Natural Support for Nerves and Focus at School

Natural Support for Nerves and Focus at School

By Andrea Bartels CNP NNCP RNT
Registered Nutritional Therapist

10 Aug 2021

Natural Support for Nerves and Focus at School

Lead with a Positive Attitude

It’s important to realize that kids pick up on our own anxiousness.  Dr. Rachel Busman, the director of the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute, recommends that parents set the stage for their children by staying calm and positive.   For example, don’t ask the kids if they’re nervous about returning to in-person learning; instead, ask them how they are feeling about going back and validate their feelings, whatever they are by saying you understand why they feel that way. Focusing on what is within one’s control instead of what isn’t is best.  It’s also smart for family members to practice ‘separating’, to get used to being apart again for hours at a time.  This can be as easy as a child playing in their own room while a parent is working in the kitchen, says Dr. Bosman.  It’s a good idea to time this practice--so younger children will know there’s an end to it--- and to increase the duration of the separation each time. 

How to Reduce Anxiousness and Improve Focus with Nutrition

Cut the Sugar

The findings of a 2014 systematic review that looked at relationships between diet and mental health revealed that there’s an important relationship between dietary patterns and quality of food consumed early in life.  So, let’s talk about sugar. According to research performed by doctors William Tamborlane and Timothy M. Jones of the Yale School of Medicine, kids are more vulnerable than adults are to the anxiety-promoting effects of sugar.  Specifically, they found that sugar increases levels of the stress hormone, adrenaline--but only in children, not in studied adults.  We all know that most children are attracted to sugary foods, however, sugar provides short-lived increases in energy because it’s absorbed rapidly, causing sharp drops in blood glucose---creating mood swings and cognitive problems for many.  Sugar-coated breakfast cereals, granola bars, chocolate spreads and boxed fruit drinks are just some of the foods eaten by kids at breakfast time and snack time that can affect mental health and behaviour.  But there are easy ways to improve the nutritional balance in a child’s diet without removing sweet foods completely.  It can be as easy as replacing ice cream with fruit for dessert, or replacing sugar-coated cereals with whole grain toast and eggs, or toast topped with nut butter/sunflower seed butter and banana.

Nutrients to Augment

Magnesium is a mineral that’s essential for nervous system health, so deficiency can affect mental health, behaviour and mood.  In fact, a small 2016 study of kids with ADHD revealed that upon baseline testing, 72 percent of ADHD kids had magnesium deficiency. The mineral can promote relaxation of the nervous system, relax muscles and support sleep. Food’s highest sources are nuts and seeds, which are usually not allowed at school.  Supplementing with magnesium is the easiest way to obtain amounts needed for mental health.  Magnesium glycinate is the preferred type of magnesium compound for its superior absorbability and observed lower impact on the digestive system than many other forms of magnesium. Pure Lab Vitamins offers it in both powder and capsule formats.

The B complex family of 9 related but distinct vitamins are important for a myriad of metabolic functions.  For example, vitamin B-6 is required for the synthesis of serotonin—the neurotransmitter we associate with contentment and relaxation.  Meanwhile, vitamin B-3 (niacin) deficiency results in diarrhea, dermatitis, and dementia, so we know it is important for mental health. Vitamin B-12 is required for development and maintenance of the nerves. Along with methionine and vitamins B-2, B-6 and folate, B-12 is involved in the methylation process--- a key biochemical process that keeps each and every one of our cells functioning. Many individuals with mental health concerns have faulty methylation, which warrants supplementation.  While B vitamins are found in a variety of whole foods, dietary shortcuts taken by busy people combine with stress and results in incomplete activation of these vital nutrients. Children who are picky eaters may fall short of several B vitamins, and since stress increases our metabolic rate, an activated B complex supplement should be considered part of the back-to-school supplement line-up. These are just a few reasons why taking biologically active versions of supplementary B vitamins should be considered.

What about healthy fats?

Lots of research has shown that supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids supports improvements in hyperactivity, attention, visual learning, word reading and short-term memory in children with ADHD.  Why?  The essential fatty acids, also known as omega-3 and omega-6, are exactly that: essential. This means that unlike omega-9 and the saturated fats, these unsaturated fats can’t be produced by the body so must be obtained from food. Once again, children with a narrow diet due to preferences or allergies may not be getting enough of the brain-essential omega-3s because they are mainly found in nuts, seeds and cold-water fish.  While supplementation is an excellent choice, realize that dosage and compliance are key, and that it may take several weeks or months before results with omega-3s may be noticeable.

Fast-acting Support

 In addition to nutritional augmentation, there is another form of natural support for focus and relaxation for kids with short attention spans and/or anxiousness. It comes in the form of a tea-derived molecule called l-theanine. This extract of green tea is free of caffeine, so does not exacerbate hyperactivity in any way. Unlike the drugs prescribed for ADD/ADHD, l-theanine is not an amphetamine, or any other kind of stimulant.  Instead, l-theanine calms and focuses the mind in 2 ways.  For one, l-theanine temporarily lowers excitatory neurotransmitters like glutamine.   Secondly, l-theanine increases alpha brain waves, which are those associated with a state of ‘wakeful relaxation’ such as experienced during meditation, and dream sleep.  Thirdly, l-theanine supports the production of GABA, a more calming neurotransmitter.   It does all this without inducing drowsiness, so it may be used at any time of the day.  Having said that, when hyperactivity is due to sleep deprivation, l-theanine has been shown to improve sleep quality in boys diagnosed with ADHD. Dr. Michael Lyon, MD of the Functional Medicine Research Center in BC prescribed 200 milligrams of l-theanine twice daily to ninety-eight ADHD boys aged 8 to 12 the results showed exactly that. 

Nervous children can also benefit from l-theanine for the same reasons it supports concentration.  Taken in a sugar-free, chewable format, l-theanine can work rapidly to promote relaxation in nervous individuals at the onset of anxiousness. It’s also available in a slow-release encapsulated format that can be used preventatively and daily.  For higher dosing, capsules are a good choice, as they can be pulled apart and their contents poured into a fruit smoothie if swallowing whole pills is a challenge.


Safe Dosing for Kids 

When it comes to proper dosing, weight matters more than age.  If a 14 year old weighs the same as an adult (120 pounds or more), then an adult dose is typically indicated. If the child weighs half the weight of an adult, it is wise to give just half the dose per day. However, make sure your primary physician (MD or ND) remains informed about your child’s nutritional supplement regime.


A Gentle Reminder

As parents, we are largely responsible for our children’s health and well-being.  Educating your kids about good nutrition and a positive attitude will pay off, but so will setting a good example by utilizing the strategies discussed here yourself.  The sooner your family starts to work together on lifestyle modifications, the easier your children will adapt to their new school routine for a better chance at a great academic year. 




Derbyshire E. Do Omega-3/6 Fatty Acids Have a Therapeutic Role in Children and Young People with ADHD?. J Lipids. 2017;2017:6285218. doi:10.1155/2017/6285218

El Baza Farida, et al. Magnesium supplementation in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Egyptian Journal of Medical Human Genetics 2016 (7), 63-70.

Jones TW, Borg WP, Boulware SD, McCarthy G, Sherwin RS, Tamborlane WV. Enhanced adrenomedullary response and increased susceptibility to neuroglycopenia: mechanisms underlying the adverse effects of sugar ingestion in healthy children. J Pediatr. 1995 Feb;126(2):171-7. 

Korn, Leslie. Nutrition Essentials for Mental Health. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2016, p.86.

Kuratko CN, Barrett EC, Nelson EB, Salem N Jr. The relationship of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) with learning and behavior in healthy children: a review. Nutrients. 2013;5(7):2777-2810.

Lyon MR, Kapoor MP, Juneja LR. The effects of L-theanine (Suntheanine®) on objective sleep quality in boys with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial. Altern Med Rev. 2011 Dec;16(4):348-54.

Miller, Caroline. “Back-to-School Anxiety during COVID”.  Child Mind Institute. Accessed online on July 29th 2021.

O'Neil A, Quirk SE, Housden S, et al. Relationship between diet and mental health in children and adolescents: a systematic review. Am J Public Health. 2014;104(10):e31-e42.

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L-Theanine and Stress-Induced Anxiety


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