Diet Has A Lot To Do With It!

Parenting is a lot of work! But to be the best parents we can be, we have to take time to nurture ourselves as the people we are outside of being Mom or Dad. Psychologist Rick Hanson, PhD, and acupuncturist & nutritionist Jan Hanson, MS, authors of Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships, are here to help!
Rick Hanson, PhD and Jan Hanson, MS

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In the past several columns, we have explored how parents can lift the mood -- the emotional climate in which we spend our days -- of themselves and their children. Recently we discussed psychological methods for raising a kid's mood. In this column, we will explore physical health interventions that can help your children feel -- and even behave -- better. We're tackling both because how a child feels and acts affect each other in circular ways. We will draw on academic research and our professional experience.

Naturally enough, any kid has good days and bad. But when your child is frequently unhappy, irritable or having a hard time controlling her behavior, teachers and other kids often get annoyed or disappointed, your child can start to feel defeated or angry, and this all wrenches at your heart. Although others may assure you that all is well, you may wonder if your child is really getting the best possible shot at life.

The bitter truth is that too few children are getting the best chance possible for optimal development. As we have discussed in previous columns, most children today are being raised in environments that are radically different from the one in which humans evolved -- and are optimally adapted to:

  • High stress -- Kids are just not meant to sit in classrooms for six hours a day and then come home to two or more hours of homework. Nor are they meant to be bombarded with an endless stream of media messages designed to stimulate greed, fear or anger. Nor raised by parents who are stressed themselves and often raising children in relative isolation from a larger community. The negative health consequences of chronic stress are well documented, including a weaker immune system, disturbed digestion, a rattled brain and topsy-turvy hormones.

  • Exotic foods -- For millions of years, prior to the invention of agriculture just 10,000 years ago, humans and our evolutionary grandparents ate what they could gather and hunt: very fresh fruits, vegetables and game. Dairy products and grains -- the bulk of the average kids diet -- are only a recent addition, and many children are allergic or sensitive to these.

  • Poor nutrition -- The typical child's diet is full of refined sugar, processed foods and artificial additives. Yum!

  • Environmental toxins -- In the past century, more than 80,000 different chemicals have been invented and then dumped into our environment. Many of these find their way into the food and air of the most vulnerable people of all: our children.

  • Overuse of antibiotics -- Drugs can be lifesavers, but they can also disturb the delicate balance of your child's digestive tract, by killing the good microorganisms and leaving the field wide open for an overgrowth of bad ones. The results include poor digestion of nutrients kids need as well as toxic waste products from the bad guys.

    There is mounting scientific evidence that these profound changes in the environment your child's body is genetically designed for can lower his mood and make it harder to control himself. Please ask yourself these questions:

  • Does he have conspicuous circles under his eyes?
  • Does he have frequent stomach aches, or a tendency to constipation or diarrhea?
  • Is there a history of substantial antibiotic use?
  • Is your child especially sensitive to sugar or time since his last meal?
  • Have you noticed a connection between particular foods or additives and his poor mood or behavior?

    A "yes" answer to any of these increases the chance that physical factors are making it harder for your child to be happy or self-controlled. You should talk with your physician or other professional experienced with these issues; find someone who takes you seriously, since many health professionals have received little training in nutrition, or are prematurely dismissive of approaches they are less familiar with that have good research or clinical evidence behind them.

    Happily, there are effective things that can be done to improve the mood or functioning of almost any child by optimizing her physical health. This approach carries the double benefit of increasing health for its own sake as well as avoiding prescription drugs; medication can sometimes be very helpful for children, but it can also have side effects, and its use for mood (separate from hyperactivity or attention) has had very mixed support in the research literature). We have each seen major improvements in children when their allergies, gastrointestinal disturbance, hypoglycemia, or poor nutrition have been addressed.

    Allergies and sensitivities
    An allergy or sensitivity is when the body over-reacts to an irritant, such as pollen, red food dye or cat hair. (A teenager once told Rick she was allergic to her step-father -- but that's a different story.) Pretty much any amount of an allergen triggers an over-reaction, while increasing quantities of substances the child is sensitive to have increasing effects. (For simplicity, we will use the terms "allergy" and "sensitivity" interchangeably in this section.)

    Dark circles under the eyes of a child are often a sign of allergy, as are frequent sniffles or a worsening of mood or behavior that seems to follow a pattern (such as visiting a neighbor with cats). She could be allergic to an airborne irritant, like pollen or mold, or a particular food. There is growing scientific evidence that allergies and sensitivities worsen the mood or capacity for self-control of many children -- and that treating these can substantially improve a child's well-being and functioning. If there is any question whether they are affecting your child, we recommend you consult with a physician specializing in allergies and have her assessed. Typically, this is done through scratch tests of the skin or blood tests; although blood tests are viewed with skepticism in some quarters, there is no harm in doing one and they usually add information.

    If you get stonewalled by a managed care provider about testing, unfortunately you may need to pay out of pocket, but the testing will probably give you very useful information. On your own, there is an informal test you can do at home (see below), but it is just suggestive and no substitute for medical care. You can also eliminate some of the usual suspects, such as dairy products, wheat or food dyes, and see if there is a marked benefit.

    Airborne allergens can be dealt with in part by getting an air filter/ozone machine for your child's room, or avoiding situations that contain them. Dealing with food allergies is often more complex. They fall into two groups: true foods, and additives. The most common food allergens are gluten (found in wheat, oats, rye and barley) and casein (in milk products). Food additives include dyes and artificial flavorings.

    The most direct way to deal with food sensitivities is to eliminate them. After three to six months, the food can be reintroduced on a rotation basis: allowing the child to eat it once every four days -- as long as there is no negative reaction.

    A common reaction to allergens is an increase in mucous (aka snot), (particularly common with dairy products). This can lead to ear infections and bronchial problems, which often leads to antibiotics. Unfortunately, this often leads to another source of mood disruption, an imbalanced gastrointestinal tract.

    Digestive pathogens
    Extensive use of antibiotics or consumption of sugar, or exposure to pathological microbes, increase the chance that your child has an overgrowth of fungi (such as yeast) or problematic microbes in her digestive tract.

    The signs of this include hyperactivity, irritability, low mood, fatigue, achy joints and muscles, sleep disturbance, stomach aches or either unusually soft stool or constipation. Unfortunately, gastrointestinal disturbance may also increase the likelihood of a food sensitivity or allergy. There is also some interesting new research suggesting a link between certain cases of autism and food allergies or gastrointestinal disturbance. Dealing with digestive pathogens requires proper diagnosis by a health provider familiar with these problems, usually through urine and/or stool testing.

    Treatment involves four methods:

  • Kill the bad guys directly with prescription drugs or natural products
  • Starve them by eating much less sugar or the other foods they crave
  • Compete with them by adding beneficial bacteria
  • Change their environment by eating a diet high in protein, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.

    When the body is given a big dose of sugar -- like a bowl of sweet cereal and a glass of juice -- glucose levels in the blood spike high and then drop dramatically. (This situation is only slightly improved by an unsweetened but refined bread product, because it is broken down quickly into glucose.) At both the peak and the valley of blood sugar, a parent can usually see an effect on behavior and mood; just recall the last birthday party! In particular, research has shown that low levels of blood sugar (called hypoglycemia) are marked by irritability, lack of concentration, forgetfulness and restlessness. There is research on children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) showing that after a meal high in protein they have improved ability to learn, and less destructive-aggressive behavior.

    There are two keys to balancing blood sugar:

  • Eat significant protein together with whole grains or other foods that become sugar more slowly. Meats and fish, eggs, nuts and nut butters, and soy or dairy products are all high in protein. (of course, avoid the ones that your child may be allergic to.)
  • Decrease sugar. You can simply keep few or no sweets in the home, minimize sodas and dilute juice with a lot of water.

    Nutrient deficiencies
    Almost any nutrient deficiency can have an effect on the nervous system, and therefore mood. If your child has so-so nutrition -- such as corn flakes for breakfast, Spaghettios and Jello for lunch, and chicken nuggets or pizza for dinner -- and you wonder about his mood or behavior, then you should consider nutritional testing.

    Deficits in all of the B-vitamins have been shown to lower mood. Vitamin B-6 is particularly important; for example, it is required for the body to make serotonin, the happy, calming brain molecule. B-6 may be low because it is not consumed or because the body cannot convert the B-6 that it does consume into its active form, Pyridoxal-5-phosphate (P-5-P).

    Vitamin B-6 is available as P-5-P, and research has shown it to be effective in raising mood, particularly with individuals whose serotonin levels are known to be low. P-5-P should be taken in the morning before breakfast without mineral supplements, because they impede the absorption of each other. Minerals are very important for mood and self-control, but they are low in many children. Two in particular are important for a parent to consider:

  • Magnesium is a calming mineral. It has been shown to be helpful with ADHD, and it would be useful in any situation where tension or irritability were an issue. The adult RDA for magnesium is 400 mg; about half of that would be reasonable for many children. It is hard to get that much magnesium from the diet most kids eat. If supplements are therefore used, the form of magnesium is important. Magnesium oxide is poorly absorbed and should be avoided. Magnesium citrate or aspertate are better, and magnesium glysinate is best of all; the first two forms can be gotten at health food stores, and the last is available through health care providers.

  • Besides helping the immune system, zinc has been shown to be low in children with ADHD; interestingly, some of these children have an especially big drop in their zinc levels after they eat certain food dyes.

    Finally, Omega-3 fatty acids can play a role in a child's mood and behavior. Much of the brain is literally derived from these "healthy fats." They are concentrated in fish and flax seed, but it is hard to get enough of them in a typical child's diet. Omega-3 oils have been useful in the treatment of ADHD for some children, as well as dyslexia and dyspraxias (poor coordination or balance). The easiest way to supplement them is with fish oil capsules (make sure they are checked for contaminants) or with unrefined and unheated flax oil.

    A sense of balance
    The more concerned you are about your child's mood or behavior, the more serious you need to be about physical health interventions. If he or she is doing great, all you need to do is to keep things on a good footing:

  • Provide a variety of foods with protein in every meal and lots of fresh (ideally organic) whole grains, fruit and vegetables.
  • Limit sugar.
  • Use a good multivitamin supplement that has some minerals in it.
  • Supplement Omega-3 oils.
  • Limit or eliminate foods to which your child seems to be sensitive.
  • Through good health practices and the use of alternative methods, give antibiotics as a last resort.

    When the physical foundation of a child's mood and behavior is addressed, we commonly see problems reducing by a third or more. Psychological and interpersonal steps also help enormously; and all three working together help most of all.

    Pulse test
    Have your child sit quietly before breakfast, or after a few hours of fasting. Take her pulse. Then, have her eat breakfast (or whatever). Both 10 and 20 minutes later, recheck her pulse with her in a similarly quiet position. If it has increased significantly --10 or more beats per minutes -- it is quite possible she is reacting to what was eaten. If it elevates by 5 beats per minute, you should retest. If many foods were eaten, you will have to do some detective work, testing each individual food

  • Tags: add adhd mood

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