[Article] 5 Nutritional Deficiencies That Cause Behavioral Problems in Children

It’s unfortunate when someone judges a parent when their child is exhibiting behavioral difficulties. While many children do act out and need discipline, there are also a number of physical reasons why kids may misbehave, notably nutritional deficiencies, which may lead them to behave in a negative manner.

Nutritional deficiencies aren’t always because the child has been deprived of food; there are a number factors at play including how physically active they are, their diet and even epigenetic factors. This is why it’s important for parents to recognize the symptoms of a nutritional deficiency so that specific foods or supplements can be introduced into a healthy diet to help balance nutritional levels:

1. Amino Acids 

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein which are essential for brain function. The 10 essential amino acids required from the diet include: Histamine, Isoleucine, Lysine, Leucine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, Tryptophan, Valine, and Arginine, and are all found in both animal and vegetable proteins.

If the body is deficient in essential amino acids from dietary sources, the body is not able to build proteins and will have to break down muscle tissue to obtain the essential amino acids it requires. When a child suffers from a deficiency in amino acids, they could feel depressed, unfocused, foggy, and sluggish. Amino acid deficiencies are very common in kids with ADHD.

Research shows that it is less important and even less beneficial to receive all of these amino acids from one “high-quality protein” source, such as those from animal products.

It is necessary to have a diet with sufficient amino acids to meet protein requirements, but there is no need for high quality forms of protein to fulfill protein needs because it is through slow and steady synthesis of new proteins from “low quality” plant proteins that has proven to be healthier for humans. [4]

On a natural diet with varied plant sources, the goal of incorporating all of the essential amino acids in the diet is easily achieved with a combination of beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, green leaves and whole grains on a regular basis throughout the week.

2. Vitamin B6 and Magnesium 

Irritability and sensitivity have been linked to magnesium deficiency. Vitamin B6 and Magnesium deficiency is common in children with ADHD. Low magnesium levels have also been associated with violent aggressive behavior as well as suicidal tendencies. The combination of Vitamin B6 and magnesium have shown to have significant effects on the behavior of kids with autism. Vitamin B6 can be taken in supplement form. While Magnesium supplements can also be taken, it is also found in many foods such as pumpkin seeds. Brazil nuts, sesame seeds, almonds, dark leafy vegetables, brown rice, white beans, avocado and soy beans.

Based on the scientific findings in a study titled The Importance of Magnesium in Clinical Healthcare, insufficient Magnesium (Mg) has been linked to a spectrum of clinical afflictions such as migraines, attention deficit disorder, and depression. [5]

3. Iron 

The harmful effects of iron deficiency can have irreversible effects, changing the chemistry of the brain’s neurotransmitters, the lining structure of nerves, and the morphology of neuronal networks. All these changes can alter behavior and affect neural development. Kids who suffer from iron-deficiency may suffer from decreased levels of social responsiveness, poor appetite, and unusual cravings. Severe iron deficiency also leads to depression and even suicidal tendencies.

To raise your child’s iron levels, have them eat foods high in iron (pumpkin seeds, soy beans, cashews, white beans, all lentils, dark leafy greens, Swiss chard, quinoa, oatmeal, sesame seeds, and tropical fruit), along with foods rich in vitamin C (bell peppers, citrus fruits, strawberries, papayas, etc.) which will help their bodies absorb the iron better.


4. Vitamin B12  

Delayed speech has been associated with a B12 deficiency, along with anemia, nerve damage and neurological disorders such as disturbed thinking and depression

In some instances, it is advised that kids not be supplemented with B12 unless they are first tested and advised by a doctor due to its possible interaction with other medications (B12 supplements may interfere with diabetes, epilepsy and cancer medications, and should not be taken at the same time as antibiotics like tetracyclines). High doses of vitamin B-12 or supplementing for an extended period of time may cause an imbalance in the body’s level of other B vitamins. Furthermore, vitamin B-12 supplements are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and are not checked for potency or purity.) However, that said, children who are vegans or vegetarians need to take B12 supplements regularly because vitamin B12 is available in animal-based products.


5. Omega-3 Fatty Acids 

Fat makes up 60% of brain weight and is its primary nutrient. The fats required by the brain are primarily omega-3 and -6 fatty acids in the form of linoleic and alpha-linolenic acids used to make DHA and EPA which are two essential fatty acids our brains need for proper functioning. Foods high in Omega-3 fatty acids include anchovies, wild Alaskan salmon, sardines, mackerel, and foods from plant-based sources include walnuts, chia, and flaxseeds.

A study on the effects of Vitamin B12 and Omega-3 fatty acids on brain function have concluded that deficiencies in both can have adverse effects on cognition and synaptic plasticity causing cognitive deficits and neurobehavioral disorders in both children and adults. [6]

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[1] Rothwell NJ, Stock MJ, Tyzbir RS. Mechanisms of thermogenesis induced by low protein diets. Metabolism; 1983;32,3, 257-61.

[2] Rothwell NJ, Stock MJ. Influence of carbohydrate and fat intake on diet-induced thermogenesis and brown fat activity in rats fed low protein diets. J Nutr; 1987;117,10,1721-6.

[3] Stillings BR. “World supplies of animal protein.” In: J. W. G. Porter and B. A. Rolls (eds.), Proteins in Human Nutrition, pp. 11–33. London: Academic Press, (1973)

[4] U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. 2004. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 17. Nutrient Data Laboratory Home Page, http://www.ars.usda.gov/main/site_main.htm?modecode=80-40-05-25.

[5] Gerry K. Schwalfenberg and Stephen J. Genuis. The Importance of Magnesium in Clinical Healthcare. 2017; 2017: 4179326.

[6] Richa Rathod, Anvita Kale, and Sadhana Joshi. Novel insights into the effect of vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids on brain function. 2016; 23: 17.


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