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Natural solutions for worried kids and anxious teens

By Corrin Ainley
Naturopath ND, Nutritionist, Body Talk Practitioner

As a parent it can be heartbreaking to see your child or teen struggling with anxiety.  In this article I share some effective and natural treatment options.

Did you know?
Teenagers and young adults are facing an epidemic of anxiety. From bullying to exam pressure, children can feel anxious at school which can leave them struggling both academically and socially.

25% of American 13 to 18-year-olds suffer from anxiety and in Australia, 15.4% of 16 to 24 years old’s have experienced an anxiety disorder in the previous 12 months*. 

Anxiety disorders were the second most common disorders among  4-11 year old children (6.9%), and the most common among girls (6.1%).

As parents it’s concerning that anxiety leads to other issues, such as lack of confidence, eating disorders or poor performance at school.  At the same time, childhood is an opportune time for intervention, and there are many natural treatment options.

This really hits home for me, because I was a very sensitive and anxious child myself. Feeling nervous affected my ability to have fun and feel safe. Many years later I explored different alternative and natural interventions for anxiety, and this sparked my passion to become a natural healthcare practitioner.

And what have I discovered to be the most helpful and successful natural options? 

Although the causes of anxiety are unique to each child, there are many common factors that can stress or calm an anxious brain.

Food for a healthy mood
Healthy nutrition is, of course, the key to a healthy mind. You may have noticed your child is more agitated, emotional and reactive with sugary foods, red colouring or when their energy slumps because they haven’t eaten. Here are the top foods to include, and the most harmful foods to avoid to support emotional well-being.

The Goodies

The Baddies

Rainbow of fruits and vegetables.  Each day include brightly coloured plants Red (raspberries, red capsicum, strawberries, tomato)Yellow/orange (melon, pumpkin, carrot, mango) Green (spinach, avocado, broccoli, cucumber) Purple (grapes, blackberries, blueberries, eggplant)

Healthy fats, omega-3 essential fatty acids  include;
grass-fed meat and low-mercury fish, extra
virgin coconut oil, olive oil, nuts and seeds –
nut butters, walnuts, chia seeds 

Fermented foods – kefir, fermented veggies,
organic yoghurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, or take a probiotic supplement
 

 Artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners include saccharine, sucralose, and aspartame, among others. They’re commonly known by their brand names, Splenda, Sweet’N Low, and Equal.  Look for natural flavours and sweeteners – many healthier snack options are in the health food section of supermarkets.

Artificial colours. If an ingredient starts with an E and a number, it’s artificial and can cause more hyperactivity and stress. MSG is particularly harmful artificial flavourings that may trigger anxiety.

Allergens.  You may want to check food allergies and sensitivities. Some common allergens include gluten, dairy, eggs, soy, peanuts and tree nuts.  In the clinic I use comprehensive food allergy testing. This tests 96 foods to show which foods you child is reacting to.

The Gut-Brain Connection
Gut health is often overlooked when it comes to emotional well-being – after all, the gut is nowhere near the brain! But it may surprise you that the gut, referred to as our “second brain”, plays a large role in producing brain chemicals and communicating to our head brain.  

Intestinal permeability (leaky gut), food intolerances, coeliac disease, bacterial over-growths or under-growths, parasites and candida infections can all interfere with digestion and absorption of essential nutrients needed for emotional well-being.

If your child is complaining of a sore tummy, has chronic constipation or watery stools, this is an area you can investigate with a comprehensive stool test or food allergy testing.

Mind-Body Medicine
Mind-Body Medicine may be one of the most effective tools to help our kids. These techniques help to stimulate the parasympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system. This is the section of the nervous system predominant during rest and gives us a greater sense of well-being, happiness, and our white blood cell’s abilities to fight infection. There are a few types of mind-body techniques, and here are some great resources -
 A Good Night Sleep
Sleep is critical for our brain to process recent emotional experiences. Sleep even affects how emotionally reactive we are the next day!  If your child struggles with sleep, here are some natural ways to help:
  • Add a few drops of lavender essential oil on their pillow.
  • Take an Epsom salt bath.  Bath salts are a naturally occurring compound of minerals made up of magnesium and sulphate. Magnesium is absorbed through the skin, providing a calming effect on the muscles and nervous system.  Add 1-2 cups of Epsom salts to the bath. Soak for 15-20 minutes.
  • Increase magnesium rich foods.See a practitioner who can formulate a herbal sleep remedy specific to your child. 
Calming herbs
There are gentle and safe herbal medicines suitable for kids – these plant medicines can help soothe anxiety, improve sleep, reduce stress, and restore an overwhelmed nervous system.

Tinctures are liquid extractions of herbs that are given in drop doses or full droppers of liquid. Herbal combinations for kids can include chamomile, valerian, passionflower, oats, skullcap lemon balm and St. John’s Wort.  They can be added to tea with honey, coconut water or juice. It is important to have a prescribed formulation suitable to your child’s symptoms, age and weight

Magnesium
Magnesium is a mineral commonly deficient in children and adults. This vital mineral is a natural N-methyl-D-asparate (NMDA) antagonist and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) agonist, this calms the brain, as well as facilitating sleep.  Therefore deficiencies can increase agitation, anxiety, irritability, hyperactivity, attention and aggression problems in children.  

Children can be more susceptible to magnesium deficiency if they are picky eaters, the diet in high in processed foods, during rapid growth and mineral depleted soil.


Signs and symptoms that show kids may need extra magnesium:
  • Twitching muscles, muscle tension, spasms, leg cramps or growing pains 
  • Excessive worry, anxiety, irritability and panic attacks 
  • Restlessness and difficulty sleeping
  • Difficulty maintaining attention, hyper-excitability and hyper-activity
  • Teeth grinding
  • Sensitivity to noise
  • Muscular weakness and lethargy
  • Constipation

How to increase magnesium
Magnesium can be taken as a supplement, an Epsom salt bath, and add more magnesium rich foods to your child’s diet. The highest sources are from seeds, nuts, green vegetables, wholegrains and legumes. Pumpkin seeds which are particularly rich in magnesium.  An easy way to sneak them in, is by blending them into a fine powder and add it to smoothies, spaghetti sauce or baking.

Making the best decision
It is important that you feel confident in the treatment approach you choose. If you ready for a review of your current treatment plan, you want to further investigate with lab testing, or you'd like a consultation for your child, I'm here to help.

Corrin Ainley
 
Naturopath ND, Nutritionist, Body Talk Practitioner


References
Australian Bureau of Statistics: National survey of mental health and wellbeing, summary of results, 2007. http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Latestproducts/4326.0Main%20Features32007 Lawrence D, Johnson S, Hafekost J, et al. The mental health of children and adolescents. Report on the second Australian child and adolescent survey of mental Health and Wellbeing. August 2015. [Full text]
American Psychological Association. Stress in America: Generation Z. Stress in AmericaTM Survey. 018, www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2018/stress-gen-z.pdf
Fiebich BL, Knörle R, Appel K, et al. Pharmacological studies in an herbal drug combination of St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum) and passion flower (Passiflora incarnata): in vitro and in vivoevidence of synergy between Hypericum and Passiflora in antidepressant pharmacological models. Fitoterapia 2011;82(3):474-480. [Abstract]
Weeks B. Formulations of dietary supplements and herbal extracts for relaxation and anxiolytic action: Relarian. Med Sci Monit 2009;15(11):RA256-RA262. [Abstract]
Becker A, Felgentreff F, Schröder H, et al. The anxiolytic effects of a Valerian extract is based on valerenic acid. BMC Complement Altern Med 2014;14:267. [Full text]
Schwalfenberg GK, Genuis SJ. The importance of magnesium in clinical healthcare. Scientifica 2017:4179326, [Source]
Rogers S. 3 Tips for recognizing magnesium deficiency in your children. Nutritional Magnesium Association. Viewed 7 Feb 2018, [Source]
Johnson S. The multifaceted and widespread pathology of magnesium deficiency. Med Hypotheses 2001;56(2):163-170.[Abstract]

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