Written by Dr. Danielle O’Connor, ND
I am amazed at the increased number of young children and teens that come in our clinic for the treatment of anxiety. It seems to me that the numbers have increased exponentially over the past few years. What is happening to our youth? Is it due to our environment? Genetic? What is going on? As a parent of a child, or teacher of many children, I’m sure you’re asking yourself the same questions.
Anxiety is a form of stress. It can be experienced in different ways such as emotional or physical. It’s a natural reaction, and an important biological function that helps us cope with a perceived threat or danger. Some amount of anxiety is normal, such as what is experienced before a test or presentation, and can actually be motivating. But if it’s too strong or occurs frequently it can be overwhelming and interfere with everyday life, and take over the enjoyable parts of life.
Childhood anxiety can be easily missed since kids have difficulty expressing their emotions. Pay attention to your child’s behaviour in different contexts, are they clingy, stubborn, whiny and crying, or acting out with aggression or anger. Do they sometimes act in ways that you thought they had outgrown, are they perfectionists or try to control certain activities? Other less specific symptoms include restlessness, poor sleep, diarrhea, stomach aches, headaches, difficulty going to school, low energy, and poor concentration. It’s very important to recognize a child’s anxiety symptoms because they can persist into adulthood and impede social development, trigger unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance abuse or further develop into other anxiety or mental health issues such as depression and eating disorders.
We now understand more with the relationship between the gut and brain and how everyday actions can affect this relationship. The gut microbiome refers to trillions of microorganisms and their genes, living within the human gut. Many of them are essential for good health, so when there’s an imbalance in these microorganisms, the gut is disrupted and disease occurs. The National Institute of Health is currently researching the role of microbiota in influencing anxiety and depressive-like behaviours and dysbiosis in autism.
There are many factors that could cause an imbalance in the gut such as food sensitivities, antibiotic use, a diet high in sugar and carbohydrates, stress, toxic overload, candida, and SIBO to name a few. So let’s start with the easy part, diet! Yeah right, I know how difficult it may be already to get your kids to eat healthy foods, it’s not just important because we were told by our grandmas to eat our veggies, but because it impacts our kids mental health too!
How to get started towards improving your child’s mental health:
- Paleolithic Diet – lean meat and proteins, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and excluding food types such as dairy, legumes and cereal grains. Perlmutter MD explains in his book Grain Brain, that we’ve known since the late 1970’s that gluten breaks down in the stomach to become a mix of polypeptides that can cross the blood-brain barrier. Once they gain entry, they can then bind to the brain’s morphine receptor to produce a sensational high. This is the same receptor to which opiate drugs bind, creating their pleasurable, albeit addicting effect.
- Probiotics – recent studies show evidence for reducing feelings of anxiety and improved aspects of well being after taking probiotics. This is due to rebalancing the gut microbiota and helping decrease inflammation in the gut and therefore decreasing the excitatory neurotransmitters in the brain. Try getting a general multistrain probiotic (with a minimum of 5 strains), that way each strain will target different areas in the gut to reduce inflammtion and heal.
- Omega 3 oils – DHA, a structural component for the brain, and EPA, anti-inflammatory omega-3 for the brain, are the two components that are essential for brain health. EPA has a short half-life in the brain, thus needs to be taken on a regular basis. It has been found that increased intake of EPA improves the ability to handle stress and mood. So how much fish do you need to eat to get a therapeutic amount? According to Psychology Today, “if we use a daily intake level of 2 grams of EPA per day that was used in the successful trials of using omega-3 fatty acids to reduce anxiety, then this would translate into consuming 14 pounds of cod per day. If you prefer a more fatty fish like salmon, then you would only need about 2 pounds per day to get 2 grams of EPA.” Hmmmm, I can’t really see my 8 year old eating 14 pounds of cod in a day, so how about 1 teaspoon of fish oil? Much easier!
If you look at your child and feel like they may be suffering with anxiety, know that there are many options for treatment such as therapy and medications. But, if underlying imbalances in the gut are to blame (which is often the case), your child won’t heal until they are addressed. I have given you a few inexpensive and easy tools to start your child’s journey to brain health, this is a good start that is safe, and you can confidently know your child will only benefit from. For further treatment and testing options please contact us at [email protected].