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Kids' Brain Health - Anxiety & Depression

Updated: May 2, 2020

There is a lot of talk right now about staying home and staying safe. There are a lot of visuals of people wearing masks and gloves, keeping distance, staying away from each other. Empty streets and roads. Closed shops. All for good reason, no doubt. But what is all this doing to our kids, young ones and older ones? What are they feeling and thinking and not saying aloud?


What are anxiety and depression?

Anxiety is a normal response to stress. It increases our alertness, wakens our fear a bit, forces physiological changes like a rapid heartbeat and increased blood pressure. This is all normal and good preparing us to fight or flee. Until it becomes chronic. Then, it's problematic.

Depression is a mood disorder that causes chronic feelings of sadness, loss, anger, guilt, loss of interest in activities once loved. The biggest problem with depression is that it can lead to suicide, and right now suicide is one of the leading causes of death for kids between 10-19 years of age.

Anxiety and depression are NOT the same disorder, but they often occur together, and are too often missed in kids.

Also, if you think these things are purely tween or teen issues, think again. These brain disorders often have their origins in kids between 2-8 years of age (CDC, 2019).


What causes these disorders?

Before we can get to what causes these disorders, we have to move away from the highly stigmatizing “mental” health descriptor. Depression, anxiety disorders, autism, ADHD, etc., are not merely diseases of the “mind”. There are physiological pathologies in the brain underlying these various disorders. They actually are like heart disease or cancer. And like heart disease and cancer, there are things we can do now to protect ourselves from those pathologies.

It is now believed that inflammation plays a large role in the etiology of brain disorders. Inflammatory mediators have the capability of wiping out glutathione, the brain’s main antioxidant. It also disrupts the communication and signaling patterns across regions of the brain (Amodeo, Trusso, & Fagiolini, 2018). This is problematic as cytokine signaling in the brain regulates many functions such as neurotransmitter metabolism, neuroendocrine (those are your hormones) function and the “neural circuitry of mood” (Salim, Chugh, & Asghar, 2012).

Inflammation is a response from your immune system. This is important to remember.

But, it’s not just about inflammation. There are several other intrinsic and extrinsic factors involved in the complexities of brain disorders. Inflammation is just one area we can influence.


So, what are some symptoms?

Things you need to look out for include:

  • Withdrawal from people or events (even though that’s what we’re being asked to do right now)

  • Irritability, extreme worry (ruminating)

  • Fatigue

  • Disturbed sleep patterns

  • Changes in appetite and/or weight

to name a few...


What can we do?

It seems like the $1,000,000 question with multiple answers. Start with baby steps. The world feels out of control, our lives are suspended, moved to everything being on our various screens, so what can we control?

Simple things like establishing a routine and small rituals around each day, getting enough sleep, getting outside (if possible), near as much nature as possible even if that means a houseplant, taking a break from the screens when possible, too. Especially before bedtime. Exercise. Deep breathing. Sunlight!

This podcast has some great tips. (In fact, Kim John Payne of Simplicity Parenting has many pearls of wisdom on parenting.)

On the food side though, we want to try and not feed inflammation further. Stress and anxiety already cause inflammation (our bodies’ response to protect us) so we need to work with it and let our bodies and brains know that we’re ok, that no imminent threat to our existence is on our heels.

I know you know what I’m going to say next.


Unfortunately, it’s true. Added sugar does nothing for us nutritionally except harm us. Surges of insulin in our blood only help to throw off our metabolism. Ditto for white, refined flours and grains. Now is a great time to start easing off these. Or if you’re more the cold turkey type, go for it! (While you’re at it, it’s also a great idea to start moving off the food colorings, preservatives, hydrogenated fats, artificial sweeteners, etc. as much as possible.)

You’ve heard it all before, eat a balanced diet of whole foods with as many vegetables as possible (organic when possible*). Important nutrients are omega-3s, B-vitamins, zinc, magnesium, vitamins D, A, C, E, and, and, and...

This bears mentioning bold: Dark leafy greens offer an array of micronutrients and phytonutrients that interact in a way chemists wish they could mimic. Food is information and our bodies understand that info that comes at us via whole foods. Our bodies love (organic) broccoli, spinach, Swiss chard, beet greens, kale, mustard greens, arugula, and on and on.

In fact, when you think of the rainbow of whole foods; the red bell peppers, tomatoes, radishes, strawberries, beets, the orange pumpkins, carrots, sweet potatoes, the yellow corn, lemons, and squashes, the blue/purple cabbage, eggplant, grapes, potatoes, the white/tan seeds, nuts, garlic, onions, think ANTI-INFLAMMATORY.

I’d also like to mention probiotics because most of us don’t get enough of them AND the gut-brain connection simply can’t be ignored. The gut communicates way more to the brain than vice-versa. It manufactures neurotransmitters (remember dopamine and serotonin). Different organizations of our gut microbiome can alter functions within the central nervous system, including the brain (Pärtty, Kalliomäki, Wacklin, Salminen, & Isolauri, 2015).


Where can I get probiotics?

The best answer is (of course) FOOD. Try to eat a fermented food at least every day, if not multiple times a day.

  • Look for Lacto-fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut, pickles, olives, etc. (If you’re buying these, make sure the ingredients don’t have anything else besides water, salt, and the veg being fermented. The presence of vinegar means it was not lacto-fermented and you won’t get the benefits of probiotics.)

  • Miso, tempeh, tamari (fermented soy)

  • Yogurt, kefir, some cheeses (if avoiding dairy, opt for non-dairy choices which also contain probiotics)

  • Kombucha, JUN tea (fermented tea)

  • Supplements - Look for a supplement with multiple strains to not cause an imbalance by focusing on just one or two. Great brands include; Klaire’s Labs, Flora Udo’s Choice, Garden of Life, Smarty Pants, Nordic Naturals (great for Omega-3s, too)

These are obviously unprecedented times and how to proceed is a mystery to all of us. What we can do is take good care of ourselves, our kids, each other. Connect, cook, eat well and begin to weed out all that ails. We have time to look at these things now and time to make the change.

More info!

If you’d like to dig a bit deeper on the science behind some of the pathophysiology of brain disorders here are a couple of podcasts which are quite compelling.


Amodeo, G., Trusso, M. A., & Fagiolini, A. (2018). Depression and Inflammation: Disentangling a Clear Yet Complex and Multifaceted Link. Neuropsychiatry, 07(04). doi:10.4172/neuropsychiatry.1000236

Child and adolescent mental health. (2018, September 28). Retrieved from

Data and Statistics on Children's Mental Health. (2019, April 19). Retrieved from

Pärtty, A., Kalliomäki, M., Wacklin, P., Salminen, S., & Isolauri, E. (2015). A possible link between early probiotic intervention and the risk of neuropsychiatric disorders later in childhood: A randomized trial. Pediatric Research, 77(6), 823-828. doi:10.1038/pr.2015.51

Salim, S., Chugh, G., & Asghar, M. (2012). Inflammation in Anxiety. Advances in Protein Chemistry and Structural Biology Volume 88 Advances in Protein Chemistry and Structural Biology, 1-25. doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-398314-5.00001-5

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