Nutrition and children's mental health

Guest blog by Louise Mercieca

We are supporting World Mental Health Day again this year, as we know how essential education and awareness of mental health is. Conversation around mental health is vital to ensuring we can spot the signs, remove the stigma and support others.

Looking after mental health in the early years is important, as poor mental health may develop into serious issues as the child develops. Our mental health in the early years series focuses on how practitioners can support children with their mental health.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, mental health problems affect about 1 in 10 children and young people.  The term mental health is, thankfully, becoming more accepted and understood as are the variety of issues that have come to be known under the general term of ‘mental health’.  These include; anxiety, depression and conduct disorder. 

In children it can be, understandably, difficult at times to recognise and identify behaviour triggers that may require intervention. Children often can’t communicate in the same way an older teenager or adult might, but there are many steps we can put in place to ensure that the groundwork for emotional resilience is in place. For me, this starts with nutrition but, before I go more into this, let’s have a quick look at some of the reasons that we might be seeing these increases in statistics:

  • There is now less stigma and fear around mental health issues so people are more likely to disclose them
  • We are more aware so can identify and address issues with increased ease, meaning that there are now more reported cases
  • We are living in an extremely fast paced environment.  In fact, I often say that we have created a world that we are struggling to keep up with and trying to keep up is damaging our physical and mental health
  • Our natural in-built ability to manage emotions comes largely from the foods we eat.  With our changing diet many of us are not eating the foods that control and support our emotional state
  • We have more additional stimuli than ever before, this coupled with the fast pace of life can lead to us feeling more ‘on edge’ with our emotions 

When it comes to the role nutrition plays in our children’s mental health it’s a big one but it’s a complex one.  Nutrition and mental health starts with nutrition for brain development, which I’ll cover briefly, along with the general link between nutrition and mental health.

Macronutrients

There are many nutritional elements essential for children’s rapidly developing brains. In terms of macronutrients, it’s essential to include Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs).  Essential for a reason! These fats make up 40% of the brain and are crucially important for intelligence, mood and behaviour. Alongside this, fatty acids are also involved in brain growth and development.  

It’s quite common to see deficiencies in these EFA’s in children and the deficiency traits may present challenges with concentration, focus, memory and attention or might be noticed through signs of difficulty in comprehension or with grasping new concepts.

Micronutrients

It’s not only these ‘macronutrients’ that can have this influence. An area of particular importance is that of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), of which there are many which are specifically linked to aspects of brain development, cognition and emotional resilience in children.  When levels of these are low, they can deficiency impacts. 

A deficiency in zinc has been linked with poor memory and difficulty grasping new concepts.  When a zinc deficiency is coupled with low serotonin this deficiency can increase a tendency towards violence, depression and anxiety.  B Vitamins, (B1, B12, B5) are all needed to make acetylcholine a brain chemical involved in memory. 

The effect of sugar

Another influencing factor is the amount of sugar consumed in the diet.  It’s important to consider the consequences of fluctuating blood sugar levels and the impact these have on children.  This is particularly apparent when children have a high sugar breakfast, there can be visible personality changes as the sugar levels drop (approximately 90 minutes after breakfast) leaving the individual irritable, restless and sometimes even feeling aggressive.

Nutrition and emotions

Nutrition is fuel for the growing body, including the brain.  The brain is highly influential over our emotions and ability to control them.  Nutrients are needed for cognitive development, focus and attention. Consider a child lacking in those and, in a learning environment consider the frustration, the day-dreaming, the inability to grasp a concept and think about how that may manifest itself as a behavioural trait? The child isn’t misbehaving, being a dreamer or ‘not keeping up’ - they are having a biological response!  Imagine this over a day, week, month, term and, gradually, the issue escalates.  This can be where emotional/mental health implications come to cause issues;  

  • Feeling frustrated can lead to behavioural issues
  • Behavioural traits may be a direct result of a deficiency
  • Low self-esteem as feeling ‘not keeping up’

This is such a huge subject as I am sure you will agree, there are many points which could have taken up the article in its’ entirety but I have tried to cover a run through of the big issues linked with nutrition and the role that food plays not only for our physical health but our mental health too. You can read the full version of this article on CACHE Alumni.

 Louise Mercieca is an award-winning Nutritional Therapist, Author and Presenter with her own food channel for Early Years nutrition.

Our Level 2 Certificate in Understanding Mental Health in the Early Years is designed for learners who wish to understand mental health in the early years, from birth to 5 years old, and the role of the Early Years Practitioner to support children’s mental health and wellbeing.