They say that children are the best teachers, and it was my son who taught me the connection between gut health and mental health, and the power of nutrition for optimising both.
You see, my son - then aged 6, was experiencing crippling anxiety. I was already studying nutrition at that time, and so I did what I always did when someone close to me had a problem - I turned to my books and mentors and I began learning everything I could about anxiety in children.
What I discovered would shape the course of my professional and personal life. Through my research into mental health, I was led to the broad topic of gut health.
You see, out of my 3 sons - the son who was experiencing anxiety was the only son to have had antibiotics at birth, a traumatic birth, (unidentified at that point) food sensitivities, skin rashes, and anxiety.
My mothers' instinct knew that this just couldn't be a coincidence.
I signed myself up to study with Dr Natasha Campbell McBride - the creator of GAPS (Gut And Psychology Syndrome) and I put everything I learned into practice.
As a family we shifted from eating a gluten heavy (my sons' dad is Italian and pasta featured ALOT in our house!) to a paleo based, mineral rich and gut friendly menu. Bone broth (rich in tissue repairing, inflammation soothing amino acid L glutamine) & (rich source of friendly bacteria) kefir became daily staples, and mineral depleting sugar and grains were out.
It was NOT easy, but it was entirely worth it. I started to see a change in my boy within just a few short weeks. He was noticeably less reactive, and more confident to be in situations where a few weeks ago, would have triggered a panic in him.
My relief and sense of empowerment at turning our families' story around through using my skills and knowledge, and a few ingredients in the kitchen. If my son experienced this, how many other families are experiencing a similar situation and feeling similarly at sea with it? I felt such a fire to learn all that I could and bring this knowledge out into the world.
The more I spoke to families, the more I realised how important this basic knowledge is. The CAMHS waiting list for an initial appointment is up to 2 years long. To suffer with crippling anxiety for that long, and to stand by and feel helpless for that long is unthinkably difficult.
I know that this approach is not for everyone, but it would not hurt anyone to try it, as a first port of call - whilst they line up other support structures for their child.
I then went on to teach nutrition for mental health courses for service users at Mind Recovery College, and continued to see real benefits to people suffering with extremely crippling health issues.
Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health issues affecting children and adolescents worldwide. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, approximately 31.9% of adolescents aged 13 to 18 experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. These disorders can manifest in various forms, including generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and specific phobias. They can have a significant impact on a child's daily life, including their academic performance, social relationships, and overall quality of life.
Understanding Gut Health
Before we delve into the connection between gut health and anxiety disorders in children, let's briefly explore the concept of gut health. The human gut houses trillions of microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi, collectively known as the gut microbiome. This complex ecosystem plays a crucial role in maintaining our overall health by aiding in digestion, nutrient absorption, and the regulation of our immune system. Emerging research suggests that the gut microbiome may also have a profound impact on our mental health.
The Gut-Brain Axis
The gut and brain are connected through a bidirectional communication system known as the gut-brain axis. This means that what happens in the gut can influence the brain and vice versa. The gut microbiome produces various molecules, including neurotransmitters and immune system regulators, that can influence brain function and behavior. These molecules can impact mood, anxiety levels, and even cognitive function.
The Gut Microbiome and Anxiety in Children
Recent studies have provided intriguing insights into how alterations in the gut microbiome may be linked to the development and exacerbation of anxiety disorders in children. Here are some key findings:
Gut Microbiome Diversity: Research has shown that a diverse and balanced gut microbiome is associated with better mental health outcomes. Children with anxiety disorders often exhibit lower diversity in their gut microbiome.
Gut Bacteria and Neurotransmitters: Certain gut bacteria are capable of producing neurotransmitters such as serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which play vital roles in regulating mood and anxiety. An imbalance in these neurotransmitters can contribute to anxiety disorders.
Inflammation: An imbalanced gut microbiome can lead to chronic inflammation, which has been linked to anxiety and other mood disorders. Inflammation in the gut can trigger an immune response that affects the brain, leading to changes in behavior and mood.
Gut-Brain Communication: The gut microbiome communicates with the brain through the vagus nerve and the production of various signaling molecules. Dysregulation in this communication may contribute to the development of anxiety disorders.
Practical Steps to Support Gut Health in Children
Given the emerging evidence of the gut-brain connection, it's worth exploring ways to support and maintain a healthy gut microbiome in children to potentially reduce the risk or severity of anxiety disorders:
Balanced Diet: Encourage a diet rich in fiber, fruits, vegetables, and good fats - eggs, oily fish, pasture raised organ meat are great for providing growing children with a rich source of essential nutrients - like folate, zinc, B12 and DHA.
Probiotics: Consider incorporating probiotic-rich foods like yogurt and fermented foods - enjoy these on a daily basis
Prebiotics: Prebiotic foods like garlic, onions, and asparagus provide the necessary nutrients for beneficial gut bacteria to thrive.
Reduced Sugar and Processed Foods: Limiting the intake of sugary and highly processed foods can help maintain a healthy gut microbiome.
Stress Reduction: Encourage stress-reduction techniques such as mindfulness, yoga, or relaxation exercises, as stress can negatively impact gut health.
If your child is experiencing anxiety, and you would like to discuss how nutrition can support your family - please email firstname.lastname@example.org