Only 30 years ago, it was thought that children did not experience depression or other mental health issues. We now know that an estimated 4 million children and adolescents in the U.S. suffer from serious mental disorders, and that as many as 21 percent of kids ages 9–17 have a diagnosable addictive or mental disorder that causes impairment.
Mental disorders in children range from depression, anxiety, and attention deficit disorder (ADD), to psychosis and schizophrenia. These conditions may be mild enough to cause only occasional, temporary distress—or severe enough to disrupt and damage lives.
But treating kids for mental disorders is tricky, especially since the effects of medications can vary, and side effects can be severe. If you suspect that your child has a mental disorder, it’s critical to get a good diagnosis from a doctor or health care provider who specializes in pediatric mental health. In severe cases, medication and/or psychotherapy may be required.
However, many mental health conditions in kids, including ADHD, anxiety, and mild depression, can be soothed with natural alternatives. Even if medication is required, supplements and herbs can often enhance the treatment. Be sure to check with your health care provider first, and then consider some of these natural alternatives:
- Subtract the additives. Studies suggest that food additives—including colorings, preservatives, artificial flavors, sugars, and MSG—exacerbate hyperactivity and can worsen symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Gluten, added to many sauces, soups, and other products, may also be a problem. In one study, undiagnosed celiac disease was found to cause a number of issues, including ADHD and behavior disorders. And the artificial sweetener aspartame is broken down in the brain into aspartic acid, which can lead to anxiety and depression and inhibit serotonin production.
- Focus on fat. It’s crucial to brain health, maintaining flexibility of cell membranes to ensure they can better send and receive information. But the type of fat is important. Saturated fat may impact brain plasticity, and has been linked with symptoms of anxiety in some people. Omega-3 fats, however, keep nerve cell membranes flexible, and several studies suggest they help alleviate ADHD-related symptoms and depression. Some studies have also suggested that a deficiency in DHA, a type of omega-3, hampers transmission of serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine, neurotransmitters involved in mood. Wild Alaskan salmon, sardines, walnuts, and flax seeds are good food sources of omega-3s. Or choose a high-quality omega-3 supplement.
- Try herbal cures. Some herbs have been shown in clinical trials to be both safe and effective. In one study of more than 100 kids under the age of 12, St. John’s wort alleviated symptoms of mild to moderate depression. (But because it can interact with other medications, it’s especially important to talk with a doctor before using St. John’s wort.) Valerian has been shown to alleviate anxiety and improve sleep, and studies show that lemon balm combined with valerian can safely treat restlessness and sleep disorders in children. And in another study, passionflower combined with St. John’s wort and valerian significantly lessened depression, anxiety, and sleeplessness.
- Push B vitamins. They’re critical for normal neurological functioning. One study of 6,517 boys and girls ages 12–15 found that higher intake of B vitamins, especially folate and vitamin B6, was associated with a lower prevalence of depression in early adolescence. Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) is a major cofactor in the synthesis of serotonin; vitamin B12 may also form SAM-e (S-adenosylmethionine), a compound linked with mood. Folate is also a factor in forming serotonin, norepinephrine, and SAM-e, and deficiencies of folate have been found in people with depression and anxiety.
- Eat to beat the blues. Protein is key—a shortage can exacerbate anxiety and/or depression. Best sources: turkey, cheese, chicken, fish, beans, and almonds. Magnesium, found in leafy greens, pumpkin seeds, and beans, can ease depression. Zinc helps the brain produce GABA, a compound that combats anxiety and irritability. It’s abundant in oysters and can also be found in crab, turkey, lentils, and yogurt. Vitamin E keeps nerve cell membranes flexible, allowing information to be smoothly transmitted. You’ll find it in sunflower seeds, almonds, and other nuts.
- Teach relaxation. Show kids how to unwind: lie down with your child on the floor and do a simple body scan, imagining each part of the body—from toes to head—melting like an ice cube on a warm sidewalk. Help your child learn to follow her inhales and exhales; this helps her focus on her breath and calms the central nervous system. Start small, with a 5-minute session, and make it a daily ritual—right after school is a perfect time for keyed-up kids who need to unwind.
One study of boys and girls ages 12–15 found that higher intake of B vitamins was associated with a lower prevalence of depression in early adolescence.
Lisa Turner is a certified food psychology coach, nutritional healer, intuitive eating consultant, and author. She has written five books on food and nutrition and developed the Inspired Eats iPhone app. Visit her online at inspiredeating.com.