Mental Health in Children

Considering nutrition as an alternative to medications and labels.

The American medical profession has rejected and avoided the science of nutrition for more than a century. Many American physicians ignore well-proven nutritional interventions in spite of solid science, low cost, good safety and exploding patient demand. Many doctors dismiss the value of nutrition without understanding or exploring the information. The pattern is set in medical school where minimal time is devoted to this topic. Sadly, nowhere is this anti-nutrition mindset more obvious than in the specialty of psychiatry.

The brain highlights the importance of nutrition regarding mental health and illness. The process of brain growth transforms a few embryonic cells into the most complex system in the known universe. At one point in the first trimester, more than 250,000 neurons are being created per minute. This extraordinary process does not stop at birth: The human brain quadruples in weight after delivery. The child’s brain is much more complex than the adult brain with twice the number of neurons and much more rapid synaptic growth and interconnection.        

This enormous neurological development has vast metabolic and nutritional demands. If a child’s diet does not supply the needed nutrients, which include omega-3 essential fatty acids, magnesium, B vitamins, amino acids and folate, then that child’s brain will be handicapped and prone to dysfunction and psychiatric symptoms.

Sadly, the American diet continues to deteriorate. More than two-thirds of our kids fail to meet the dietary recommendations for one or more nutrient. Only 1 percent of Americans eat according to food pyramid guidelines. Fully 65 percent of our calories now come from sugar and fat. Our intake of magnesium has fallen dramatically in the last century. Also, because of feedlots, fast foods and hydrogenated oils our ratio of omega-3 oils to omega-6 oils has deteriorated from 1:1 to 1:20 in the last 150 years. Most Americans are deficient in this key neurological building block. American breast milk has the lowest levels of DHA (an omega-3 EFA) in the developed world. Our children must have DHA and other omega-3 nutrients to build a functioning brain. A starving brain is a symptomatic brain.

We have witnessed an explosion of child psychiatric illnesses in the last 30 years. For example, a 2007 study found that the rate of diagnosis of pediatric bipolar disorder— one of the most severe and difficult to treat problems in childhood— increased by 40-fold in the last ten years. Adult illness in the same study did not even double. A possible reason for this epidemic is nutritional deficiency.
 

There are many different problems created by a wide variety of nutritional issues. Each child is unique. Only recently with advanced genetic science have we come to realize how very unique we are in our individual biochemistry. Scientists have long known that the need for vitamins and nutrients varies significantly from person to person. The requirement for a single nutrient can range from ten to one or even 100 to one from person to person.

The number of nutritional compounds found to be effective or helpful in psychiatric disorders has dramatically risen recently. Folate, B-6 and SAMe have proven valuable in treating major depression. Chromium has good evidence for improving atypical depression. A number of studies document the value of magnesium in mood disorders, and it shows a great similarity to the mineral lithium in its effects upon neurons. A 2006 study found that seven out of ten children with major depression got better with omega-3 oils versus zero out of ten with a placebo. Suddenly, we have scientific proof that nutrition helps to heal psychiatric disorders.

Psychiatric medications are the preferred tools in child psychiatry. Unfortunately, the evidence that this approach is safe or effective is clearly inadequate. Most parents are cautious about medicating their child’s growing brain. The vast majority of parents who I speak to across the United States are ecstatic about safe and natural approaches for childhood mental health issues like attention problems, depression, anxiety and aggression.

I suggest a foundation of healthy diet and lifestyle adjustments and proven supplements before a parent considers medications for a child. I am not anti-medication; rather I believe that we must offer safer and more natural options for adjusting biochemistry before considering powerful pharmaceuticals. Beyond that, doesn’t it make more sense to correct biochemistry before we medicate the developing brain? Common sense tells me that using nutrition to address psychiatric signs and symptoms in children makes the most sense as a first step in treatment.

As I mentioned, in recent years we have witnessed a surge of children and teenagers labeled with bipolar disorder. These kids can be aggressive, violent and out of control. Our current medications are not highly effective. Likewise, a growing number of psychiatrists around the country have been using a vitamin/mineral product to effectively treat bipolar disorder. In 2001, a well-known Harvard child psychiatrist, Charles Popper, M.D., popularized this approach. He published a report in a psychiatric journal about his experience: He treated a 10-year-old boy with severe bipolar disorder with this natural product, and the boy was completely symptom-free within five days. Three other published studies on this product have followed, and a large randomized controlled trial is now underway.

This raises a profound question: If vitamins and minerals can completely eliminate the signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder in children, are these symptoms of a true illness or a nutritional deficiency syndrome such as scurvy or pellagra?

Combining nutritional insight with a holistic approach, we may be able to avoid having half of all children in the United States being prescribed to a psychiatric drug. I believe that six external forces or brain stressors can affect a child’s emotional and behavioral health, including relational, nutritional, familial, environmental, educational and traumatic. I hope parents will take the steps to get educated to discover the magical potential that lies within each child by exploring how emotional and cognitive brain growth are interrelated. This means realizing that a safe and secure home life, love, touch— and proper nutrition— are crucial for optimal brain development.