Micronutrients for your child's brain
When it comes to nutrition and your child’s health, there are a few places our thoughts tend to go to first:
Are they getting sufficient protein to grow? Are they getting enough calcium?
Sometimes, if there’s a health issue you might go deeper and ask if they are getting enough iron.
These are important questions to consider, but if the conversation ends there, much is being missed.
Nutrients make the body work
Truth is, every structure and every function in our bodies requires a steady supply of nutrients. So that means if there is any symptom, ranging from slow growth to cavities to ADHD, it’s worth looking at whether nutritional building blocks are in place (I think most people agree, a symptom indicates a breakdown somewhere in either structure or function).
Assessing whether a child has sufficient intake of nutrients to support the nervous system is the first thing we consider when I work with parents to improve their child’s behavior, mood and learning.
In this post, I want to highlight a few more key nutrients that are too-often overlooked as players in your child's brain function. Attending to them could help your child calm down, focus better, have more stable moods.
Three micronutrients particularly important to your child’s mood and behavior
A micronutrient is a nutrient that is critical for structure and function but that doesn’t bring in direct calories (energy).
Think of it this way: while macronutrients (fats, protein, carbohydrates) bring the body energy, micronutrients make the magic happen in the body.
Some micronutrients, like calcium, are critical to structure but many have more to do with function, acting as cofactors to make processes accelerate or slow down.
Conventionally, there are two micronutrient categories: vitamins and minerals.
In my Resilience Roadmap program we go deeper and I outline 5 categories of micronutrients: Vitamins, Minerals, Enzymes, Bacteria, Phyto-(plant) chemicals.
When it comes to assessing a child's diet, only a few (like calcium and iron) typically take the spotlight while many get overlooked.
Truth is though, for optimal resilience your child’s body needs them all. The good news is that Mother Nature provides them all in fresh, whole food. The bad news is it can be hard to get those great foods into our kids (a challenge, but not an insurmountable one if you have good strategy. See related blog posts at the bottom for support with picky eaters).
I'm highlighting three micronutrients in this post. These are by no means the only nutrients to consider. But since they're rarely talked about in doctor visits I don't want you to miss them because they're really important to your chlid's brain health and function...
Choline is an essential nutrient involved in many body functions. As it pertains to mood and brain development choline is important because:
- it is involved in the digestion, transport and metabolism of fats (including the all-important brain fat, DHA);
- it's an important player in the synthesis of the brain neurotransmitter acetylcholine which contributes to memory, mood, muscle control;
- it functions as a methyl donor and thus contributes to a very important process called methylation (often found to be dis-regulated in ADHD and mood disorders);
- it’s critical to the structural integrity of cell membranes including those in the brain and the tight junctions of the gut
This 2020 review of 54 studies concluded that sufficient choline in the first 1000 days of life could support normal brain development, protect against neural and metabolic insults, and potentially improve neural and cognitive functioning.
We produce a bit of choline in the liver, but not enough. To get sufficient choline for good health we need to eat it. Now that we understand more about genetic single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), we know that certain of them like PEMT can interfere with choline metabolism, thereby increasing the need for dietary choline.
The best sources of choline are animal foods like beef liver and egg yolks. Soy also contains significant amounts of choline though many people have trouble digesting soy.
Branching out from there levels drop significantly but you'll still find choline in: poultry, fish, dairy, cruciferous vegetables, nuts, seeds, and kidney beans, quinoa, potatoes, and mushrooms.
Because of its widespread impact on biological processes, insufficient choline can contribute to poor memory, slower mental processing and IQ, poor digestion of fatty foods, nausea, chronic constipation, brain fog, muscle twitching, trouble focusing.
We need just the right amount of copper as it is heavily involved in cellular structure, immune function and the production of hormones and neurotransmitters.
Regarding mood and the brain copper plays a cofactor role in the production of the brain chemicals dopamine, serotonin and acetylcholine, all of which influence how we feel.
An accumulation of copper has been associated with increased irritability, aggression, depression, hyperactivity, ADHD, sensory sensitivity (ex intolerance to rough fabric or tags), emotional meltdowns, anxiety, poor immune function, sleep problems, and poor focus.
Wilson’s disease is a condition in which excess copper accumulates. It is often inherited and requires medical attention. But copper can also reach high levels through a copper-rich diet or when the body accumulates excessive estrogen (estrogen dominance). Estrogen can cause copper retention.
Low levels of copper seems to be more uncommon but can contribute to fatigue, weakness, poor immune function and trouble with memory and learning.
Foods high in copper include: nuts, seeds, some mushrooms, leafy greens, shellfish, cocoa. In most people, these are completely healthy foods when eaten as part of a whole foods diet rich in variety. But I have seen copper accumulate when people try to do a paleo diet without enough zinc-rich foods.
Too much copper can cause two major problems for the brain:
- A deficiency in zinc which is needed as a cofactor for over 300 enzymes and contributes to thousands of chemical processes including the synthesis of neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin and many of the digestive enzymes. When copper is high, zinc can become low.
- Copper is used in the conversion of dopamine to norepinephrine so high levels can lead to low levels of dopamine and an accumulation of norepinephrine which can contribute to increased agitation, anxiety, racing thoughts and restlessness. High norepinephrine can also interfere with sleep and blood sugar stability.
Bacteria's not a nutrient? Think again. The relatively new discovery of our relationship with microbes like bacteria is revolutionizing how we view the body, health, disease, and resilience.
Somewhere in the range of 100 trillion microbes from at least 1,000 different species inhabit our bodies. We inherit microbes from our mothers through the birth process and we acquire more in the early stages of life.
These little bugs are emerging as substantial partners in just about every bodily function including immune function, metabolism, digestion, detoxification, cognitive function, mood and genetic expression.
Since bacteria are so important, and because a number of things like pollution, glyphosate on our food, antibiotics, stress and sugar interfere with our microbial balance, I find it helpful to consider pro-biotic bacteria an essential micronutrient we should be consciously bringing in through diet.
Sources of bacteria include raw and living foods like good quality yogurt and kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, fermented carrots, miso, water kefir, and kombucha. (Learn ways to get your kids to eat these superfoods in this strategy sheet)
I don't suggest parents obsess about testing specific nutrients like these right off the bat when their child is struggling with mood, behavior and learning (many nutrients are actually hard to test for accurately anyhow).
I highlighted these micronutrients to illustrate a point: that nutrients make the body function and without a steady supply (and good absorption) functions break down and symptoms emerge.
We can get most of what we need through a diet of whole, natural real food. We can use nutritional supplements to fill the gaps. But bottom line is, attending to your child’s diet is a helpful strategy if they are struggling with spaciness, attention issues, aggression, poor memory, agitation, ADHD and even self harm.
Start by diversifying the diet to include more brain supportive foods like the ones listed here, and then move on to strategic supplementation and the other factors outlined in this video post and in my book.
Assessing your child's diet is a logical and helpful first step when they are struggling.
Want to know more about the food-mood connection? Click Here to learn more about what research has to say
Related articles from the blog:
Getting your picky eater to eat:
More nutrients for your child's brain:
Top mistakes parents make when changing diet:
The next steps (beyond nourishment):
How To Get Professional Support:
More research here