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How to support your child's mental health

How to support your child's mental health
By Seema Vekaria 2 years ago 57736 Views

‘A person’s a person, no matter how small’ Dr. Seuss

As parents what we want more than anything is to have happy and healthy children, not only physically but also psychologically. And, to that end, appreciating the vital role of nutrition, physical activity, and also nurturing of their emotional and cognitive development through education and opportunities. Yet the importance of a child’s health extends beyond these concerns. Children represent the next generation of adults and their combined health and vitality will impact the very nature of our society.

There has been a huge increase in children experiencing difficulties with social, emotional and cognitive development, where one in eight children in England are suffering with at least one mental health disorder. Further statistics from 2017 show rates of mental health issues in children increase with age, as 5.5% of 2-4 year olds experienced mental health issues, compared to nearly 17% of 17-19 year olds.[i]

Children can develop the same mental health conditions as adults, they just express them in different ways. These can include anxiety, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), mood disorders such as depression, and eating disorders (anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa). With children’s mental health week upon us, we want to help you understand what could potentially be contributing to these issues and what you can do to support your children.


Often, as children lack the vocabulary or developmental ability to explain what’s on their mind, it can be difficult to differentiate signs of a problem from normal childhood behaviour. Some signs that your child may have a mental health issues include:

  • Mood changes e.g. persistent feelings of sadness or extreme mood swings.
  • Intense feelings e.g. overwhelming fear for no reason, often with physical symptoms such as fast heart rate.
  • Behaviour changes e.g. hyperactivity.
  • Difficulty concentrating and with imagination and pretend play.
  • Physical symptoms e.g. headaches, stomach aches.
  • Physical harm or suicidal thoughts.
  • Substance abuse e.g. drugs or alcohol to cope with their feelings.
  • Changes in eating habits e.g. taking food to their room/avoiding eating together.
  • A fixation around social media and their body image.


Research has shown that certain pre-natal circumstances can influence the foetus towards mental health issues. For example, folic acid, may reduce mental health problems in children,[ii] whilst vitamin D deficiency in the mother has been linked with a reduction in brain development in the newborn,[iii] as well as an increased risk of autism-related traits later on.[iv]

In 2010, Landrigan believed that environmental exposures during pregnancy or in early infant life were a key feature and highlighted the fact that children are exposed to thousands of synthetic chemicals, of which fewer than 20% have been tested for neurodevelopmental toxicity.[v] Environmental factors such as pollution, diet, pesticides, infections, sensory overload and possibly even electromagnetic radiation are now under consideration. These could potentially increase the “body burden” of chemicals.

Good mental health often begins in infancy and research shows a child with a strong connection to the person who cares for them has a lower risk of developing mental health problems.[vi] Additionally, animal research showed that when put in the care of loving mothers, the mice grow up to be better mothers themselves, and this effect is so strong it can even stretch over two generations![vii]


With an increasing number of babies being born by caesarian section,[viii] and then going on to use antibiotics throughout their childhood,[ix] there may be a link with the increase in gut disorders in children.[x] We are now aware of a gut-brain connection, where research has shown that changes in the gut microbiome can affect the brain’s physiological, behavioural and cognitive function.[xi] Both C-section births and antibiotic use are often unavoidable, but by supporting our children with a good, gut-supporting diet, as well as suitable probiotics, we can often reduce the risks associated with them.

Children with ASD have a higher rate of gastrointestinal symptoms than children with healthy development.[xii] This could be due to low levels of digestive enzymes and subsequent poor digestion and absorption,[xiii] resulting in low levels of trace minerals, such as zinc and copper, which are important for the central nervous system.[xiv]

Food reactions, are common in children with mental health issues, with one survey finding over 40% of autistic children having food sensitivities.[xv] The most frequently identified intolerances are wheat and milk products,[xvi] which are often associated with intestinal permeability.[xvii].

Elevated blood glucose (from high carbohydrate, high sugar diet) can affect cognitive function, with its cost common manifestations being reduced brain function, attention deficit, and compromised learning and memory.[xviii] So we could infer reducing sugar and refined carbohydrates in the diet could help improve cognitive function.


Inflammation plays an important role in the nervous system when it comes to mental health issues. A promising pilot study provides initial support of a relationship between childhood adversity, oxidative stress and mental health symptom development.[xix] Oxidative stress is an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in the body. Therefore, reducing the toxic load and increasing antioxidants can help to reduce oxidative stress and in turn inflammation. Common toxins that can affect the central nervous system include pesticides in food,[xx] air pollution,[xxi] and heavy metals, such as mercury.[xxii]


Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers used by the nervous system to transmit messages, and when sometimes they are disrupted this can lead to problems such as depression and anxiety. There are a number of neurotransmitters that exist in the brain, however, the most recognised and researched include serotonin, dopamine and GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid). For example, ADHD is associated with dopamine interruptions,[xxiii] and often presents with aggression and sleep disturbances.

One factor that can affect the regulation of dopamine in children is the increased use of technology, and specifically video games, as they can increase dopamine seeking behaviour and sometimes become addictive. Excessive gaming can also impair cognitive control, have a negative effect on sleep and schoolwork, and research has shown persistent online game use from childhood could exacerbate atypical brain function.[xxiv] On the other hand, traditional play with both peers and parents can enhance brain structure and function, and can also help to regulate the body’s stress response.[xxv] Further research has shown that conversation raises oxytocin (the bonding hormone), whereas texting can increase cortisol (the stress hormone).[xxvi] In today’s society, the use of technology is unavoidable and if used in moderation, can also be beneficial. For example, using well-designed educational apps, in the presence of an adult, can be used to reinforce what children are learning at school.[xxvii]

Serotonin is often referred to as the happy hormone, and so can have a direct impact on a child’s mood. Tryptophan is the amino acid needed to produce serotonin. Meals exclusively of carbohydrate increase the availability of tryptophan and hence increase serotonin production in the brain. In many individuals, poor mood stimulates the eating of palatable high carbohydrate/high fat foods that stimulate the release of endorphins. This will follow with a rapid blood glucose dip which has been linked to irritability.[xxviii]

Omega-3 research demonstrates that a deficiency of a specific fatty acid (DHA - docosahexaenoic acid) correlates with altered learning, and deficient neurotransmitters, which can affect memory and cognition.[xxix] Omega-3 deficiency may also contribute to ADHD, dyslexia (specific reading difficulties), dyspraxia, and ASD.[xxx],[xxxi]


  • To prevent the possibility of mental health issues, optimise maternal folate and vitamin D levels, and ensure adequate omega-3 in diet - either through food or supplementation.
  • Optimise digestion - L-glutamine to support the gut wall and reduce inflammation,[xxxii] and probiotics, especially Lactobacillus rhamnosus, which may help with GABA[xxxiii], [xxxiv] production, supporting relaxation and stress reduction.[xxxv]
  • Omega-3 supplementation has been shown to reduce hyperactivity in ASD.[xxxvi],[xxxvii] Good food sources include eggs, mackerel, salmon, flax seeds, chia seeds and walnuts.
  • Having vitamin D levels checked every six months and supplementing accordingly, if possible with an emulsified form to help with absorption.
  • B vitamins and zinc - for nervous system support, combined with magnesium can improve social interaction and language skills. [xxxviii]
  • Eating small regular meals, reducing refined carbohydrates and sugar, and eating meals including high quality protein can help to regulate blood glucose levels.
  • Encouraging traditional play and reducing use of technology.
  • Talking therapies or counselling can help children work through their feelings and emotions. It may be useful to participate in family sessions or find local support groups. It can often be hard to find a practitioner you feel comfortable with, so it could be worth looking at a service that helps you find a suitable practitioner for children such as Therapease: https://www.therapease.co.uk/

Children’s mental health is a complex issue, however, we hope that this gives you some insight into some potential causes and empowers you to support your children through and seek the assistance of a health professional, such as the GP, when necessary. If you would like further information or some tailored advice, please do not hesitate to contact our Clinical Nutrition Team on 0121 433 8702 or clinicalnutrition@biocare.co.uk.

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[i] NHS UK. Mental Health of Children and Young People in England. 2018. https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/public...

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[iv] Vinkhuyzen AAE et al. Gestational vitamin D deficiency and autism-related traits: the Generation R study. Mol Psychiatry. 2018; 23(2): 240-246

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