When Mental Health Problems Are Not All In The Mind – The Nutrition Connection


With mental health problems in British children at an all-time high, many people have realised that these are not always all in the mind, and that the wrong nutrition and poor sleep are contributing to the problem.

In my practice, when I ask children how they are feeling, they often say they are exhausted and very run down, as well as being low, angry or agitated. This is where a healthy diet and proper sleep is fundamental. What is interesting is that research from Cambridge University pioneered by Prof Edward Bullmore has confirmed that inflammation triggered by an unhealthy diet, poor sleep and too much stress, is the most likely cause for many cases of mental health problems these days.

But what can you do as parents to help prevent this inflammation?

The Sugar Connection

Too much sugar is part of the picture, and can also have a roller-coaster effect on appetite, sleep and immunity; all of which can affect mood and outlook. Commonly when you ask the kids with mood challenges what they eat, they will report back a sugar-loaded diet full of white carbohydrates, sugary drinks and sweet foods. Again, several research studies have shown that eating too much refined sugar and processed foods contribute to depression and anxiety in people of all ages. Adopting a diet of wholegrains, good quality protein and lots of fruits and vegetables is more nutritious for the brain and also helps to keep sugar cravings at bay.

Running on Empty

Low levels of essential fatty acids and vitamin and mineral deficiencies are also common in the UK, and typically kids with mental health challenges are low in omega 3, zinc, magnesium, iron and the B vitamins. This is partly because white carbohydrates and sugary foods tend not to contain many of these key nutrients, as the food processing can strip the food of important vitamins and minerals.

These processed foods can also actually deplete bodily nutrient reserves. This is because when the nutrients needed to metabolise the food are not naturally contained within the food, these need to be found from somewhere else instead, and the first port of call are our vitamin and mineral stores. You can see how gradually the reserves can get depleted.

Luckily reserves build up quite quickly and this is why when you start to give kids more foods containing protein, healthy fats, fruits and vegetables full of the key building blocks to health, there can be quite a dramatic change in sleep patterns and mood as they are not running on empty anymore.

Lack of Sunshine

Vitamin D deficiency is also a major problem in the UK, and when a child is low in vitamin D the immune system and mood may well be compromised. A vitamin D deficiency has been linked to childhood depression, as well as OCD. The best way to synthesise vitamin D is through the sun, and since sunshine is rare during several months of the year in the UK, many children need more support to keep them healthy. This is why the government have suggested that we all supplement between October and March. Dietary sources include oily fish, eggs and organic milk and the herbs rosemary and sage help the uptake of vitamin D so use these in your cooking as much as possible.

Sleep Deprived

Kids going to sleep too late and waking up too early means that they can get chronically tired. Children can often hide the signs of tiredness and it often manifests in hyper behaviour, poor concentration and negative actions. As adults we are acutely aware that sleep deprivation is the number one trigger for brain fog and low mood.

Even losing half an hour’s sleep every night can impact on mood and school performance. Children that struggle with their sleep and cannot be helped by simple changes to the routine should look at getting help from a sleep expert to establish if there is any underlying cause of their wakefulness. Good ways to help kids wind down is a nice long warm bath with some relaxing Epsom salts. Turning off all screens 90 minutes before bedtime can also help.

It would be wonderful if better nutrition and sleep patterns could be looked at when assessing a child who is struggling with their mental health. If we can get this right, then it may mean less need for medication and other services. It could make a difference to them as they are growing up and may well help to prevent the problems digging in deeper when they are adults. Young minds matter!!

Lucinda Miller

Lucinda is a Naturopath, Iridologist, Herbalist & Functional Medicine Practitioner. She runs NatureDoc, a UK-wide team of Nutritional Therapists and Naturopaths specialising in women’s and child health, as well as an online shop with a hand-picked collection of specialist food supplements, health foods and organic skincare.

Lucinda has also just written a new healthy family cook book, The Good Stuff. It sounds obvious that we should give our children a healthy diet, but why is this so important? With so many conflicting messages in the press, parents are left confused with what to feed their kids. So, with over 20 years of clinical experience and almost as many as a mum of three, Lucinda helps to set the record straight, sharing over 100 easy and delicious recipes as well as her top tips to keep your family healthy, happy and well.

Lucinda’s recipes are based on classic nursery cooking with a modern healthy twist – often with additional fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, healthy oils and wholegrains – all using ingredients you can easily add to your normal supermarket shop. Every recipe focuses on nourishment and yumminess, and are so easy to make that even your kids can join in too. Lucinda has included lots of easy and healthy lunch box and snack ideas, as this is where parents tend to struggle the most. Where possible, the recipes have clever swaps to enable you to make them free of the most common food allergens, because so many kids have allergies and food intolerances these days.

References for further reading:

Sugar intake from sweet food and beverages, common mental disorder and depression: prospective findings from the Whitehall II study

Emulsified omega-3 fatty-acids modulate the symptoms of depressive disorder in children and adolescents: a pilot study

Zinc, Magnesium, Selenium and Depression: A Review of the Evidence, Potential Mechanisms and Implications

Iron supplementation in infancy contributes to more adaptive behavior at 10 years of age.

Dietary folate, riboflavin, vitamin B-6, and vitamin B-12 and depressive symptoms in early adolescence: the Ryukyus Child Health Study.

Vitamin B12, folic acid, homocysteine and vitamin D levels in children and adolescents with obsessive compulsive disorder. 

Vitamin D and mental health in children and adolescents. 

Associations of child insomnia, sleep movement, and their persistence with mental health symptoms in childhood and adolescence.

Fruit bowls Photo by Melissa Belanger on Unsplash