Nutritional support for mood and behaviour in children

Food sensitivities, nutrient imbalances and deficiencies can all have an impact on your child’s mood and behaviour. Nutritional approaches are often overlooked when dealing with mood and behaviour problems but they can be incredibly effective. Here are some tips for regulating behaviour and mood using nutrition.

1. Identify food sensitivities

Eliminating foods your child is sensitive to from their diet can have a positive impact on behaviour and mood. This is particularly relevant when a child is young, where food intolerances seem to be the main culprit for behavioural issues. Identifying the offending food which causes the behaviour can be tricky, especially when your child often seems to be oppositional, angry or emotionally labile. Some common offenders for food sensitivity are gluten, dairy and eggs. 

Some children have problems processing specific compounds in foods, such as phenols in strawberries and apples. This can cause meltdowns or other behavioural issues. If your child has red ears or cheeks, has a noticeable deterioration in behaviour after eating or craves apple juice or other phenolic rich foods (for example grape juice) then this could be a factor. Nutritional support to address methylation and sulfation would most likely be needed in this instance. 

2. Aim to keep blood sugar levels balanced

This requires reducing sugar as much as possible and increasing protein at each meal and snack. The blood sugar rollercoaster will be affecting your child’s behaviour and mood. Blood sugar highs can lead to impulsivity and hyperactivity and the lows present as meltdowns, irritability and anger. Your child might require additional support to help with this depending on their nutrient status. Begin by adding protein and then start to reduce the sugar and foods containing it. Given the possibility that your child may be sensitive to food additives it is not a good idea to replace sugar with ‘low-sugar’ options. These options usually contain sweeteners and additives that are difficult for your child to process and can worsen behaviours and mood. 

3. Help your child to sleep

Getting off to sleep, staying asleep and early wakings are common in kids with hyperactive, impulsive and anxiety-related behaviours. You can gently support your child’s sleep with magnesium initially. This mineral not only supports better sleep but can also help with hyperactivity, poor behaviour and inattention. It is also useful for lessening those behaviours that are linked with high anxiety levels. If magnesium alone is not effective then you can consider other options to boost neurotransmitter function. You might also want to check your child’s vitamin D levels too to ensure that they are adequate. Levels that are too low can lead to inadequate and disrupted sleep which could affect your child’s behaviour and concentration the next day. It is not unusual for a child’s vitamin D levels to fall below acceptable levels in the winter months. 

4. Identify nutrient deficiencies and support neurotransmitter pathways.

Ask your nutritional therapist about supporting your child’s neurotransmitter pathways. If your child is not making enough GABA you may see increased aggression, impulsivity and mood disorders. Where focus is an issue, sometimes the body needs help making dopamine. Low serotonin levels can affect mood. Problems with making or using neurotransmitters can be due to lack of co-factors ie there are not enough nutrients to build the neurotransmitters and enable them to work properly. Usually, digestive issues play a part too. A child’s diet could be ideal but if digestion isn’t optimal there can be problems absorbing nutrients and breaking down protein to help build neurotransmitters. Or sometimes disruptions in gut flora can have an impact too. The gut bacteria can be easily affected by taking  repeated courses of antibiotics or by antibiotics used in the first few months of your child’s life. The Gut and Psychology Syndrome Protocol (GAPS) can help you to further understand the link between gut flora and mental well-being. Understanding why your child might be struggling to make and utilise neurotransmitters is a good place to start. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Nutritionist Resource are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Birmingham, B13 8JP
Written by Sarah Hanratty
Birmingham, B13 8JP

Sarah is an experienced practitioner at the Brain Food Nutrition Clinic specialising in the link between gut health and physical and cognitive well-being.

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