The Impact of Diet Choices on Your Child’s Mental Health

by Kay Jennings, BSN, MHSA, MSN, PHMNP-BC, DPSc

photo-1467321309980-a57856cd25f7n UNSPLASHIt is every parent’s dream that their child will have a healthy and happy childhood and grow up to be a productive citizen.  However, that is not the case in a growing number of children who end up suffering from a variety of mental health issues.

Parents find themselves caught up in a confusing and burdensome journey in their efforts to identify what is happening to their child. And often, the recommended treatments are incorrect. As a Functional Psychiatric Practitioner I am more interested discovering the root cause and then approaching the problem with lifestyle interventions in conjunction with other treatment methods as needed.

Before I go into some of the root causes of mental health issues, I would like to address prenatal health.  A significant contributor to the growing trend of very young children presenting with learning and behavioral problems is prenatal nutrition.  The health of the mother has definitely been found to impact the mental health of the child.  Mothers’ Vitamin D levels have been found to impact the rate of schizophrenia in the children.  Children are being born with essential fatty acid deficiencies at an alarming rate.  EPA and DHA fats are not provided in infant formula yet these fats are essential to the development of the infant’s nervous system.

Then there is the matter of our Standard American Diet (SAD) diet with excessive amounts of carbohydrates, GMO’s, processed foods and too many Omega-6’s.  This type of diet only serves to severely exacerbate the situation and compound the various learning and behavioral problems so often seen in this society.  Vitamin deficiencies or imbalances, such as copper and zinc, have been associated with violent behaviors and intermittent explosive disorder.

Another area that is not addressed by traditional allopathic medicine (which has a drug for every symptom) are food sensitivities.  Not allergies, but sensitivities.  In one study, cognitive functional decline and underachievement in post-secondary educations is 400% more likely with Gluten Sensitivity.  All ADHD patients or their parents report significant improvement in behavior and functioning after 6 months on a gluten-free diet (Niederhofer and Pittschieler 2006).

Consumption of dietary sugar or high-glycemic foods can cause a rapid rise and fall in blood sugar, which can trigger behavioral, learning and mood problems.  Our bodies, in an effort to pull blood sugar levels back to normal, releases Adrenalin.  Adrenalin then triggers the fight or flight response and will cause a child to have extreme difficulty sitting, listening or being on their best behavior.  Avoiding excess carbohydrates is key, along with regular consumption of protein and good sources of fat throughout the day.  I dare not mention school lunch programs, which are very heavy on carbohydrates, play a role in the behaviors mentioned.

OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder), tic disorders, anxiety, aggression, behavioral regression  and severe restricted food intake can often be misdiagnosed and can actually be symptoms of PANDAS (Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders) related to Strep Infections.  Treatment must target the underlying infection and support the immune system.  Testing is available for this condition.

Another non-invasive treatment for some mental health disorders, such as anxiety and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), uses the concept of heart-brain interactions.  HeartMath Institute has done research since 1991 in this area and has compiled impressive results of this modality to treat various conditions in adults and children.

Appropriate diagnosis and interventions are critical to help a child avoid a lifetime of mental illness.  Start with cleaning up the diet, getting children outdoors to get some sun and exercise each day, and make sure they get adequate sleep.

There is hope for our children but it needs to start with parents modeling basic healthy life style choices which will not only change their health but the health of generations to come.