Childhood anxiety is very common.
In fact, nearly 4.5 million children in the US have been diagnosed with this condition. The reasons why anxiety is so prevalent it is thought to be due to a combination of genetics, the child’s personality and their environment. While these factors do play a part, recent research is uncovering a new physiological piece to the anxiety puzzle.
The answer could be found in your child’s gut, the center of their microbiome.
The microbiome is made up of billions of bacteria, viruses, fungi and other living organisms that live on our skin, in our nose and mouth, and in our gut. The large majority of it lives in our large intestines and can weigh up to 6 pounds! When our relationship with this flora is in balance it provides us many benefits. We feed it to keep it healthy and in response, it strengthens our mucus membranes to help us not to get sick. It also helps to balance our inflammation and it creates brain chemicals, called neurotransmitters, such as GABA, serotonin and dopamine to keep our moods stable.
This last connection is the most important when we are thinking about anxiety and the gut. The neurotransmitter GABA functions as our own homemade anti-anxiety medication. Though the research is unsure as to exactly how much GABA is made by our gut flora, we do know that when a person has enough, they are better able to cope with stress and generally feel less anxious. It is for this reason that it makes sense to assure that the gut flora is as healthy as possible so it can help create enough GABA and other important calming neurotransmitters to keep our moods stable.
What can we do then to help make our child’s microbiome as healthy as possible?
Encourage Prebiotic Consumption
The most efficient way to support our microbiome is to feed it the foods it loves, especially those called “prebiotics.” These foods include apples, asparagus, onions, garlic, leeks, and bananas. You may also branch out and include some more unusual prebiotic foods such as Jerusalem artichokes, chicory root, dandelion greens and jicama in your child’s diet to have an even greater affect. Sometimes prebiotics are mixed in with probiotic supplements but usually those are not strong enough to make a signficant difference. It is best to just eat them. The flora of the microbiome can shift in as little as 24 hours by simple diet changes, especially by feeding it the food it loves.
Choose the Right Probiotic
The world of probiotics can seem overwhelming as there are so many strains and strengths from which to choose. If you are thinking about choosing a probiotic specifically for your child’s anxiety, choose one that includes Lactobacillus (L.) rhamnosus, L. helveticus, Bifidobacterium (B) infantis and B. longum. These strains have been shown in clinical research to reduce anxiety. Some major brands of probiotics have now made blends specifically for anxiety and other mood issues that could be a good fit for your child. Be sure to choose one from the refrigerated section at your health food store for quality reasons. Although probiotics are mostly safe, it is always best to consult with your child’s physician before starting a new supplement.
Feast on fermented foods
The amount and variety of live flora in food varies a great deal but as parents, the best thing we can do is simply incorporate as many of them as we can into your child’s diet. Keifer, tempeh, miso and yogurt are kid-friendly and not too tricky to introduce. Some children may not love the strong flavors of sauerkraut or kimchi, but they are worth a try and often even become favorites. Remember, repetition is key to having your child eat new foods.
Limit processed foods
The diet found to be the worst for our microbiome is the Standard American Diet (SAD). The average SAD diet is composed of high sugar and/or processed foods with very little fresh fruits and vegetables. In fact, a research study done on mice found that the SAD diet killed off much of their beneficial intestinal flora, allowing their harmful bacteria to flourish! Focus instead on having your family eat fresh fruits and vegetables, complex carbohydrates (prebiotics!) and organic, antibiotic free proteins. The Mediterranean diet, in particular, has been found in research to be the best eating plan for our gut flora.
Stop with the sterilizing
As parents, it can be tempting to constantly use hand sanitizer and other sterilizing products, like bleach, around the house to make sure our child does not get sick. These cleaners however end up killing off our good flora, leaving more room at the end of the day for the not-so-healthy flora to flourish. Use of these products has also been linked to increased allergies and asthma in children. Instead, wash hands with soap and warm water and use regular old vinegar with water as a home cleaning product.
Support mindfulness and meditation
This one seems obvious as a direct way to help an anxious child but it may be interesting for you to know that mindfulness and meditation can also positively affect our gut health and microbiome. Mindfulness and meditation help to reduce inflammation in the gut, making a happier home for our flora and helping us to digest our food better. Meditation also help increase the production of GABA, which as previously mentioned, is made in part by gut flora. Guided meditations and yoga practices are a wonderful way to help children calm their minds and bodies but encouraging them to create their own quiet time is also important. There are many helpful apps, such as Insight Timer or Calm, that will have guided meditations for kids as one of their offerings. Incorporating this into their day every day is therefore good for their mental, emotional and digestive health.
Let them play in the mud
Studies have found that dirt contains a microscopic bacterium called Mycobacterium Vaccae that helps improve mood and cognition. Mud or dirt play also comes with the added benefit of fresh air and sunshine, creating a stress-free and therapeutic experience for your child.
Small changes make the biggest impact
It may seem over-simplified that changing your chid’s diet and incorporating some easy lifestyle changes can profoundly affect their mental health, but you will be surprised at how effective these changes can be. Once scientific research has a better understanding of the influence of the microbiome, we will hopefully see a complete shift in our approach to treating anxiety and other mental health conditions.
More anxiety help:
Here at Naturopathic Pediatrics we have several more articles about pediatric anxiety. However, we always recommend finding a good naturopathic physician to manage care. (You can find one at the Pediatric Association of Naturopathic Physicians