Keep calm and eat well

Diet impacts hugely on a child’s behavior and well-being. Dr Libby tells us which nutrients and herbs will help your child to be calm and relaxed.

So often I hear parents exclaim that their children are wired and hyperactive, and it is usually late afternoon when Mum and Dad are trying to run errands, cook dinner or get home from after school activities. Wired children quickly become grizzly and tired. Parents know the diffence between when their child is excited, happy and playful to when they are wired and at risk of throwing a tantrum.

Food plays a major role in the mood and behaviour of a child. The food itself, as well as the response it elicits in the body, can have a strong effect.

Most parents do their best to provide their children with food that is going to nourish them and fuel their learning and play time. However, often these good intentions are unintentionally misguided. A typical day for so many children in New Zealand starts off with some form of processed breakfast cereal, followed by fresh or dried fruit for morning tea with some chips, popcorn or pretzels. Lunch time usually includes bread, rice or corn thins and afternoon tea is often more fruit, juice, or some other ‘healthy’ packaged snack food.

Individually, there are no major problems with the majority of these foods (although some will contain highly refined or artifical ingredients), however when this is the type of food to fuel a child over the course of the day, problems can start to arise. Many of these foods are carbohydrate-based, and some of them are “unopposed carbohydrates”. When carbohydrates are eaten on their own, many break down into glucose in the body relatively quickly, compared to if they are consumed with good quality fats or proteins. This quick breakdown is followed by a sharp increase in the levels of glucose circulating in the blood, the hormone insulin then trasports the glucose from the blood and stores it in the muscles or liver. Excess glucose is stored as fat in the fat cells.

This constant rollercoaster of changing blood sugar levels can impact on a child’s energy level and can leave them hyped up one minute and feeling lethargic and grumpy the next. To ensure children have balanced blood glucose levels over the day and an even mood, meals and snacks need to be balanced. Fat, protein and carbohydrates are best incorporated at each meal.

Late afternoon and bed time is when children need to start to wind down for the day to ensure that they get restful sleep, which is so important for growth and learning. There are things that you can add into their routine and diet to try to calm a busy child. Foods rich in magnesium help us to relax by allowing the muscle fibres to relax. Foods containing magnesium include almonds, cashews, leafy greens, eggs, legumes and seeds. Try to include these foods later in the day to give your child the best possible chance to relax come bedtime.

Keep in mind the sources of caffeine that your child may be consuming. Caffeine is not only present in coffee but in many soft drinks and energy drinks and in chocolate-based products. It can take up to 8 hours for caffeine to clear from the body, and even a small amount can have a dramatic effect on the small body of a child. If children are going to be consuming caffeine-containing drinks and foods, make sure it is earlier in the day and in small amounts to avoid dramatic effects and potential problems with sleep.

There are numerous gentle herbs which can be used to help keep particularly zealous children calm. Herbs such as mangolia, withania and passionflower can help both adults and children relax. These herbs are good for children who struggle to relax late afternoon or before bed. Always be sure to use herbal medicine under the guidence of a qualified medical herbalist.

Traditonal remedies like lavender and sandalwood essential oils can be used too. Spray pyjamas or pillows with a mixture of water and essential oil or use an oil burner.

Some children will find it hard to relax in the late afternoon if they are over-stimulated. For these children, do what you can to keep the noise levels low, and dim artifical lights as much as possible. The presence of light stops meletonin from being produced. Melatonin is a hormone that signals when it is time to sleep. Melatonin needs to be allowed to build up in the brain to a critical level, at which it will then signal sleep.

Do what you can to be calm yourself when dealing with children. As you know, they can feed off and mirror our body language. Different things will work for different families, but try adding a few of these tips into your child’s daily routine and see if it makes a difference. good lunchbox options:

  •   Raw nuts and seeds
  •   Hard boiled egg
  •   Veggies and hummus or nut butter
  •   Cold chicken drumstick
  •   Whole grain wrap filled with salad, lean meat and hummus
  •   Brain/bliss balls (nuts, seeds, dates, cocoa etc.)
  •   One piece of fresh fruit
  •   Edamame beans

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