptoms. In addition to addressing lifestyle factors the consumption of a variety of coloured vegetables, fruits, protein sources and seeds could help address these symptoms.
Vitamin D is known as the ‘sunshine vitamin’. That’s because the majority of our requirements are made as a result of skin exposure to sunlight. Small amounts are also available from fish (especially oily fish such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, anchovies), eggs and dairy foods. However longer exposure to outside natural light would be recommended for most children in the UK . You may also consider supplementation. I love this food-grown vitamin D supplement from Wild Nutrition.
AMINO ACID DEFICIENCIES
Our penultimate area of focus is on amino acids. These are the building blocks of protein and a reminder of just how important protein foods are in overall mood and mental health. Tryptophan is the first to mention. It’s found in poultry, cheese, beans, tempeh (a fermented soy product available in health food stores and some supermarkets), oats and eggs. Eating food sources of tryptophan can positively affect the ability of the body to produce both serotonin (happy hormone) and melotonin (sleep hormone).
Phenylalanine and tyrosine must also get a mention because they’re linked to healthy production of both adrenaline and noradrenaline which are often low in melancholy or depressed children. Phenylalanine and tyrosine are found in protein-rich foods such as meat, fish, cheese, eggs, lentils, fermented soy foods and beans.
Finally, one nutrients that must be mentioned in relation to mood is TMG. This nutrient plays a part in the formation of neurotransmitters. Foods rich in TMG include root vegetables and sprouted veg. Including beetroot, carrots, parsnips, swede, and sweet potato as well as sprouted veg such as beansprouts can help.
In summary, if low mood symptoms or fluctuating moods are evident in your child then take a look at the following:
- blood sugar imbalances – focus meals and snacks on protein, good fats and slow energy releasing carbs
- nutrient deficiencies – ensure a variety of fresh vegetables (especially dark green vegetables) and fruit, nuts, seeds, beans, meats, fish (including oily fish) and oats, quinoa and buckwheat
- amino acid deficiencies – ensure your children get a variety of different proteins in their diet, as well as root vegetables and sprouted veg such as beansprouts