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Mental Health in Children:
Nutrition as a Common Sense Alternative to Medications and Labels
By Scott M. Shannon, MD
The American medical profession has rejected and avoided the science of nutrition for over a century. Most American physicians ignore well-proven nutritional interventions in spite of solid science, low cost, good safety and exploding patient demand. Our doctors dismiss the value of nutrition without understanding or exploring the information. The pattern is set in medical school where minimal time is devoted to this topic. Sadly, nowhere is this anti-nutrition mindset more obvious than in the specialty of psychiatry.
The brain forms the obvious foundation for the importance of nutrition in mental health or illness. The process of brain growth transforms a few embryonic cells into the most complex system in the known universe. At one point in the first trimester over 250,000 neurons are being created per minute. This extraordinary process does not stop at birth: the human brain quadruples in weight after delivery. The child’s brain is much more complex than our adult brain with twice the number of neurons and much more rapid synaptic growth and interconnection.
This enormous neurological development has vast metabolic and nutritional demands. If the child’s diet does not supply the needed nutrients (omega-3 essential fatty acids, magnesium, b-vitamins, amino acids, folate, etc) than the child’s brain will be handicapped and prone to dysfunction and psychiatric symptoms.
Sadly, the American diet continues to deteriorate. Over two thirds of our kids fail to meet the dietary recommendations for one or more nutrient. Only 1% of Americans eat according the food pyramid guidelines. Fully 65% of our calories now come from sugar and fat. Our intake of magnesium has fallen dramatically in the last century. Also because of feedlots, fast foods and hydrogenated oils our ratio of omega-3 oils to omega-6 oils has deteriorated from 1:1 to 1:20 in the last 150 years. Most Americans are deficient is this key neurological building block. American breast milk has the lowest levels of DHA (an omega-3 EFA) in the developed world. Our children must have DHA and other omega-3 nutrients to build a functioning brain. A starving brain is a symptomatic brain.
We have witnessed an explosion of child psychiatric illness in the last 30 years. For example, a 2007 study found that the rate of diagnosis of pediatric bipolar disorder (one of the most severe and difficult to treat problems in childhood) increased by 40 FOLD in the last 10 years. Adult illness in the same study did not even double. I believe one reason for this epidemic is nutritional deficiency. There are obviously many different problems created by a wide variety of nutritional issues. Each child is different. Only recently with advanced genetic science have we come to realize how different and unique we are in our individual biochemistry. Scientist have long known that the need for vitamins and nutrients vary widely from person to person. The requirement for a single nutrient can range from 10 to 1 or even 100 to 1 from person to person.
Recently the number of nutritional compounds found to be effective or helpful in psychiatric disorders has dramatically risen. Folate, B-6 and SAMe have proven value in treating major depression. Chromium has good evidence for improving atypical depression. A number of studies document the value of magnesium in mood disorders and its shows great similarity to the mineral lithium in its effects upon neurons. A 2006 study found that 7/10 children with major depression got better with omega-3 oils versus 0/10 with a placebo. Suddenly, we have scientific proof that nutrition helps to heal psychiatric disorders.
Psychiatric medications are the preferred tools in child psychiatry. Unfortunately, the evidence that this approach is safe or effective is clearly inadequate. Most parents have real caution about medicating their child’s growing brain. The vast majority of parents that I speak to across the US are ecstatic about safe and natural approaches for childhood mental health issues like attention, depression, anxiety and aggression.
My approach provides a foundation of healthy diet, lifestyle adjustments and proven supplements before we consider medications. I am not anti-medication; rather I believe that we must offer safer and more natural options for adjusting biochemistry before considering powerful pharmaceuticals. Beyond that, doesn’t it make more sense to correct biochemistry before we medicate the developing brain? Common sense tells me that the nutritional approach to psychiatric signs and symptoms in children makes the most sense as a first step.
As I mentioned, in recent years we have witnessed an explosion of children and teens labeled with bipolar disorder. These kids are aggressive, violent and out of control. Our current medications are not very effective. A growing number of psychiatrists around the country have been using a vitamin/mineral product to effectively treat this disorder. A well-known Harvard child psychiatrist, Charles Popper, MD in 2001, popularized this approach. He published a report in a psychiatric journal about his experience: he treated a 10 year old boy with severe bipolar with this natural product and the boy was completely symptom free within 5 days. Three other published studies on this product have followed and a large randomized controlled trial is underway right now.
This raises a profound question: If vitamins and minerals can completely eliminate the signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder in children, are these symptoms of an true illness or of a nutritional deficiency syndrome such as scurvy or pellagra?
In my book, Please Don’t Label My Child, I outline my perspective for promoting solid mental health and preventing psychiatric issues. This is a book both for healthy kids and for kids with obvious issues. Besides my strong emphasis on nutrition I also address school issues, family issues, our environment, everyday trauma, parent-child fit, key relationships and other crucial topics forgotten by most psychiatrists. This book will help all parents keep their kids whole and healthy. Beyond this, my approach will help parents to uncover the magical potential that lies within each child.
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