Depression is when everything feels too hard. It is more than a bad day. For a child or teen with a mood disorder, life feels overwhelming and hard. Nothing feels quite right and you forgot what it feels like to feel happy and joyous.
Depression takes over a person’s life like a thief in the night. No one notices that little acts of self-neglect, giving up comforts, feeling bad and shameful, negative thinking, and stressing oneself to a breaking point. It can especially be hard to see the signs and symptoms of mood disorders in kids and teens because they can “appear” pretty darn functional.
Until one day there is a crisis. They may have found themselves unable to move forward, tired, and feeling hopeless and stuck. Maybe you see signs of school anxiety and then bam they start refusing to go to school.
Depression can look very different in kids than it does for adults. Often parents are “surprised” when their child reports feeling hopeless, sad, or even so depressed they may have suicidal thoughts.
For some, you might lose the will to get out of bed in the morning. These are the kids that can’t get out of bed and have withdrawn from the family and maybe even friends. You may notice a drop in grades and general apathy about life.
Others may struggle with fatigue but manage to drag themselves throughout the day. Even when you sleep, they don’t feel rested. Depression is when everything feels too hard. When you feel so out of steam that events and places you previously enjoyed no longer offer the same joy, so your child may not smile and laugh anymore.
These behaviors usually creep in and don’t happen overnight, so they can be very easily missed or explained away by a developmental stage.
Others may feel ramped up and agitated and their behavior reflects that. Everyone gets on your kid’s nerves (and no this isn’t typical teen behavior!). People walk on eggshells around your kid. These kids can especially be hard to parent because they are so angry.
Depression is often described as a chemical imbalance. The exact cause of depression is a far more complex phenomenon that goes beyond simply having too much or too little of certain brain chemicals.
Instead, there are numerous contributing factors to depression, including faulty mood regulation by the brain, genetic vulnerability, and stressful life events. Where these factors interact, the brain is stressed to a breaking point, and depression happens.
Brain chemicals are indeed involved in this process. Millions, even billions, of chemical reactions make up the dynamic system in charge of your mood, perceptions, and how you experience life.
With this level of complexity, you can see how two people may share similar symptoms of depression. Still, the trouble on the inside and the recommended treatment may be entirely different.
Through years of study and exchange of information, scientists have learned so much about the biology of depression, but so much work is left to do.
Biological breakthroughs include discovering links between specific parts of the brain and the effects of depression — finding out how chemicals called neurotransmitters foster communications between brain cells, and learning the impact of genetics and lifestyle events on risk and symptoms of depression.
Diet and Emotional Well-being
Diet is an essential component of mental health. The food we eat matters for every aspect of our health, especially our mental health. The nutrients you feed your brain, logically helps it work better.
One study found that a diet of mostly fruit, vegetables, whole grain, fish, olive oil, low-fat dairy, antioxidants, and minimal animal foods was associated with a decreased risk of depression. AN anti-inflammatory diet has been clinically proven to reduce anxiety and depression and increase focus.
Even kids who have severe mood issues related to PANS/PANDAS can benefit from nutrient dense diets. Complex mental health issues such as major depressive disorder have been found to be related to inflammation (Firth et. al, 2019). What you eat affects the brain and randomized controlled clinical trials show that dietary interventions improve symptoms of depression.
In contrast, a diet high in refined grains, sugar and sweets, fatty dairy, and low in fruits and vegetables is associated with an increased risk of depression. The Standard American Diet (SAD) diet has long been associated with a variety of mental health, attentional, cognitive and behavioral issues.
There are a variety of reasons why kids and teens don’t get enough nutrients. Sometimes, they lack exposure to proper nutrition and other times sensory issues get in the way. Whatever the reason, starting with small changes such as healthy swap outs and adding in supplements is where to start.
Supplements and Depression
Lifestyle changes, moderating stress and proper nutrition are the best natural treatments for depression. Having a calm, regulated brain is the foundation of good mental health. It protects children from clinical issues such as mood disorders, anxiety, and OCD.
Teaching kids and teens to incorporate healthy lifestyle components in their life is all about good self-care. That means prioritizing sleep, physical activity, and proper nutrition, and is just as important as meds and therapy — sometimes more so.
A brain nourishing diet includes Magnesium, Zinc, Omega-3, Calcium, B Vitamins, and Vitamins C, E, D, K and other nutrients that come from a nutrient-dense diet.
A diet composed of fruits and vegetables, gluten-free carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats gives the brain and body what it needs. Of course, it is best to get vitamins and minerals through our food but that isn’t always easy with our kids. Supplements can fill the gaps.
Here are seven incredible nutrients that support mental health. They even exhibit potential benefits for treatment-resistant depression and major depression.
Serotonin is a brain chemical that transports messages between nerve cells in the brain and throughout the human body. It possesses an important role in multiple bodily functions, including mood, temperature, appetite, bone health, sleep, digestion, wound healing, blood clotting, nausea, sexual desire, and pain relief.
It is also known as 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT). The neurotransmitter serotonin should be kept at ideal levels in order to support mood, attention, and sleep. Low serotonin levels or serotonin imbalances can lead to mental health issues such as depression and ADHD..
The supplement 5-HTP is a compound that gets converted into serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is noted as a feel good brain chemical because it is tied to happy emotions. Adding the supplement 5-HTP to your regimen is an effective way to up brain serotonin levels.
Effects of 5-HTP on the Brain
The supplement 5-HTP may positively affect anxiety, appetite, mood, sleep, and reduce pain sensation. 5-HTP is not present in the food we consume, although the amino acid tryptophan is found in food, which 5-HTP is produced from.
5-htp supplements are often used to help alleviate depression symptoms. The supplement has been used successfully to stimulate serotonin production and restore serotonin levels in those experiencing low levels. This can occur in individuals struggling with depression or who have high levels of body inflammation.
5-htp supplements can be taken in powder or capsule form. It is also present in combination mood support supplements. A typical adult dose of 5-HTP ranges from 300-500 mg, taken either once daily or in divided doses. Lower doses may be as effective when paired with other dietary supplements. Consult a healthcare provider for proper dosage and if it is the right supplement for your needs.
5-HTP is ideally taken at meal times as it makes you feel full after a meal. It should not be taken with other neurological drugs categorized as antidepressants unless cleared by a medical doctor. Higher doses of 5-HTP taken with certain medications can have adverse effects.
Serotonin syndrome can happen when you increase the dose of certain medications or start taking a new drug. This often stems from a combination of 5-HTP and other serotonin medications, such as migraine medications and antidepressants.
L-Theanine is an amino acid supplement that helps the brain in many ways. Throughout Asian countries, it is popular for treating anxiety and supporting mood. L-Theanine possesses many essential properties and increases Alpha brainwave activity which helps calm the brain naturally!
Theanine is an amino acid abundant in green tea, black tea, and some mushrooms. It comes in two forms: L-theanine and D-theanine, with L-theanine as the more available form.
While Theanine is not naturally occurring in the body, it shares similarities with glutamate and sometimes acts like glutamate in the body. Glutamate is a naturally occurring amino acid that helps transmit nerve impulses in the brain. Theanine might also affect the brain chemicals GABA, dopamine, and serotonin.
L-theanine boasts a spectrum of health benefits, including enhanced mental focus and better sleep. People rely on L-theanine to improve mental function and relieve symptoms of anxiety, cognitive impairment, stress, and medical condition.
L-theanine increases the amounts of the brain chemicals, serotonin and dopamine, in the brain, which influences mood, sleep, emotion, and cortisol, and helps the body regulate stress. These are all neurotransmitters in the brain that help it function. A shift in the balance of these brain chemicals can positively influence a person’s mood and make a person feel more comfortable in their body, as well as reduce intrusive thoughts.
Animal testing and several independent small studies have shown L-theanine to be safe. It is a popular mood and stress support supplement for kids and adults because it is well tolerated.
Theanine possesses numerous mental and physical health benefits, including:
- Better mental focus
- Improved sleep quality
- Increased cognitive performance
- Weight loss
- Boosting the immune system
- Reducing blood pressure
- Supporting certain cancer drugs
- Antidepressant effects
Ginseng is a powerful herb that boosts energy levels, revitalizes brain function, and enhances memory. Ginseng also stimulates other cognitive areas, including attention, sensory-motor function, and auditory response time.
Ginseng tea is a sought-after Asian refreshment associated with good health and high status. YGinseng is an essential perennial herb in 5,000-year-old Traditional Chinese Medicine. One can also enjoy ginseng in herbal tinctures, capsules, and even tablets.
Ginseng supports the central nervous system in numerous cognitive processing factors. It can help a person combat those low energy levels and brain fog that often come with depression and long-term anxiety. It is a natural anti-anxiety medication that regulates blood sugar and cholesterol levels.
The Ginsenosides in ginseng help reduce depressive feelings by increasing dopamine and norepinephrine concentrations in the cerebral cortex. Regularly drinking ginseng extract may result in positive growth in the neurodevelopment of an immature brain.
Further scientific studies reveal Ginseng extracts can have positive effects on brain function. It effectively enhances alertness, attention, sensory-motor function, and auditory reaction time. It is often a component in formulations that support attention and cognitive function.
Various evidence and clinical trials suggest ginseng components possess neuroprotective properties that regulate inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsive behaviors.
GABA or Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid can produce a positive effect on depression that stems from anxiety. GABA calms the brain by blocking specific signals in the central nervous system. It helps to cut overstimulating brain chemicals that are associated with a busy, worried mind.
GABA is a non-protein amino acid neurotransmitter. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that transport signals from one nerve cell to another in your brain.
Between each nerve cell is a small fluid-filled space called a synapse. Neurotransmitters must deliver their message across this synapse and then land on and bind to specific receptors on the next nerve cell.
GABA is known for its calming effect. This inhibitory neurotransmitter lessens a nerve cell’s potential to receive, create or send chemical messages to other nerve cells.
It is excellent for stress reduction and can be consumed in capsule or powder form. It helps regulate nerve cell hyperactivity associated with anxiety, stress, and fear by inhibiting the neurotransmitter glutamate. GABA levels also positively influence sleep disorders, panic attacks, agitation, and autism.
By calming the brain, GABA offers the following benefits:
- Reduce stress
- Relieve anxiety
- Improve sleep
GABA can be a powerful way to support depression, anxiety, OCD and insomnia. Optimal levels of GABA lower agitation, irritability, anxiety, and even panic attacks.
Numerous medical conditions are associated with varying levels of GABA. This is why many medications target the GABA receptor. Some forms of depression can stem from anxiety, so looking into GABA deficiencies may help individuals struggling with depression.
Decreased GABA activity may contribute to:
- Anxiety and mood disorder
- Autism spectrum disorder
- Epilepsy, seizures
Other medical conditions associated with GABA imbalance include:
- Dystonia and spasticity
- Hepatic encephalopathy
- Huntington disease
- Hypersomnia (excess daytime sleepiness)
- Pyridoxine deficiency
- Other mental health conditions
Numerous prescription medications have been developed that act on the GABA receptors. These include Benzodiazepines, which are highly addictive. This class of drugs includes diazepam (Valium®) and alprazolam (Xanax®), among others.
However, GABA is available as a natural dietary supplement. It is also present in foods.
- Fermented foods, including kimchi, miso, and tempeh
- Green, black, and oolong tea
- Brown rice
- Adzuki beans
- Brussels sprouts
- Sprouted grains
- Sweet potatoes
Magnesium is a vital brain and body nutrient that fuels hundreds of activities in the human body. Our brain and body need it so much that everyone can benefit from adding magnesium to their daily routine. Magnesium helps the brain and body in surprising ways.
Magnesium Helps the Brain and Body
- Manage the body’s stress response
- Aids proper nervous system function
- Supports energy production and glucose metabolism
- Foster cognitive function, attention, and healthy social behavior.
- Synthesize glutathione, an important antioxidant
As different organs in the body demand Magnesium and it is needed at a higher level when under stress, the nutrient is bound to be depleted. Due to a culture of stress and fast food, most Americans are not getting the minimum daily requirement for this vital mineral.
Falling short of magnesium negatively impacts proper brain and body function. It increases feelings of stress which may lead to depression and other cognitive problems such as anxiety, racing heart rate, shortness of breath, and even heart attack. Those with low magnesium levels often feel tired because they have poor sleep quality.
Proper sleep is essential for mental health, attention and cognitive functioning. Supplementing with magnesium effectively lowers stress hormones, promotes better sleep, provides sustainable energy, and soothes the nerves. This fosters optimal mental health and diminishes feelings of depression and anxiety.
Magnesium is also among the safest supplements for stress regulation. It acts so fast in the body that most people feel calmer from day one. There are capsules, bath salts and powders. Powders are my favorite form because they are more bioavailable. Magnesium should be adjusted up slowly and taken to bowel tolerance.
Probiotics are a type of microorganism that fosters a balance of good bacteria in the body. They are found in food, drinks, and supplements that help the gut, including yogurt, fermented foods such as sauerkraut, and dietary supplements.
Probiotics have been around for a long time and are considered safe dietary supplements. There are many types of probiotic strains that support everything from mood, focus, detoxification, metabolism and so on.
Of the many different probiotics, the most popular types include Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Each probiotic has a different effect, and diversifying probiotics in your gut is the best way to fight illness, cultivate a healthy microbiome, and support cognitive functioning and mental health.
Having healthy probiotics in your gut helps reduce depression because neurotransmitters are formed in the gut. There is a gut-brain connection, so maintaining a healthy flora balance or microbiome is essential for sound physical and mental health. 95% of serotonin is exclusively formed in the gut and healthy gut flora is the foundation for its growth.
Poor Gut Health Can Lead To:
- Autoimmune problems
- thyroid issues
- rheumatoid arthritis
- type 1 diabetes
- Digestive issues
- irritable bowel syndrome
- Sleeping problems
- Sugar cravings
- Brain fog, focus problems
- Anxiety and depression
The body and brain are connected. Just like stress in the brain can impact your gut, a reduction of healthy gut bacteria can affect the electrical activity in the brain. The health of our gut can have a significant impact on our mental health. There is a synergistic relationship and the two communicate through the vagus nerve.
How to Naturally Improve Gut Health:
- Take in more whole grains, nuts, vegetables, beans, and fresh fruits
- Enjoy fermented foods that have beneficial bacteria
- Consume more dark chocolate and foods with polyphenols
- Blend in the spices
- Cut on artificial sweeteners
- Add probiotics to your diet
By adding probiotics to your diet, one can balance the bacteria in your gut, so your digestive system can function seamlessly. Your intestines hold trillions of healthy bacteria. Probiotics supply these beneficial strains of bacteria and yeasts that are healthful for your digestive system and brain.
Without a properly functioning gut digestive issues can result and it can lead to a leaky gut. When kids have a leaky gut, that means their brain isn’t getting enough protein for them to pay attention and have enough cognitive power to get through a school day. They literally lack the brain nutrients to think and learn. A healthy microbiome is critical for brain health.
Many research and clinical studies, including Lambert (2018), Pärtty (2018), and Pärtty (2020), agree on the many benefits of probiotics, which are not limited to improving immune function and reducing the chance of common illnesses and conditions.
Regular intake of probiotics can positively affect neurotransmitters and brain function, directly impacting mental health and luckily most kids don’t mind taking them. Probiotic supplementation can also reduce symptoms of stress, anxiety disorders, and depression. I recommend taking them before bedtime so they can sit in the gut undisturbed, which means they have more time to populate the microbiome.
#7 Methyl Folate
Methyl Folate is a more bioavailable form of folate or vitamin B9. That means it is better absorbed in the body. Many kids and adults have the genetic mutation, MTHFR, which interferes with how the body and brain use the B vitamins. The B vitamins are critical for nervous system regulation.
The body needs folate for many reasons. The body needs B9 to form DNA and RNA. B9 is involved in protein metabolism and plays a significant part in breaking down homocysteine, an amino acid that can be harmful to the body in high concentrations.
The body also needs folate to manufacture healthy red blood cells, essential during periods of rapid growth, such as pregnancy and fetal development. The body cannot produce folate, so it takes folate from food sources or supplements.
Incorporating rich folate sources such as kale and spinach into your diet is the optimal way to get folate but not all kids are willing to eat their greens. Taking Methyl Folate supplements may be a good alternative and is necessary for those with the common MTHFR genetic mutation.
An essential combination of supplements is vitamins B6 and B12. This vitamin B combination helps produce red blood cells, promote healthy iron levels, and manage homocysteine numbers in the blood. All of these attributes help decrease the risk of heart disease and support cognitive functioning, nervous system regulation and sleep.
People with low levels of Methyl Folate can experience various health concerns, including hormonal issues, fertility problems in women, depression, chronic disease states, and neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism and ADHD. Low levels have been associated with tiredness, digestive issues, and allergies, such as hay fever and eczema.
Taking Methyl Folate supplements can also help people with mood disorders and depression. Methyl Folate is involved in producing and using dopamine, serotonin, noradrenaline, and adrenaline. These neurotransmitters are linked with mood and can affect depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.
It is also essential in the detoxification process and without proper detoxification, toxins back up in the system and lead to inflammation. Brain inflammation has increasingly been tied to a range of neurodevelopmental disorders and mental health conditions. Post-mortem autism studies have found that more than 70% of the brains of those with autism have significant brain inflammation.
If you or a loved one has a mood disorder, especially bi-polar disorder, or a neurodevelopmental disorder such as ADHD or autism, checking for the MTHFR genetic mutation can really help parents get to the root cause.
When you get to the bottom of your child’s issues, you can get the right treatment that cultivates change. It is all about calming the brain and creating happy families and supplements are always part of our care plan in our BrainBehaviorReset™ Program.
Firth, J., Veronese, N., Cotter, J., Shivappa, N., Hebert, J. R., Ee, C., Smith, L., Stubbs, B., Jackson, S. E., & Sarris, J. (2019). What Is the Role of Dietary Inflammation in Severe Mental Illness? A Review of Observational and Experimental Findings. Frontiers in psychiatry, 10, 350. Frontiers
Huang, R., Wang, K., & Hu, J. (2016). Effect of probiotics on depression: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Probiotics: What you need to know. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Retrieved June 13, 2022, from https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/probiotics-what-you-need-to-know
Parletta, N., Milte, C. M., & Meyer, B. J. (2013). Nutritional modulation of cognitive function and mental health. The Journal of nutritional biochemistry, 24(5), 725–743. Science Direct
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