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Sunday, September 15, 2013

Back-To-School Checklist


This fall, help your kids start the school year right. Instead of dreading the back-to-school shuffle, take this opportunity to make positive changes that will set them up for academic success. Here are my top 5 strategies for good mental health and a school year to look forward to.

#1  Get Good Sleep

Adequate sleep is essential for staying alert, paying attention, and focusing on tasks at hand. Studies show that it's also a good way to improve memory and protect against catching colds. Kids should get at least 10 hours of sleep each night.

#2  Eat a Healthy Breakfast

Breakfast really is the most important meal of the day. Eating a balanced breakfast will help keep blood sugar levels balanced, preventing highs and lows that can make it difficult to concentrate in class. Feed kids a combination of protein, healthy fat, and complex carbohydrates at each meal, including breakfast. Replace toast, pastries and processed cereal with eggs or whole milk yogurt. Swap juice for fresh whole fruit.

(If you're wondering what to send with them for lunch, read the Environmental Working Group's five easy tips for packing a healthy school lunch that your kids will actually eat.)

#3  Exercise Everyday

Regular physical activity is important for everyone, kids included. It not only improves physical health, but it has positive effects on mental health too. Studies show that exercise can improve brain function, cognition (thinking), behavior, and academic performance.

Get kids off the sofa and away from the computer for some good old-fashioned outdoor fun, whether it's playing in the park, biking with friends, or participating in team sports.

#4  Consider Fish Oil

Our brains are about 60 percent fat, and most of that fat is docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA. DHA is one of the two essential omega-3 fatty acids that are only found in fish and seafood (eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA, is the other). Our bodies can’t make them, so we have to get them from food. If we don’t get enough DHA, brain function and nerve cell communication can be affected.

It's good to eat fish regularly, as long as you choose species that are not contaminated with environmental toxins (check Seafood Watch for the most recent health advisories). But unless you're eating fish everyday, it may be a good idea to take fish oil as a supplement. (Anyone with health problems and/or taking medication should check with their doctor first.)

Studies show that fish oil can improve cognition and memory. And in children and adolescents with attention-deficit and hyperactivity problems, it has been shown to improve attentional, behavioral, and emotional problems.

For children, I recommend liquid fish oils flavored with essential oils of fruit. In my opinion, lemon covers fishy flavors best, but Nordic Naturals also makes orange, peach and strawberry liquids. (I like Nordic Naturals because they have pure, high quality fish oils that are third-party tested, and because they only use sustainably harvested fish to make their products.) Whichever flavor you favor, keep it in the fridge.

#5  Keep Regular Routines

Kids respond well to regular routines. Daily rhythms make it easy for them to feel ready to meet new challenges each day.

References:

Cohen S et al. Sleep habits and susceptibility to the common cold. Archives of Internal Medicine. 2009 Jan 12;169(1):62-7.

Hillman CH et al. Be smart, exercise your heart: exercise effects on brain and cognition. Nature Reviews, Neuroscience. 2008 Jan;9(1):58-65.

Huss M et al. Supplementation of polyunsaturated fatty acids, magnesium and zinc in children seeking medical advice for attention-deficit/hyperactivity problems - an observational cohort study. Lipids in Health and Disease. 2010 Sep 24;9:105.

Wang G et al. Synaptic plasticity in sleep: learning, homeostasis and disease. Trends in Neurosciences. 2011 Aug 11.

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