A new school year is on the horizon. While parents are busy shopping for school supplies and uniforms and planning after-school activities, there is something often overlooked: how to support our children’s health to help them thrive during the school year. It is well established that nutrition plays a large role in setting children up for the best chance to succeed — not just academically, but mentally and emotionally as well. Improving our children’s gut and immune health can help position them to learn optimally and hopefully prevent illness-related absences along the way. Here are some steps parents can take to help their children reach their full potential this school year.
Optimal health and nutrition rely on whole foods. Organic fruits and vegetables; grass-fed, hormone- and antibiotic-free, or plant-based proteins; complex carbohydrates and healthy fats are key components to a healthy diet for most children. When selecting foods, try to avoid processed foods. These are typically loaded with unhealthy ingredients, including refined sugars, preservatives, high fructose corn syrup, chemical additives and artificial dyes and flavors. While these all can cause issues, artificial dyes specifically may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children. In fact, in the EU and some other countries, these dyes have been banned or carry warning labels. When needed, there are many “healthier” versions of prepackaged snacks that are lower in sugar and made with healthier oils, as well as natural flavors and coloring. Whole Foods and Thrive Market are great places to find these options.
Even with a whole food diet, there are certain vitamins and minerals that can boost immune health in our kids and help protect them this fall. For example, optimal levels of vitamins C, D and zinc are beneficial. Probiotics may also benefit gut health and proper immune function. Individualized diagnostics and plans through the functional medicine lens can help target these needs and identify other areas that may require supplementation, as nutritional deficiencies and food allergies or intolerances may be found in some children, especially those with gut issues. Working on these areas may translate to better school performance.
When it comes to students with ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) or even anxiety, working to get to the root cause can be very beneficial. Using a functional medicine approach — which looks at metabolic, nutritional, environmental and genetic difficulties — may be able to improve or eliminate various symptoms. Some common deficiencies to look into and discuss with your practitioner include magnesium, zinc, iron and vitamins such as B12.
Finally, focus on promoting exercise, adequate sleep and use of nontoxic products. We are exposed to so much that is out of our control, so empowering ourselves to make healthier choices when we are able is valuable. Cells that eat better grow better, and genes that are fed better reproduce and function better in the body. Teaching children now how to make healthier choices not only will provide them a lifelong skill and set them up for a greater likelihood of success this school year but will lower their chance of triggering a chronic illness down the road.
Brooke Lam, mother of two, is an educator and certified functional health consultant with Keeping Families Well, educating and empowering families to get to the root cause of health issues and to attain optimal health and wellness goals.