When it comes to global health issues that have the potential to significantly decrease someone’s quality of life, many people think of diseases like cancer or heart disease. And while these are certainly serious issues, it is equally important to consider the prevalence of mental disorders that can significantly impact the health and happiness of millions of people all over the world.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), depression is the leading cause of disability globally and impacts around 121 million people. In the United States alone, around 14.8 million adults struggle with depression every day, and the disorder was placed in the fourth position on the global burden of disease list. Even more alarming is that the rates of depression only seem to be increasing and the WHO believes it will rank as the second highest global burden of disease by 2020.
Depression in Children and Adolescents
Many people associate depression with adults and tend to see it as a manifestation of unhappiness with careers or financial issues, etc. The reality of the situation is that anyone can be depressed, and that includes children. In fact, as many as 15 to 20% of youths are estimated to experience pediatric depression. This is a serious issue, particularly because pediatric depression is also linked to significant education, physical, and social impairments.
Depression can be incredibly limiting, as it can prevent children from engaging with their peers socially, while also negatively impacting their educational performance and physical health. And because childhood is such an important time when it comes to the physical, mental, and social development that serves as the foundation for adult behavior, anything inhibiting a child’s ability to engage with the world and their peers “normally” can have long-lasting consequences that could impact children throughout their lives. It is important to understand what might help prevent, as well as treat, depression in children.
Vitamin and Nutrient Treatments for Depression
While depression is often treated with pharmaceutical antidepressants and psychological therapies, it is important to understand that sometimes nutritional therapies can be of great help to depressed children as well. In order to best determine how exactly diet and nutrition might affect depression in children, a large-scale review of current and past literature relating to the issue was undertaken and published in 2015. The review sought out studies that examined antidepressant effects of nutritional supplements in the adolescent and child population as well as studies looking at the relationship between pediatric depression and nutritional status. The nutrients ultimately examined in the review include:
· Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids
· Vitamin D
· Vitamin C
Before we look at the results of the above study, it should be noted that it has long been thought that a connection exists between nutrition and depression. A review of studies exploring this link was conducted and published in 2008. Researchers found that nutritional treatment and supplementation could play a significant role in controlling symptoms associated with bipolar disorder, depression, eating disorders, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, autism, ADHD, and addiction. It is thought that this kind of nutritional treatment is perhaps especially effective in patients sensitive to side effects because nutritional treatments do not generally lead to side effects like antidepressants or other medications might. The study looked at:
· Essential fatty acids
o B- complex
The review ultimately found that folate, as well as B-vitamins, appeared to be closely related to depression and their intake seemed to have an impact on the symptoms and development of the disorder. The other nutrients reviewed were not found to be closely related to depression in any significant way, nor did their intake have an apparent effect on depression symptoms or development.
Let’s take another look at the large-scale review that examined how various nutrients might impact children suffering from depression. In accordance with conventional wisdom, the study seems to indicate that a diet with higher levels of B vitamins, especially folate and vitamin B-6, is associated with a reduced prevalence of depression and depression-related symptoms in childhood and early adolescence.
The studies described above examined a number of different vitamins and nutrients, and as we’ve already covered, folate and B-vitamins were identified as being the most effective at limiting depression and depressive symptoms in children. With that said, some of the other substances studied showed some preliminary support for their use in treating pediatric depression. As an example, patients taking vitamin D, vitamin C, and zinc supplements, respectively, were shown to experience a higher sense of well-being and a reduced severity of depression symptoms. The problem when it comes to asserting a definitive link between these other nutrients and depression is a lack of solid evidence. While multiple studies emphasized the impact of folate and B-vitamins upon depression in children, studies regarding the other nutrients listed above tended to be poorly designed and very few in number. As a result, it is difficult to draw firm conclusions regarding their effect on childhood depression.
How should we treat depression in children?
I know that there is a lot of information above, and it might be a bit daunting to consume it all at once. With that in mind, let me break it down a bit. It appears that there is a definitive link between nutrition and depression in children. As a result, it is possible that altering a child’s diet to include certain nutrients, specifically folate and B-vitamins, could have an impact on their depression and their risk for depression. Making food changes is less likely to lead to negative side effects compared to pharmaceutical medications, yet often it takes a lot of time and effort to get kids to eat healthier food. It takes me a lot of time and work to get my kids to eat a diet that is nutrient rich, so I understand that this is not easy.
With all of that said, this is not to say that the only depression treatment is diet. While taking a proactive stance and ensuring that children receive enough folate and B-vitamins in their diets could help to lessen or stave off depression symptoms, that does not mean that the nutrients themselves comprise a comprehensive treatment plan once depression has developed and been diagnosed. It is perhaps more accurate to think of nutrient treatments as a component of a comprehensive and integrative treatment plan that also involves addressing lifestyle, sleep, exercise, stress, schedule, and potentially medications for moderate and severe depression.
If you are interested in ensuring that your child consumes adequate levels of folate and B-vitamins, there are a few different foods to add to their diet including: fruits and vegetables, including leafy greens, citrus, lentils, potatoes, dried beans, nuts, and avocados. For B-vitamins, consider a diet with meat, fish, and eggs. Keep in mind, of course, that variety is key and eating too much of any particular single kind of food could be harmful. If your child’s diet is well-balanced and includes adequate amounts of vegetables, fruits, and healthy meats, they should have adequate levels of folate and B-vitamins in their bodies. For B vitamins absorption may be an issue for some children and adults so it also makes sense to have a blood test to check vitamin b 12 levels to make sure that the vitamin is being absorbed from the food.
The bottom line is that yes, there appears to be a link between depression and nutrition, and ensuring a healthy diet could help keep children as happy as possible. More research is necessary to determine exactly how effective nutrient treatment might be in treating depression in children.