Getting a Good Start
Neurological development and nutrition go hand-in-hand. The nutrients a child takes into their body will have a profound effect on the way their brain works and how successful they are both in the professional world and in personal relationships. We have learned that infancy and toddlerhood are especially important times for brain development. That’s why many baby foods and formulas are fortified with extra nutrition.
It’s not just the first couple of years that matter, though. Healthy breakfasts and snacks when the children are in school can impact their ability to focus and get good grades. If they play sports, their diet will affect their physical and psychological performance during games. Literally every aspect of a kid’s life will relate to their diet in some way.
We know that parents are doing their best to feed their kids a well-rounded nutritious diet that meets all of their needs. The problem is that the Standard American Diet (SAD) has been shown to fall short, and the RDA is designed for an entire population and does not take into account unique genetic requirements.
This inability to get proper nutrition naturally has led to many parents looking at supplements as a way to bridge the gap. For many children and parents, this can make it easier to ensure children are getting the right amount and form of nutrients so they can meet their full potential.
Brain Development in Small Children
Brain development in small children is happening at warp speed. We’ve all heard that kids are like little sponges, absorbing everything around them. Neuroscience research has found that description is spot on. Here is a list of facts that may surprise you.
- A fetus grows about 250,000 neurons per minute during gestation.
- When a baby is born, that rapid growth will have resulted in more than 100 billion neurons in their brain. This is actually close to the number of stars in the Milky Way.
- Connecting the neurons to one another are 50 trillion neural connections. These critical connections, called synapses, are the foundation of the child’s brain.
- By age 3, a toddler’s brain will form more than 1,000 trillion synapses. That is twice as much as an adult. Synaptic pruning decreases that number as we age.
- A child’s brain will shed the neural connections it doesn’t use often enough through the process mentioned above, synaptic pruning. It allows the brain to tidy up, sort of like spring cleaning but on a massive scale.
- Synaptic pruning continues throughout childhood and even into a person’s twenties.
- Shortages of proper nutrients can have an irreversible impact on a child’s motor and cognitive development.
- An incomplete diet can impede critical neural connections.
Proper Nutrition for Brain Development
The science community is unanimously beginning to understand how nutrition affects a child’s developing brain. The first 1,000 days of life are especially critical. During this time, children’s brains are changing rapidly. Every interaction they experience forms a vital synaptic connection and helps shape the child into the person they’ll become later in life.
Children’s brains don’t stop growing after that first stage. Researchers now know the first 10 years of life are when peak brain growth occurs. During this time it is absolutely imperative parents provide their children with “brain food.” Certain nutrients will aid the body in doing different tasks. Without those, the brain and body can’t do their jobs. That failure can impact them for the rest of their lives.
Impact of Malnutrition
A healthy diet is important for people of all ages, but it’s especially critical for children. Nutrient deficiencies can cause permanent damage to a child’s brain development. For example, scientists have found an iron deficiency in babies and small children lead to lower scores on cognitive function tests. It can also cause infants to have poor developmental ratings.
Additionally, studies have found that poor nutrition leads to children with poor academic performance and behavioral issues. One such study, the Barbados Nutrition Study, that took place in St. Michael, Barbados, followed people for 45 years who were severely malnourished as infants.
The lack of nutrition led to low IQ scores, often in the intellectual disability range. The participants who experienced poor nutrition had depressed academic skills.
Parents can avoid those outcomes by ensuring kids get the nutrients they need for optimal brain development. An easy way to do that is by introducing supplements to their diets.
Nutrients Necessary For Kids’ Brain Development
The brain tissue of children, below 10 years of age, uses glucose at twice the rate of the same amount of adult brain. Due to the elevated activity of the brain, micronutrients acting as co-enzymes are even more critical.
Low glycemic index foods seem to improve attention, memory, and functional capacity, while sugar and refined carbohydrates are associated with difficulty in concentration and attention.
Vitamins B1, B6, B12, B9 (folate), and D, choline, iron, and iodine exert neuroprotective effects and improve intellectual performance. Vitamin B12 plays a role in cognitive development, neurotransmitter synthesis, and the metabolism of the fatty acids needed to produce myelin, the sheath of neurons. A deficiency in B12 can result in brain damage and atrophy, making meat, eggs, fish, and/or dairy important staples.
Antioxidants (beta-carotene, vitamins C, E, zinc, selenium, lutein and zeaxanthin) have a very important role in the defense against oxidative stress associated with mental deterioration and in the improvement of cognition.
The following nutrients may often fall short, depending on the diet.
Iron and Zinc
As mentioned above, iron is essential for kids’ brain development. Yet, a deficiency of this iron and zinc are common across the world. Studies show that micronutrient deficiencies can cause children to have trouble learning and remembering new things. They could have trouble concentrating, which then leads to poor grades.
Dr. Michael K. Georgieff, a Minnesota pediatrician whose focus is neonatal and fetal nutrition, also found that iron deficiency can result in substandard school performance.
If a child isn’t getting enough iron long-term, they could develop anemia, which can lead to changes in mood, irritability, and physical weakness.
Iron and zinc are often packaged together in food, including heme iron and zinc in red meat, shellfish, liver and eggs, and non-heme iron in spinach, lentils, and broccoli.
Nearly 19 million babies born globally every year are at risk of permanent yet preventable brain damage and reduced cognitive function due to a lack of iodine in the earliest years of life. Insufficient iodine during pregnancy and infancy results in neurological and psychological deficits, reducing a child’s IQ by 8 to 10 points.
Iodine is found mainly in seafood, sea vegetables, iodized salt and dairy.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are critical for brain development. They’re so important that they’re often referred to as building blocks. Two of the omega 3s, DHA and EPA, are especially important and infant formula is often fortified with these two fatty acids. Fatty fish is one of the most efficient ways to get the omega-3’s a child’s brain needs. Genetics help determines omega-3 requirements, including a gene that alters the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA from plant-based omega-3 like flaxseeds and walnuts. Analyzing these genes in the Nutrition Genome Report can help determine higher or lower needs of omega-3 fatty acids.
Studies show a diet low in omega-3’s can lead to deficits in the development of nerve cells in the brain. Other studies indicate a child who’s been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may feel a decrease in symptoms from the disorder. According to a paper published in the Journal of Lipids, at least 16 trials have taken place to study the relationship between ADHD and omega-3’s. Thirteen showed improvements in impulsivity, visual learning, hyperactivity, and short-term memory.
Choline has emerged as a nutrient that has been neglected for too long. In our Best Prenatal Vitamins article, we highlight choline as one of the most important nutrients needed for a healthy pregnancy and fetal brain development. Choline is involved in a number of functions in the body and studies have also found its a key nutrient in the normal development of the memory, lowering anxiety and protecting the nerves. Variants in the PEMT gene increase the need for dietary choline.
This critical brain food is highest in eggs, organ meats, chicken thighs, and beef chuck. Increasing foods high in betaine like beets, spinach, sourdough rye, quinoa, and barley also lower the requirements for choline.
Remember when we discussed the formation of neural connections? Uridine, in combination with DHA and choline, accelerate the formation of synaptic membranes, an important component of brain development. Uridine is produced by the body and found in certain foods. When dietary uridine is consumed, it crosses the blood-brain barrier and enters neurons.
According to a paper in the peer-reviewed journal Nutrients, it’s hard to get uridine by diet alone once a child stops breastfeeding or drinking formula. Parents can incorporate uridine into their child’s diet by feeding them broccoli, liver, tomatoes, and walnuts.
Researchers have been exploring uridine supplementation in combination with omega-3’s for anxiety and depression. For adults, it is also found in Cordyceps militaris, and yeast in beer is also an excellent source of uridine. Choose unfiltered beers from our list here.
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that boosts glutathione, fights against inflammation, and protects the brain throughout life. It is important in the formation of neurotransmitters, including the modulation of dopamine.
Vitamin C is depleted by pollution, chronic stress, numerous health disorders, excess sugar, and refined carbohydrates in the diet. If a child has poor eating habits high in sugar and refined carbohydrates and a low vitamin C intake, mental health may be dramatically affected.
Early exposure to a variety of foods and developing a taste of fruits and vegetables is key. One of the most effective ways is to grow a garden and involve your child in the growing and harvesting. I’ve yet to see a child not be excited about eating food from a garden.
Transresveratrol is found in grapes, blueberries, blackberries, and peanuts and has anti-inflammatory properties. According to studies, chronic inflammation can have a profoundly negative impact on the neurological development of children. In fact, inflammation along with infections and nutritional deficiencies are “major contributors to impaired child neurodevelopment” in the early childhood years. Those with the APOE-e4 allele may be especially sensitive to oxidative stress.
In a randomized, double-blind trial, a solution containing resveratrol plus carboxymethyl-β-glucan was found to be effective in infants with respiratory tract infections.
In children with asthma, a blend of curcumin, resveratrol, soy phospholipids, zinc, selenium, and vitamin D, may be associated with reduced airway inflammation by influencing nitric oxide.
In a double-blind placebo-controlled randomized trial, researchers found that resveratrol could be a promising adjunct for hyperactivity/non-compliance of Autism Spectrum Disorder patients.
Supplementing a Child’s Diet
A great way to bridge the gap between a child’s diet and the nutrients they need for healthy brain development is by introducing targeted supplements. My philosophy is always food first and supplement the gaps. This is just a reality of modern living and less than optimal agricultural options.
Please see our article The Best Children’s Multivitamins for multivitamin recommendations.
One company that I have spoken with over many years now is Cover Three. They got my attention with a product that was designed to support brain health for concussions. Not only was this product well designed, but I couldn’t believe how good it tasted with such clean ingredients.
They have also created a delicious supplement for children called Kids Brain Boost. The creamy smoothie is doctor-formulated and targets the gaps for helping support a healthy brain. Use the coupon code thehealthbeat for 10% off!
Nutrition is the Major Building Block
Whether or not a child is getting all of the nutrients they need will impact their health, success, and happiness in the long term. The first ten years of their lives are especially important, and the habits developed will serve a lifetime. These early childhood habits also go beyond their own health, potentially have an epigenetic effect on the next four to five generations.