This has been a year that has tested us all to our limits. We have become increasingly aware of the fragility of our mental health. Our children and youth have been exposed to fear, stress and uncertainty that have resulted in anxiety, depression, mood and behavioural disorders. This has heightened our awareness about the festering epidemic of mental health among our children and youth. Alarmingly, children as young as toddlers and preschoolers are receiving diagnoses of these mental health disorders such as generalised anxiety disorder.
Conventionally, with a diagnosis comes a prescription of psychiatric medication. Children and adolescents are not immune to these prescriptions, and we have no idea of the long-range impact of these drugs on our children’s neurotransmitters and their ability to wean off these medications.
There is a different way to look at mental health disorders that go beyond diagnoses and symptomatic treatment. Functional Medicine looks at what the root causes of disease are rather than focusing on symptoms. Mental health is viewed NOT as something that is in the brain; rather, it is a consequence of imbalances in the body that AFFECT the brain. By fixing the body, we automatically fix the brain because the body and brain are one interconnected system.
If a child is exhibiting mood or behavioural symptoms, the first place to look is the health of their gut and the composition of their diet. The gut is our first interface with the world!
The gut is made up of trillions of microorganisms such as bacteria, yeast, fungi etc. called our gut microbiome. In many cases, there are imbalances in the colonies of good and bad microorganisms living in our gut, a condition called Gut Dysbiosis. This is important for mental health conditions because many of the good bacteria in the gut, called probiotics, are responsible for making more than 80% of all neurotransmitters in our body, including serotonin and dopamine.
In addition to healing the gut, we also need to focus on other body systems such as energy metabolism, detoxification, hormones and reducing inflammation. Correcting imbalances in our body is essential to reclaiming the physical and mental health of our children.
The key steps involved in this process include:
- Eating a diet full of whole, unprocessed foods with lots of fibre, good sources of protein, and healthy fats. The brain is about 60% fat; therefore, eating plenty of healthy fats (including anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids) can help reduce inflammation and heal the brain.
- Making a rainbow of fruit and vegetables a mainstay of our daily diet will help support neurotransmitter production.
- Reducing fast foods, sugar, refined carbohydrates (breads, cereals), inflammatory vegetable oils (such as corn, soy oil), chemically processed foods, GMOs, soda, etc.
- For a child with severe mood and behavioural issues, elimination of junk food is square one. Become a detective and find hidden sources of sugar in all our everyday foods.
- Introducing fermented foods and probiotics into the diet are essential for children’s brain, mood and the reduction of anxiety since they help support the gut-brain connect, the gut-immune connection and gut-hormone connection.
- Addressing food sensitivities, allergies, and triggers can have a profound impact on mood and behaviour.
- Hydrate hydrate hydrate.
- Looking for and correcting nutritional deficiencies, such as magnesium, impact brain functioning and mood regulation.
- Research suggests that regular exercise might be as good as or even better than antidepressants for some people.
- Reduce children’s screen and social media time. Numerous studies have linked the outdoors with decreased anxiety and depression.
- Set a no phones in bedrooms rule since these devices send out electromagnetic radiation that triggers brain activity, preventing the brain from doing its night time duties of rest, repair, detoxification and restoration.
- Limit the use of electronic devices 1-2 hours before bedtime. The blue light from the devices reduces melatonin levels, the hormone that helps us fall and stay asleep.
- Get enough sleep. The consensus among researchers for optimal sleep levels is 9-12 hours for children aged 6 to 12 years and 8-10 hours for teens aged 13 to 18 years.
- Create a safe environment by reducing triggers such as EMFs, mould, dust, heavy metals and chemicals. Use non-toxic cleaners and building materials.