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Building happy, healthy brains

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Building happy, healthy brains

In the new reality introduced by the COVID-19 pandemic, kids may be showing signs of worry and stress. It could be a natural reaction to concern demonstrated by adults, or because of news coverage and ongoing discussion about the virus. How can we help alleviate childhood anxiety and fears during this challenging time, and in general?

Occasional anxiety is normal

When we’re anxious or stressed, our body’s sympathetic nervous system kicks in, priming the body to respond to stressful events in what we otherwise know as the “fight-or-flight” response.

The stress hormone cortisol is released from the adrenal glands, causing the heart to speed up and glucose to move to skeletal muscles and the brain. This is a good thing, short term. But when stress becomes chronic, this can be harmful to long-term health, promoting high blood sugar, high blood pressure, and inflammation. It can also be damaging to mental health, potentially causing insomnia; altered appetite; and impaired mood, thinking, and reasoning.

Setting kids up for success with omega-3s

One of the crucial components in a child’s growth and development, omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in early brain development, affecting learning, memory, mood, and behaviour. The three main omega-3s are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

DHA, an important component of the membrane that surrounds brain cells called neurons, is particularly critical for healthy brain development and function. DHA accumulates in the fetal brain from the last trimester of pregnancy to about two years of age. This critical period of infant brain development lays the groundwork for a lifetime of complex brain processes, including learning and memory, mood and emotions, and stress-coping.

Studies show that the brain volume achieved at the end of the first year of life plays a major role in later intelligence, and higher DHA levels during infancy are linked to improved measures of intelligence in preschoolers. So, adequate levels of intake are important to set a solid foundation for cognitive milestones.

Omega-3s for optimal mental health

Low omega-3 levels may be linked to mood disorders, including anxiety and depression. Omega-3 supplements may have a positive effect on mood, whether used alone or as an adjunct to medication, and also have anti-anxiety effects in some.

Psychological stressors can cause neuro-inflammation, a risk factor for mental health conditions, like depression, and neurological diseases in later life, including dementia. Omega-3s may act as an effective anti-inflammatory in the brain, aiding resilience against stress and helping to fight anxiety.

Your child’s anti-stress toolkit

Stress and worry, especially in a child, is multi-faceted; the approach needs to be as well. Along with open and appropriate communication, lifestyle modalities that can offer great benefit include yoga, mindfulness, and breath work.

In addition to adequate amounts of dietary omega-3s and a daily children’s multivitamin, there are other nutrients that may be beneficial for addressing childhood stress. These include

  • magnesium
  • B-complex vitamin
  • probiotics

Adequate intakes of omega-3s

Although adequate intakes (AIs) are not yet known for the individual fatty acids EPA and DHA, the US National Academy of Medicine has established AIs for total omega-3s in the first year of life (usually obtained through breast milk), as well as AIs for ALA for older children. The human body can make some DHA and EPA from ALA, but not a lot; foods or supplements containing EPA and DHA are your best options.

Age Adequate daily intake
Up to 12 months 0.5 g total omega-3s
1 to 3 years 0.7 g ALA
4 to 8 years 0.9 g ALA
9 to 13 years, females 1.0 g ALA
9 to 13 years, males 1.2 g ALA
14 to 18 years, females 1.1 g ALA
14 to 18 years, males 1.6 g ALA
19 to 50 years, females 1.1 g ALA
19 to 50 years, pregnancy 1.4 g ALA
19 to 50 years, lactation 1.3 g ALA

The best omega-3 foods

Omega 3s can be consumed through diet or supplements during pregnancy and lactation to feed the growing fetus and infant as well through childhood development and on into adulthood.

Fish-based

  • wild salmon
  • black cod (aka sablefish)
  • halibut
  • trout
  • anchovy
  • sardine
  • mackerel
  • herring

Plant-based

  • hemp hearts; hempseed oil
  • chia seeds; chia seed oil
  • flaxseeds; flaxseed oil
  • walnuts; walnut oil
  • pumpkin seeds; pumpkin seed butter)
  • natto

Orsha Magyar, MSc, CHN, is a neuroscientist certified in holistic nutrition and founder/CEO of NeuroTrition and NeuroTrition KIDS (neurotrition.ca).

This article was originally published in the August 2020 issue of alive Canada, under the title “Building happy, healthy brains.”

 

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