Anyone who has ever watched a documentary about child geniuses might have stolen a glance across the lounge and wondered if their child would have the potential to be a wunderkind.
Intelligence is partly inherited and there is no doubt that coaching methods, long hours of study and sometimes even pushy parents catapult their child not just to the top of the class but far beyond. Raising a child prodigy takes talent and commitment, and is immensely hard work, but some youngsters might develop into little Einsteins without much effort at all.
Most parents, however, do not expect small (or large) miracles. They want their children to perform well in school, make friends, enjoy their childhood and eventually get settled in a good job. Obviously this is all easier said than done and intelligence alone might not be enough to grab a top spot at university. Concentration, behaviour and motivation can be major stumbling blocks for some and may even prevent talented children from succeeding in their education. With a steep rise in the diagnosis of conditions such as ADHD, ADD, autism and Asperger’s syndrome, normal cognitive development and brain function become of more concern to parents. The cornerstone of a well-balanced and mentally healthy child is an optimally nourished and developed brain. A balanced diet, rich in vegetables, protein and antioxidants, should form the basis of a healthy childhood but there are some nutrients that play a very specific role when it comes to cognitive function and behaviour. Omega 3 fatty acids form the building blocks of a developing brain and they can be in short supply. School dinners are rarely brimming with fresh salmon or sardines and smoked mackerel is hardly a favourite at children’s parties. ‘Fish finger’ sandwiches might be popular but are largely devoid of essential fatty acids and not an ideal food to fill those hungry bellies. Considering the lack of oily fish in most children’s diets, a good fish oil supplement should be a favourite lunch box top up!
The next nutrient on the menu is vitamin B6. Part of the B vitamin family, it is essential to convert homocysteine into cysteine, an important step in the production and recycling of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline. This may sound like an insignificant chemical process but any hiccups in this conversion chain might lead to unwanted cognitive and behavioural changes. Vitamin B6, also called pyridoxine, is instrumental in the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin and melatonin, our ‘happy’ and ‘sleep’ hormones. Furthermore, it assists in the production of GABA, a calming neurotransmitter that can help to increase concentration and focus while keeping the brain relaxed.
This is particularly useful before and during exams and a good supply of GABA might make studying more efficient with fewer distractions. B6 can be found in plenty of foods, such as mushrooms and chicken, but some children might be in need of slightly higher levels to correct potential shortfalls. Supplementing with the active and ideal form of B6, called pyridoxal-5-phosphate (P5P), is a very safe, non-toxic and side-effect-free way of supporting a youngster’s brain health and it might even reflect on their performance in school.
Vitamin B6 is best friends with magnesium and you will hardly find them apart in the playground. Most chemical conversions that require B6 also call for a steady supply of magnesium to successfully manufacture neurotransmitters and molecules of energy. This mineral in itself has amazing calming properties and can support little bodies through stressful times, giving them extra energy in a focused and controlled manner. Unlike B6, magnesium can be in short supply, even in a balanced diet so a ‘top up’ might be required. Minerals can be hard to absorb, especially for young and still developing digestive systems. Supplementing with easy to absorb and well tolerated forms such as magnesium citrate can be an excellent addition to your little one’s diet.
A final and vital ingredient for the wellbeing and brain power of your child is the trace mineral zinc. It is well known that zinc contributes to normal cognitive function but how does that translate in practice? Infants should receive a good supply of zinc during the first six months of breastfeeding. When complementary foods are introduced the risk of zinc deficiency dramatically rises and is even regarded as a major public health problem, with numerous health consequences. The sources of bioavailable zinc are few and far between and mainly comprise of oysters, seafood and red meat – not your typical weaning foods. Zinc from plant sources is not very bioavailable, making it difficult for the body to utilise. Several studies show a possible zinc deficiency in children with autism and opportunities for supplementation. Zinc status of school children was related to their reading ability, showing a clear relationship between a good supply of this mineral and mental performance. The most striking evidence found in clinical trials however was in relation to overall mental health. Children supplemented with a minimum of 10mg of zinc a day showed better overall concentration, attention and reasoning.
No matter if you have a child with specific cognitive needs, a bouncy toddler who might need a helping hand at school or if you would like to give your youngster a little extra support during term time, these essential vitamins and minerals and the foods containing them should be on top of your shopping list as a safe and effective way to support development.