It’s tempting to say, “kids have it so easy these days.” But when we take a close look at the facts and statistics, kids mental health is under way more stress (pun intended) than decades ago— and some have even completed research and studies that show this.
The question is: why? Academic pressures are getting higher in both children and teens. Social isolation, especially during a pandemic, could be a factor, too, on top of the usual social pressures we face when young. It can even be said that we’re discovering more about kids mental health now than in the past. It may be so much that the problem is getting bigger…but that we’re fully exposing it to the world!
All that said, it can’t be underestimated how much diet is playing a role in kids mental health. Nourishment is essential to happy, functioning nervous systems and good mental health, and it’s not up for debate that food on the whole is less nourishing these days— both playing a role in worsening kids mental health, or even being the cause of it in some cases.
What are the connections between kids mental health and their diet? Let’s take a look.
#1: Kids’ stress and diet
We’re just beginning to learn what stress does to the body, even though the effects of stress are all around us…becoming more and more obvious with time. This is becoming especially obvious in adults— but no less in kids!
Too much stress may dampen the immune system. And with an immune system compromised on top of a poor diet, the very systems (digestive system and gut microbiome, that is) that could help right the wrongs also become injured and in need of healing.
That’s right: the stress kids go through can literally interfere with diet, in what is called “the gut to brain connection.” This makes the nervous system unhealthy too…and then makes the effects of stress even worse!
#2: The gut to brain connection
To learn more about the gut to brain connection, be sure to read our other blog post here. Like we said earlier, kids these days aren’t just experiencing more stress and anxiety: they’re also getting less nutritious, gut-healing foods than ever.
Kids mental health has both to do with what kids are dealing with nowadays but also possible lack of nutrition, which can feed anxiety symptoms through the gut to brain connection: like anxiety in the morning or anxiety upon waking, anxiety shortness of breath, issues brought by anxiety to sleep, and more.
An unhealthy gut also has trouble digesting B vitamins especially! These are vital nutrients to a healthy nervous system and good mental health, and especially for anxiety levels. An unhealthy gut will have trouble digesting other vitamins that boost the immune system, too.
#3: The anxiety and diet connection
Looking at the gut to brain connection in kids can help explain what anxiety means in them— and it can go beyond B vitamins.
On top of nourishing the brain with emotional support and better mental health tools, you can nourish kids mental health with a diet for healthy gut: specifically with foods rich in probiotics, (plus prebiotics in food), and of course foods with B vitamins and foods and vitamins that boost the immune system.
#4: Anxiety in teens and diet
Kids of all ages experience anxiety. But we can’t skip the subject of kids mental health and anxiety in teens, as hormones crop up and social pressures begin to change.
Adolescence is also when teens begin to make more autonomous choices about what they eat, day in and day out. Gone are the days of directly hand-feeding and meal prepping for younger kids, and thus having some power over meeting their nutritional needs. When your teen starts to be on their it can quickly turn to fast food and junk food!
Is it possible this contributes to poor gut health, and thus poor mental health through the gut to brain connection? Absolutely. Though of course, not in all cases— and if your teen (or child of any other age) is having symptoms of any stress, anxiety, or depression, of course investigate mental health support first, in addition to diet as complementary support.
#5: The foods that can help all of these things
Which foods boost the immune system (whole and plant based)?
- Antioxidant-rich fruits, vegetables, and gourmet mushrooms (Blueberries, beets, shiitakes, etc.)
- Nuts and seeds high in healthy fats (Walnuts, avocado, sunflower seeds, etc.)
- Immune-supporting herbs and spices (Turmeric and ginger, elderberry, etc.)
What foods have B vitamins (whole and plant based)?
- Dark leafy greens (Spinach, broccoli, kale, etc.)
- Whole and ancient grains (especially quinoa and amaranth)
- Sea vegetables (Algae, kelp, etc.)
- Legumes (Beans, peas, peanuts, etc.)
- Nuts and seeds (especially sunflower seeds)
- Adaptogenic mushrooms (Shiitakes, lion’s mane, etc.)
- Some fermented foods (Kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt etc.)
What are the best vitamins for the immune system?
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin B9 (Folate)
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
It’s also incredibly important that kids and teens keep up on staying hydrated on top of being well-nourished. Some science suggests that good hydration is imperative to good gut health and, thus, good mental health in kids and teens, too.
#6: The power of probiotic foods in kids diet
When it comes benefiting teens’ and kids’ mental health, foods rich in probiotics (and prebiotics in food) deserve their own complete section.
The benefit of taking probiotics is threefold. They boost gut health, soothe inflammation, enhance the immune system, and make nutrients that help anxiety more available in the body— especially B vitamins!
Probiotics are instrumental foods for healthy gut and for restoring the gut to brain connection, too. But what are the best probiotics for gut health, and what even are probiotics to begin with (and prebiotics, too)?
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria cultures that can be supplemented or gained from certain foods. Prebiotics (typically fiber, especially soluble fiber) are foods that help feed these bacteria and colonize them more plentifully in your gut, magnifying their benefits.
Benefit of probiotics:
- Less gut and overall inflammation
- Less gut illnesses and diseases
- Better nutrition (enhanced bioavailability)
- Less chance of nutrient deficiencies
- May enhance the immune system
- Could support mental health
- Could support symptoms of mild anxiety and depression
- Could improve cognitive function (less brain fog)
- May support allergy and eczema issues
- Could support a healthier weight
Foods for healthy gut microbiome:
- Live culture pickles
- Live culture sauerkraut
- Vinegar with mother (e.g. apple cider vinegar)
- Fermented sauces (e.g. soy sauce)
- For animal product consumers: yogurt, sour cream, kefir
#7: Kids physical activity and diet
Last but not least: kids physical activity is huge to the diet, gut health, the gut to brain connection, and improvement in kids mental health. In fact, science has shown that being active and exercising regularly has essential benefits to stimulating the gut microbiome, and the diversity of beneficial bacteria there.
Now more than ever, kids and teens are drawn to pastimes that involve no physical movement whatsoever: video games, social media, and screens! Besides the obvious reasons this could impact kids mental health, it can affect gut health and brain health also, compounding the negative effects.
The state of kids mental health struggles today is not so simple! Nutrition and gut health should not be one of the things to overlook—
too much has been overlooked for the health and wellbeing of our kids and teens for far too long.
What do you think about the connection between kids mental health and their diet? Comment below. We would love to hear from you!
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