When it comes to global health issues that have the potential to significantly decrease someone’s quality of life, often what comes to mind are diseases like cancer or heart disease. And while these are certainly serious issues, it is equally important to consider the widespread prevalence of mental health disorders that significantly impact the health and happiness of millions worldwide.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), depression is the leading cause of disability globally and ranks fourth on the global burden of disease list. Depression effects an estimated 121 million people worldwide, including 14.8 million adults in the United States alone. Even more alarming is that the rates of depression only seem to be increasing- 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, however, is that anyone can be depressed, and this 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 educational, physical, and social impairments.
Pediatric depression can be incredibly limiting, as it can prevent children from engaging with their peers while also negatively impacting their educational performance and physical health. And because childhood is such an important time for the physical, mental, and social development that will serve as the foundation for adult behavior, anything inhibiting a child’s ability to engage with the world and their peers normally can have consequences that extend well into adulthood. It is important to then understand what options exist for both the prevention and treatment of 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.
A review of studies exploring the link between nutrition and depression was conducted and published in 2008. The review examined the following nutrients:
·Essential fatty acids
Researchers 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.
Overall, the studies under review demonstrated that nutritional treatment and supplementation can 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 come with the side effects that antidepressants and other medications so often do.
Adolescent Depression and Nutrition
In order to best determine how exactly diet and nutrition might affect depression in children, a large-scale review of the relevant literature was conducted and published in 2015. Studies were included if they examined the antidepressant effects of nutritional supplements in the adolescent and child population or if they looked at the relationship between pediatric depression and nutritional status. Studies examined the following nutrients:
· Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids
· Vitamin D
· Vitamin C
Upon analysis, researchers of the review concluded that diets high in B vitamins, especially folate and vitamin B-6, are associated with a reduced prevalence of depression and depression-related symptoms in childhood and early adolescence.
While folate and B-vitamins were identified as being the most effective, preliminary support was also given for other nutrients in the treatment of pediatric depression. As an example, patients taking vitamin D, vitamin C, and zinc supplements were shown to experience a higher sense of well-being and a reduced severity of depression symptoms. The problem when it comes to drawing a definitive link between these other nutrients and depression is a lack of conclusive evidence due to poor study design and small sample size across studies. More well designed, larger- scale studies are needed in order to evaluate the effect of other nutrients on adolescent depression.
How should we treat depression in children?
Based on the available research, we can conclude with reasonable certainty that there is a definitive link between nutrition and depression in children. Incorporating certain nutrients into a child’s diet, specifically folate and B-vitamins, could help to reduce the effects of adolescent depression.
While it can take a lot of time and effort to get kids to eat healthier food, and while it is by no means a quick fix, it may be an option worth exploring with a healthcare provider if your child is experiencing the effects of adolescent depression.
While incorporating more nutrients into a child’s diet can be useful in the treatment and prevention of adolescent depression, this is not to say that it should be used as a standalone treatment. It is perhaps more accurate to think of nutrient treatments as a component of a comprehensive and integrative treatment plan that also addresses sleep, exercise, and stress levels and that may also include the use of medications, particularly for moderate and severe depression.
If you are interested in incorporating more nutrients into your child’s diet, consider adding the following foods:
For Folate: leafy greens, citrus, lentils, potatoes, dried beans, nuts, and avocados
For B-vitamins: meat, fish, and eggs as well as supplements such as nutritional yeast
Keep in mind, of course, that variety is key: If your child’s diet is well-balanced and includes adequate amounts of vegetables, fruits, and proteins, they should have adequate levels of folate and B-vitamins in their bodies. Absorption of B vitamin can be an issue for some children and adults, so you may also consider having a blood test to ensure that your body is effectively absorbing the vitamin from food sources.
As always, if you are concerned about your child’s struggle with or risk for depression, consult a professional- either a mental health counselor, primary care doctor, or psychiatrist- to discuss all the ways in which targeted nutritional changes could provide benefit for your child.