By Andrea Bartels CNP NNCP RNT
11 Aug 2022
What do childhood temper tantrums, anxiety and other behavioural difficulties like ADD/ADHD have in common? They are all potential consequences of inadequate sleep. Not only can this have a huge impact on kids’ academic performance, but poor sleep impacts their social well-being as well.
There are lots of reasons why your school-age child is not sleeping well. What’s often overlooked are the possible biochemical and lifestyle factors that affect sleep. So, before you resort to the quick-fixes with side effects, please consider which of the following contributing factors you can modify in your child’s life. Then, choose one of our natural approaches to better sleep.
Factors Affecting Sleep
Stress causes a release of adrenaline and cortisol—two very stimulating chemicals that can interfere with the ability to relax enough to get sleepy. Anxiety about upcoming events, social tensions and peer pressure, bullying, fear of getting sick---these are just a few causes of anxiety-related sleeping difficulties in children.
Ironically, inadequate sleep in children reduces their ability to cope with stress and control their behaviour. Consider how lack of sleep affects YOUR mood, energy, and problem-solving abilities. In comparison, kids don’t recover as easily from lack of sleep. In fact, sleep-deficient kids get more easily upset, frustrated, and inattentive, and are more prone to misbehave. Who wants that?
Excess screen time is epidemic. According to data reported by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in the winter of 2020, screen time spent by American kids aged 8 to 12 was 4-6 hours, while for teens it was—astoundingly-- up to 9 hours. If you’re a parent, you’ve undoubtedly seen this number rise since the pandemic started, thanks to virtual learning and more time spent at home during multiple lockdowns. What does this have to do with sleep? Well, one of the problems with increased screen time is reduced production of melatonin---the hormone that plays a major role in making us drowsy before bed. This sleep-inducing hormone is activated by the optic nerve’s perception of lower light levels. The problem is, modern living has kids on screens during the majority of their day and evening—exposing them to artificial blue light---which tells their brains it is still daytime. The result can be a delay in melatonin secretion, and therefore, a sense of alertness that interferes with falling asleep. That’s why experts recommend putting away screens at least 2 hours before sleep time.
Lack of Outdoor Time: Today’s children spend more time indoors than ever before, which often coincides with poor sleep for a few reasons. Lower physical activity levels, plus lack of exposure to daylight both have a negative effect on sleep. American gynecologist Dr. Felice Gersh firmly believes getting outdoors in the morning helps set the circadian rhythm—our bodies’ sleep-wake cycle guided by melatonin—to better coincide with the natural light and dark phases of each day. Not only do menstrual cycles become more regular; appetite and weight are easier to control, and sleep becomes easier. (In this way, outdoor time could provide additional benefits to adolescent girls.)
What about lack of exercise? Children need daily physical activity to maintain overall health. Without it, sleep issues can be more common because of unused energy that hasn’t been spent. A European study published in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood in 2009 found significant differences in the time it took children to fall asleep among its nearly 600 participants and that these observations were related to their activity level. Among these children—whose average age was seven---the kids who were physically active during the day fell asleep more quickly than those who were less active. The more vigorous the activity they did, the faster they fell asleep. Meanwhile, the study observed that with each hour of sedentary activity, it took the children an extra 3 minutes to fall asleep! This means a child who is physically inactive, sitting in front of a computer or other screen for 9 hours a day could take almost a half hour extra, on average, to fall asleep---and that’s not even considering the delay in sleepiness caused by blue light exposure. Getting them moving regularly throughout the day is vital; just make sure to discourage vigorous activity close to bedtime.
Then there are the stimulants in foods. In his book Excitotoxins, Dr. Russell Blaylock-- a now-retired neurosurgeon—states that sweeteners, artificial colours, flavours and flavour enhancers like MSG are all excitatory to the nervous system and discusses his research into how they trigger anxiety, hyperactivity, insomnia and more. Then there are the caffeine sources such as chocolate and colas are well-known to stimulate the nervous system as well. Dietary modifications such as restricting access to these ingredients at home and swapping them out for more natural snacks like fresh fruits, nuts/seeds, and yogurt may be easier than you think.
Natural, Safe Sleep Support for Children
Did you have any ‘a-ha’s reading any of those potential causes of poor sleep in children? If so, you can slowly modify your child’s environment in ways that reduce stress, improve nutrition and overall lifestyle habits. Here are a few safe natural health products that may improve sleep naturally:
Magnesium: This mineral is essential for nervous system health, so deficiency can affect sleep, behaviour and mood. The mineral can be augmented through food sources or supplementation to promote relaxation of the nervous system, relax muscles and support sleep. Unfortunately, the highest food sources are nuts and seeds, which are usually not allowed at school. Supplementing with magnesium is the easiest way to obtain amounts needed for relaxation and sleep. 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 Magnesium Glycinate is available in both powder and capsule formats. The powder may be mixed into a favourite healthy beverage, such as a fruit and yogurt shake to reduce detection and improve compliance.
Aside from its natural caffeine content, green tea has several therapeutic constituents. By far, the one that’s most promising for kids with sleep-time anxiety or hyperactivity is l-theanine. That’s because it has a calming effect that’s not going to interfere with focus; rather, it will serve to enhance it.
Not a stimulant, non-drowsy, and not addictive? Then how does it work?
Unlike the drugs prescribed for ADHD, l-theanine is not an amphetamine, or any other kind of stimulant. It may be used without side effects or concern of dependency or addiction. You might be wondering then, is l-theanine a sedative? Actually, l-theanine calms and focuses the mind in 2 ways. For one, l-theanine temporarily blocks the stimulating neurotransmitter, glutamine. We need glutamine as a building block for motivating neurotransmitters, but too much can cause hyper-excitability in some individuals. Secondly, l-theanine works by supporting the production of GABA, a more calming neurotransmitter. Since it’s not a true sedative, l-theanine may be used at any time of the day without concern.
A Promising Study
A Canadian study spearheaded by Dr. Michael Lyon, MD of the Functional Medicine Research Center in BC looked at supplementing l-theanine to boys with formally-diagnosed ADHD. (Lyon chose to study boys because for every girl diagnosed with ADHD there are 3 boys diagnosed with it). Ninety-eight ADHD boys aged 8 to 12 were given 200 milligrams of l-theanine twice daily. The study results were impressive in that the l- theanine-supplemented boys showed an improvement in sleep quality, which is an important factor in poor concentration at school because sleep disturbances are associated with behavioural disturbances.
PureLab Vitamins l-theanine comes in several formats—chewable, slow-release or regular encapsulation-- so that it can be tailored to the situation. A child who is experiencing chronic episodes of insomnia, hyperactivity or anxiety will have faster results with the chewable form, for rapid absorption. Not only does one chewable tablet equal just half the dose provided by a capsule; the chewables are pleasantly orange-flavoured while containing no sugars nor chemical sweeteners.
Better Lifestyle = Better Sleep = Happier Child
L-theanine and magnesium can be highly appropriate supplements for children by supporting relaxation, focus and better sleep. They can be tried individually or safely in combination. Since better quality sleep can reduce dependence upon stimulating processed foods and drinks, the positive effects can be unlimited!
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. “Screen Time and Children”. Issue No. 54, February 2020. Accessed online August 9th 2022.
Blaylock, Russell. Excitotoxins: The Taste that Kills. Sante Fe: Health Press NA Inc., 1996.
Cleveland Clinic. “Is Your Child Stressed? Don’t Overlook a Surprisingly Simple Fix.” January 10, 2017. Accessed online August 9, 2022.
Gersh, Felice. PCOS SOS: A Gynecologist’s Lifeline to Naturally Restore Your Rhythms, Hormones and Happiness. Soho UK: Right Angles, 2018.
Lyon, Michael R., Mahendra P. Kapoor, and Lekh R. Juneja. 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 16.4 (2011): 348-354.
Nixon GM, Thompson JM, Han DY, et al. Falling asleep: the determinants of sleep latency. Arch Dis Child. 2009;94(9):686-689.
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