Top Brain Nutrients For Your Child
“What supplements should I give my child?" is one of the most common questions I get asked by parents wanting natural solutions to mood and learning struggles.
I’m actually happy for the question because it makes me think the nourishment-based approach I take to children’s mental wellness might be gaining traction; that we might in fact be getting closer to a day whe the standard of care for struggling kids includes addressing the building blocks of health.
I’d much rather parents start with the questions what should I put in my child’s diet? rather than, what is wrong with my child? or, what should I take OUT of my child’s diet?.
Don’t get me wrong, exploring food irritation and, in some cases, even medication definitely have their place if your child is struggling with anxiety, focus, memory or mood instability. They're just not very often the places I suggest you start (here's more on why)
In terms of supplements, I can’t tell you what’s right for your child without knowing more of the story, so do consult a practitioner who can do a full assessment (or take a look at my resources).
But here are the top nutrients I suggest you explore first if you want to take a nutrition-based approach to your child's mood, behavior and learning....
#1: Vitamin D
Vitamin D is a foundational vitamin for overall health. Observational studies have linked low vitamin D status to depression, anxiety and behavior problems in kids. There are many theories still as to why that is.
Why might vitamin D help?
Vitamin D is a used by the body to make Tryptophan Hydroxylase (TPH). This enzyme is involved in making the neurotransmitter serotonin which is involved in many different things including mood, executive function, sensory experience, bowel motility and sleep.
Vitamin D might decrease inflammation in the gut. Since the recent discovery that the gut and the brain send messages back and forth via bacteria, chemical messengers and the vagus nerve, it seems plausible that the more we can reduce inflammation in the gut the more likely we are to feel and function better.
There are vitamin D receptors in neurons and glial cells of the brain. Particularly active with these receptors are the areas of the brain associated with depression and executive function. So it’s possible that those areas won't function well without sufficient vitamin D.
Vitamin D Tips:
You can ask your doctor to test your child's vitamin D and supplement accordingly. About 1000IU is a common maintenance dose, though they might need more or less based on testing.
Choose a vitamin D3 that is suspended in MCT oil for best absorption. Vitamin D is one of the nutrients that needs to be absorbed into fat for it to be usable by the body.
I prefer to give children a D3 supplement that also contains K2. K2 is an enzyme-like vitamin needed for a whole host of processes to function well and is hard to get through diet alone (our gut bacteria make some, though only if they're in good shape).
Magnesium is one of the most abundant minerals in the body. We get it from a number of foods however, the amount in the food we eat is dependent on the health of the soil in which that food was grown.
A number of studies suggest that the amount of micronutrients like magnesium (and others) in our food could be significantly lower than we think they are due to commercial farming practices (here's one commentary with links to further studies).
Why might magnesium help?
Magnesium helps in the production of neurotransmitters. Like several of the nutrients mentioned here, magnesium helps synthesize serotonin and dopamine - two important mood/behavior-controlling hormones.
Magnesium affects the hypothalamus, This is a the part of the brain which, together with the pituitary and adrenal glands, orchestrates what's known as the HPA axis - essentially our body's stress management system. It’s possible that as our stress increases, so does our need for maganeisum in response to that stress.
I find magnesium supplementation, sometimes as low as 200mg, can be very helpful, not only for mood stability itself, but also for constipation, anxiety & insomnia all of which could contribute to how a child feels and behaves.
There a number of studies suggesting that magnesium can be helpful for ADHD. This study suggests magnesium might be most effective when used in combination with Vitamin D.
Magnesium can cause stomach upset in some kids. If it does, switch they type of magnesium. It can also cause diarrhea, in which case you should cut back. Diarrhea could be the first sign of an overdose which, if you persist, could become dangerous.
I don't know if this trend has been studied, but from my perspective zinc deficiency seems to be becoming more and more common in kids. This is a major problem because like magnesium, zinc is a workhorse mineral in the body.
Zinc is the second most abundant trace metal in the body, after iron. Studies have linked zinc deficiency to attention issues, decreased appetite, depression, amenorrhea, decreased taste, poor digestion of gluten, fatty acid deficiency, digestive stress like nausea & bloat, poor sleep
(SLEEP TIP! If melatonin helps get your child to sleep, it could be that they need more zinc - zinc helps the body create melatonin).
Perhaps it’s because of dietary insufficiency, or maybe there is some other underlying contributor to do with genetics or absorption, but I find zinc helps a lot, that's for sure, especially with vegetarians, picky eaters, and kids with ADHD or social anxiety.
Why might zinc help?
Zinc is needed in the production more than 300 different enzymes in the body. Enzymes are catalysts - they initiate and stop chemical processes. Among the zinc-dependent enzymes are digestive enzymes and those that contribute to the creation of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, and sex hormones like testosterone and estrogen (so keep an eye on zinc during puberty, and I always suspect it when kids have persisting digestive troubles).
Zinc deficiency can lead to copper toxicity. High copper levels can lead to the oxidation of dopamine which is associated with learning disabilities, hyperactivity, and general behavioural problems.
Zinc supports the function of the hippocampus. This is the part of the brain most associated with memory and spatial processing. So this might be why I find slow learners and kids with sensory processing disorders often do well with zinc.
Eating disorders have been helped with high doses of zinc supplementation (45-100mg, which is really high for a child and not without risks. So get a hair or blood test and some medical support before using doses that high).
This small 2011 study suggests that 30mg zinc sulphate may be a useful adjunct to ADHD Amphetamine medication. So something to ask your prescribing doctor about (they might need to lower the medication dose if you add zinc).
As mentioned above, zinc and copper work as partners in the body - too much of one can cause depletion in the other. It’s best to ask your practitioner for a test that looks at the ratio between zinc and copper before supplementing higher than 15mg/day or longer than 3 months.
Start slow with zinc. Always give it with food, otherwise it can cause nausea
#4: Omega 3 fatty acids.
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), two types of omega 3 fatty acids, are probably the most well research nutrient when it comes to the brain and mood. All of the studies I’ve looked at are favourable, though they differ in the extent of the improvement, the dosage, and the explanation of why it helps.
Bottom line is our cell membranes and every aspect of neurotransmission involves adequate Omega-3s (and cholesterol too, by the way).
Interestingly, an association has been made between the presence of a genetic variant in a cluster of fat-absorption enzymes and ADHD-behavior as well as reduced cognition. FADS are a cluster of enzymes (fatty acid desaturase) that help the body incorporate fatty acids into cells. If a child has this polymorphism (FADS2 or FADS1), they can eat all the best, healthiest fatty foods they want but will still likely be deficient in fatty acids unless they supplement. This genetic variant seems to be over-represented in kids with ADHD behavior. Something to consider.
You won't see changes overnight with this nutrient. It takes at least 10 weeks for the cell membranes in the brain to recover following chronic deficiency. I always suggest parents commit to a 3 month trial of high quality fish oil, being consistent, before deciding if it's helpful. I can’t really comment on the right dose for your child without knowing more, but 3-6g of fish oil per day have been used in studies with children and the best results came from supplements that contain a ratio of EPA:DHA at around 2:1.
This 2010 study suggests omegas might be best used in conjunction with magnesium and zinc.
I have to give one major caution with fish oil. Occasionally children respond with increased hyperactivity or anxiety when they take fish oil. If that happens, I have found it most likely to happen within the first few weeks of taking it. Here's what to consider:
- are there additives and flavours in the supplement? These could be causing a reaction;
- has the supplement been tested for metals and contaminants? Be sure you get a high quality supplement;
- are they digesting it well? Consider adding in an enzyme that contains lipase;
- are you giving them too much? Some kids are extremely sensitive and need to start with extremely small amounts. Cut back to see if you can find a tolerable dose;
- perhaps this is not the supplement they need. Research or talk to me about whether your child might have Pyroluria. This is a situation in which omega 6 fatty acids (along with zinc and B6) can become chronically low. If this is the case, your child might need omega 6 rather than omega 3.
This is one to ask your doctor to check before you go ahead and supplement. I find iron is often low in picky eaters, slow learners and kids who struggle with energy regulation.
Iron is needed for energy production as well as the production of hormones including serotonin, which might account for why it helps with mood and behavior and learning.
Make sure your child’s iron is well within the acceptable range (not at the low end of normal).
If you know low iron runs in your family or you have been unable to improve chronically low iron in yourself or your child, some possible underlying factors to consider include:
- genetic SNPs that reduce your absorption,
- undiagnosed celiac disease,
- low stomach acid
- intestinal bleeding,
- environmental mould exposure,
- underlying infection like lyme or babesia.
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These are by no means the only nutrients your child's brain needs, nor are they the only natural strategies you can use to help your child feel and function better (see related links below for more). But these are a few nutrients I often start with as we shift the diet.
So much of the research on how nutrients affect mood is still observational or otherwise subjective. We're in our infancy with our understanding of exactly how each particular nutrient affects mood and learning, but we know enough to be certain that they do - enough to be considered a valid path to pursue to help your child feel and function better. Nutrients are the building blocks of our bodies, after all - its structure and its function.
I start with these nutrients because they have been quite well researched, they are hard to get from food alone, and we often see relatively quick results when we try them. We continue to learn more about the potential mechanisms of action.
Related Blog Posts:
Contributors to Aggression: https://www.jesssherman.com/blog/aggression-in-kids-what-s-causing-it
The impact of cholesterol and other biological factors affecting mood/behavior: https://www.jesssherman.com/blog/new-insights-on-the-impact-of-cholesterol
Nutrition and Autism: https://www.jesssherman.com/blog/does-diet-improve-autism
Nutritional approaches to ADHD: https://www.jesssherman.com/blog/nutritional-approach-to-adhd-where-do-you-start
Where To Start - The Foundational Trifecta: https://www.jesssherman.com/blog/the-foundational-trifecta-for-resilient-health