Feed them Calm: The Role of Nutrition in Your Child’s Anxiety – Part One

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It’s common for a child suffering from generalized anxiety to live in a constant state of worry and nervousness. They might not be able to relax among friends and family. Some might experience anxiety and fear in very limited situations, such as when they are surrounded by a crowd of strangers or they are in a tall building. A typical element present in different kinds of mental disorders is an imbalance in neurotransmitters. For example, a child may have unusually high levels of adrenaline that cause excitatory responses or unusually low levels of GABA, a calming neurotransmitter. Such imbalances can alter the brain’s circuitry and make a child more likely to suffer from generalized anxiety and fear. These imbalances are often hereditary, but are not always needed for a child to develop anxiety. In fact, generalized anxiety disorders commonly start as a result of prolonged stress. Symptoms such as headaches, insomnia, and muscle tension are typical ways in which children react to even minor stressors. By the time these symptoms present themselves, not only has a child’s behavior changed, but their brain functions and even structure has also been altered.

Generalized anxiety can be treated with psychotherapy and medication. Although psychotherapy is typically effective, it may take a while for the child to let go of unhealthy ways to react to stress. Medication is another way of managing anxiety, though it is not commonly used in young children due to numerous side-effects and a high risk of dependency. As an alternative to the options, physicians and psychologists have sought for new, gentler ways of treating pediatric anxiety. One of the chief ways they recommend managing childhood anxiety is through diet. Handling what a child eats is easy, has no side-effects, and may even improve a child’s general health. On the downside, it may take several months to see notable changes in a child’s behavior or emotions when they are treated with diet alone. This field of study is brand new and some areas have yet to see human trials. Parents are encouraged to make changes to the diet of their children gradually, paying close attention to how their child reacts. It is also recommended that parents consult their family physicians prior to altering their child’s diet drastically. That being said, there are many common food items and elements anxious children should stay away from.

What not to eat: 

Sugar

Sugars are amazing substances found virtually in all our foods. They are carbohydrates that are divided into simple and complex groups based on their molecular composition. Most of the sugar we consume is harvested from sugarcane and sugar beet, two plants with incredibly rich in the substance. However, alternative sources like high-fructose corn syrup are becoming more prevalent in the Western world. Most of us consume large amounts of sugar through processed food sources.

Cortisol and sugar are highly intertwined when it comes to anxiety. Cortisol serves to restore homeostasis, or balance, to the body after stress. However, when exposed to prolonged stress, the body naturally produces more cortisol, causing blood sugar level and insulin production to spike. These increased amounts of sugar and insulin can effectively crash blood sugar levels. This signals the hypothalamus that its only source of energy, glucose, is severely needed and the brain is likely starved. The hypothalamus then panics, sending the adrenal glands signals to pump out more adrenaline. This, of course, causes the emergence of further panic attacks and symptoms.

Under chronic stress, the brain believes it needs more sugar even though it has received far more than it needs. This causes us to overindulge on sweets and other sugary foods.  Consuming excessive amounts of sugar may even trigger dependency. A recent study conducted at Princeton University found that rats who consumed excessive amounts of sugar exhibited withdrawal symptoms akin to those of opiate addicts when fasting.

When caring for an anxious child, it’s important to space meals close together and trim them down in size. This helps keep your child’s blood sugar from spiking and causing unnecessary stress. Avoid unnecessary and added sugars during meals. Added sugars, however, aren’t the only guilty sugars either. Certain fruits, such as mangoes, pineapples, and bananas, have naturally high sugar contents and should be avoided. Instead, consider packing a few extra strawberries or raspberries in your child’s lunchbox since these choices don’t possess as much sugar as some fruit do.

Caffeine

Caffeine, as we know it, is the world’s most widely-consumed psychoactive drug. We ingest it in the form of coffee, tea, soda, chocolate, energy drinks, and certain supplements. The substance, however, is a naturally occurring pesticide that shields the seeds, fruits, and leaves of various plants. It paralyzes and eventually kills insects feeding on the plants that produced it. Our obsession with infuses that contain this chemical have to deal with its effects. According to a French study conducted at the University of Nancy, caffeine triggers mood-elevating effects by interacting with noradrenergic and dopaminergic pathways in our brain.

This may seem fantastic, but problems arise when we realize consuming caffeine virtually never ends in a single can of soda. Building tolerance to the substance occurs quickly, often leaving consumers wanting to experience the same effects as before. This leads them to amplified intake and possible health risks. Most of the caffeine consumed by children comes from sodas. These products are easily accessible and cheap, making avoiding them difficult. The sweet taste and addictive properties of caffeine ensure children want to drink sodas.

A common consequence of overusing caffeine is increased anxiety and insomnia. According to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, this effect is greatly amplified in people suffering from agoraphobia, panic attacks or panic disorder. This study also reports anxious subjects experienced more anxiety, nervousness, fear, palpitations, restlessness, and tremors after ingesting caffeine. Caffeine is also known to increased plasma cortisol levels and to modulate the adenosine system, causing the substance to effectively be an anxiogenic. Doctors commonly recommend adults with anxiety disorders or symptoms to carefully limit their caffeine intake. However, since the brains of children are developing and susceptible to damage, it’s advisable to completely eliminate caffeine from an anxious child’s diet.

If your child’s diet is high in caffeine, consider gradually limiting their intake to prevent a stressful withdrawal. Make sure you don’t have soda available in the refrigerator and your child doesn’t have easy access to caffeine products. Many times, children like sodas simply for their taste and aren’t overly fond of the psychological effect it causes. If this is the case, consider substituting soda with a healthier alternative they’ll still like to snack on. Anything they’ll consider tasty will do, as long as it is readily available to them and remains a reward rather than a substitute for actual meals.

Low-Carb Diet 

Eating a diet low in carbohydrates may be trendy, but it can have serious consequences for anxious people. A diet rich in whole grains, on the other hand, increases the levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter, your brain releases. The release of this chemical can cause a pleasurable and calming effect on the body. Anxious people typically have lower levels of serotonin to begin with, so increasing the release of this neurotransmitter is crucial in warding off symptoms of anxiety.

Recent studies show that carbohydrates affect an amino acid called tryptophan. This amino acid is essential in the production of both melatonin and serotonin. According to Dr. Markus and his colleagues, this may indicate carbohydrates could play a role in preventing serotonin shortages during episode of stress by affecting the levels of tryptophan in the brain. This amino acid concentrate is especially high in bananas, chocolate, and dairy. A diet rich in whole grains usually has plenty of fiber as well. As an added benefit, a high-carb diet can also help with indigestion problems common among anxious children.

Saturated Fats

Numerous studies have shown the health benefits of unsaturated fats like olive oil. However, saturated fats are clearly harmful to humans. These fats have been shown to reduce the number of brain cells being produced and the amount of neuronal repair. A recent study conducted by Dr. Sharma and his colleagues published in the Journal of Scientific Reports showed that a diet rich in saturated fat increases anxiety-like behavior. Sadly, the study also concluded that a pregnant mother consuming saturated fats would cause her offspring to prefer a similar high-fat diet later on.

Luckily, avoiding saturated fats is rather easy. Food products are required to clearly label their fat contents. This enables a savvy shopper to pick and choose from a variety of products for the healthier alternatives. It’s also a good idea to think about where your child eats. Many food-chains and restaurants have switched their menu-choices to contain no saturated fats, but it pays off to investigate their menus a bit closer. If you think twice about what your refrigerator holds, your child’s intake of saturated fats will be drastically cut down.

Yo-Yo Dieting

Weight fluctuations are quite common among anxious teens and adults. Often, anxious people tend to use food as a form of self-medication or an attempt to control their anxious thoughts or behavior.  Unfortunately, this binge-eating often results in a highly restricted calorie diet. According to Dr. Chandler-Laney and her colleagues, this circle of caloric restriction followed by excessive indulgence causes neurochemical changes to neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. These neurotransmitters are crucial for mood regulation. People suffering from anxiety or other mood disorders often have lower levels of these transmitters to begin with. This causes yo-yo dieters to often feel more anxious as they continue in their circle of bingeing and indulging.

Even children are concerned about their weight. Some of their anxiety might even stem from poor self-image. Preventing weight fluctuations in anxious children is vital considering the implications they might have. You may find scheduling regular exercise sessions disguised as family activities to be particularly helpful. This could help take your child’s mind off their weight while they partake in something they find enjoyable. Any form of exercise will work for this purpose as long as your child finds it fun. Another thing you can do to help prevent this cycle is ensure your child doesn’t have the opportunity to binge on food. Make food available to them at regular intervals but don’t keep readymade items in the kitchen.

Before you make changes to your child’s diet, it’s important you are acutely aware of their allergies. It may be a good idea to have your child tested for possible food sensitivities before initiating any dietary changes. Many symptoms of food allergies, such as indigestion and nausea, could be taken for signs of anxiety. By checking your child for possible allergies, you may prevent false alarms. Keep all changes to your child’s diet gradual, introducing new elements one at a time. Introducing changes at a slower pace will ensure you don’t disrupt your child’s digestive system.

You may also wish to keep track of any possible changes to your child’s mood and behavior during the time you introduce new elements to their diet. Keep in mind that changes as a result of diet occur slowly. You shouldn’t expect sweeping modifications simply because you no longer have soda lying around the house. Make sure what your child eats something they actually like. Otherwise, they simply won’t stick with the diet or will try to sneak their old favorites past you. Finally, what truly matters in a diet is what you eat most of the time. If your child’s birthday is coming up or Christmas is around the corner, don’t fret about making drastic changes. Instead, give them a free pass for that meal.

This has been part one of a two-part series “Feed Them Calm”.  Click here to continue to part two.

The two-part “Feed Them Calm” series was written by Clinical Psychologist Dr. Marie Cheour. Dr. Cheour has worked as a Professor of both Pediatrics and Psychology at the University of Miami where she received a 2002 Research Award, as a Professor of Neuropsychology at the University of Turko in Finland, and as the Head of the Developmental Brain Research Laboratory, Cognitive Brain Research Unit (CBRU), at the University of Helsinki.

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