Top Nutrients for Anxiety In Kids (video)
Statistically, about 20% of kids and adolescents are estimated to have anxiety. But anxiety in kids can have a lot of faces and it can be hard to know if your child is experiencing anxiety. I suspect the true number is a heck of a lot higher than 20%.
One mom told me recently that she had terrible anxiety as a child but had no idea it wasn't normal to worry all the time until she saw the same behavior in her child twenty years later! As we worked on filling some key nutritional gaps for her child, she was finally able to help herself feel better as well.
Fundamentally anxiety is centered around feeling fearful about the future. It's about feeling unsettled in face of the unknown. Kids are amazing at finding ways to adapt, so this kind of fear and unsettledness can look like a lot of things. I'll outline for you what I have seen anxiety in kids look like.
But also, what I want every parent to know is that certain nutrients can really help a child feel more secure. Nutrients help because they support the body's capacity to tolerate the stress of not knowing. We'll talk about which nutrients are best for anxiety in kids.
Does My Child Even Have Anxiety? Anxiety In Kids Has Many Faces
Like I said, lots of people live with anxiety without really knowing so. They just think it's normal to worry and stress. They might call themselves shy or an introvert, or some other label. I've even seen anxiety in kids be labeled things like Oppositional Defiance Disorder and ADHD.
What I have found working with anxious kids is that kids with different temperaments will find different coping skills.
Kids are amazing at adapting their behavior to create a situation that suits them. They often do this unconsciously as a way to "place" themselves and make the unpredictable predictable.
Take the classroom environment, for example. David might cope with his anxiety by trying to blend into the background, while Sue might act out because the label of "troublemaker" or "class clown" brings her a sense of security.
But behind both kids can lie a child who feels insecure and worried unless things are predictable.
Other Common Patterns In Anxious Kids
Empathetic & Thoughtful
I have found that regardless of whether they're boisterous or quiet, anxious kids are often extremely empathetic. They can be super sensitive to the energy and emotions of others and sometimes take those feelings on as their own.
One of my clients described how her daughter's anxiety hit a whole new level when she learned about the war in Ukraine because she felt so unable to fix it.
I often hear stories of anxious kids becoming deeply hurt by teasing or off-handed remarks that another child might just brush aside. Anxiety often translates everything very literally, and anxious kids need to think deeply about things.
Frequently I hear anxious kids announce they want to be vegetarian because they worry about the animals.
The brain and the body are connected, so anxiety in kids often has physical symptoms too. One of my clients came to me most worried about her 8 year old daughter's constipation and withholding. She wanted to do a microbiome assessment. When I suggested anxiety might be at the root of the bowel issues she started asking her daughter different questions. Sure enough, her daughter was anxious about everything to do with school and this opened up a new direction from which to support her.
Anxious kids have a tendency for shallow breathing, and sometimes struggle to swallow. Anxiety often comes with tummy pain.
Picky Around Food
Anxious kids are often fearful or doubtful of new foods. Sometimes this is just another area where they are fearful. Sometimes this is because they are supertasters or have sensory issues. Sometimes it has to do with struggling to swallow.
So anxiety in kids has many faces. Can you see your child in there somewhere? An anxious child can be a shy and quiet kid or an angry or aggressive kid (and anywhere in between). It all depends on the coping tools they've found to help make the unpredictable predictable. But if we can help anxious kids feel more secure, we can help them feel better and find their superpowers. And the great news is that we can do that with nutrition.
How Can Nutrients Help Anxiety In Kids?
Nutrients drive the nervous system and anxiety has everything to do with a nervous system that is trying to find balance. Assessing and attending to nutritional imbalances can be one prong of support for your anxious child by providing the building blocks their nervous system needs to regulate.
I have seen shy kids turn into social butterflies when given the right nutrients.
I have seen worried kids jump into new experiences when given the right nutrients.
I have seen angry kids stop being explosive when given the right nutrients.
So what nutrients can help? Well, every child is different but in working with anxious kids, here are some specific nutrients I have seen help ease the pressure fairly consistently.
Top Nutrients For Anxiety In Kids
The entire B family of vitamins is critical for nervous system health, detoxification, and energy production. A body under stress will burn through its B vitamins and can quickly become depleted.
B6 is particularly important for the creation and transport of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine that affect how a child feels and functions.
One caution about B vitamin supplements is that I have seen them cause increased agitation in some kids, especially B6, folate, and B12. Typically I find this to be a sign theyre not being absorbed into cells well. An Organic Acid Test can shed some light. I tend to work on detoxification first with kids who react poorly to B vitamins. They still need them, they just aren't absorbing them well. Detoxification seems to enhance absorption.
So when it comes to b vitamins, you can try them in low doses or start by incorporating more foods that are high in B vitamins. Beyond that, it's best to work with a practitioner.
Zinc is required for at least 100 different enzymes to function in the body including those that support detoxification, growth, digestion, and the creation of hormones and neurotransmitters. A lot of processes slow down when zinc is insufficient!
Since zinc helps cells grow and multiply, it is required during times of rapid growth. It also supports structural function in the hippocampus, which is a part of the brain involved in learning and memory.
The process of digestion breaks dietary protein into single amino acid building blocks. These amino acids will then be used to make all kinds of things including neurotransmitters and hormones - chemical messengers that affect how a person feels and functions.
A child needs sufficient protein in order to create the hormones and neurotransmitters they need to cope with stress. I generally find kids with anxiety do better on a diet that is high in protein.
A companion issue here is that anxiety is often accompanied by poor digestion, and a child needs to be digesting that protein well in order to use it. If your child seems to avoid protein-rich foods, this might be something to look at. If you do think your child is eating enough protein, you might consider getting an assessment of their microbiome or a urine sample looking at a marker called Indican to see if they're breaking protein apart well.
This critical micronutrient is involved in over 300 enzymatic reactions including the synthesis and transport of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. It also helps ease stress in the nervous system and in the muscles and supports the production of energy. A body under stress needs a lot of magnesium!
Could Your Child's Anxiety Be A Pyrrole Disorder?
It's possible. Pyrrole disorder could be a contributor to a child's low zinc and B6 and corresponding symptoms like anxiety, poor appetite, nervous exhaustion, stress avoidance, and negative thinking.
Pyrrole disorder is a situation in which the body is overproducing a particular byproduct of red blood cell production called hydroxyhemopyrrolin-2-one, or HPL. That molecule's nickname is Pyrrole.
HPL is naturally flushed from the body through urine, so you can check on pyrrole disorder using a simple urine test called a Kryptopyrrole Quantitative Urine test.
The problem with excessive amounts of urinary HPL is that due to its molecular configuration it can act as a magnet specifically in relation to zinc and B6, pulling those nutrients out with it and leading to a chronic deficiency.
Since Zinc and B6 are critical for the production and transport of the neurotransmitters GABA, dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, chronic deficiency can really affect how a person feels.
Dr William Walsh has analyzed over 40,000 urine pyrrole tests and correlated those results with various symptoms. I use Dr Walsh's pyrrole symptom questionnaire with my clients to help decide if we should test this out as a contributing factor to a child's anxiety and potential need for B-6 and zinc.
The Bottom Line
Your anxious child needs all the nutrients supplied by real, whole, fresh foods. They all help regulate their nervous system in different ways. So try not to get stuck in the trap of micromanaging their nutrition by using supplements. Supporting their nervous system by making sure they're getting all the nutritional building blocks it needs can be one prong of your support plan. Using supplements for a short time though can often help, but it's best to work with someone to get the right dosing.
Here's a short video from a while back about three therapeutic considerations for Anxiety In Kids