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Back-to-school supplements

It’s nearly that time of year again—when kids head back to the classroom. How can your shoppers ensure that their children get a smart start? You can help by learning about—and stocking—key supplements to boost brain power, improve immunity and soothe stress. Here are experts’ top picks and why they work.

Build brains
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The brain’s nerve-cell membranes are made of fat. Ingesting a healthy fat—DHA—can help make these membranes lithe and limber enough to successfully fire off neurotransmitters and keep kids’ wits about them. “Attention, focus, processing efficiency, memory—all those are dependent on cells working effectively, and DHA will help,” says Randall Neustaedter, a doctor of Oriental medicine and author of The Holistic Baby Guide (New Harbinger, 2010). A recent study found that 4-year-olds who took 400 mg a day of DHA for four months improved their listening-comprehension and vocabulary-acquisition skills.

Because finding an effective dose of pure DHA (at least 300 mg a day) can be difficult, Robert Rountree, MD, coauthor of Smart Medicine for a Healthier Child (Avery, 1994), recommends liquid fish oil, in a child’s dose of 800 to 1,500 mg daily at a ratio of 60 percent eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) to 40 percent DHA. In addition to brain-boosting DHA, the EPA in fish and other oils also offers a health bonus. “Anti-inflammatory EPA can help allergies and inflammation from colds and other viral things kids get,” says Neustaedter.

Algae can work as a vegetarian substitute for fish oil, says Neustaedter, but it contains only DHA, not EPA. Another vegetarian option, echium oil, converts to EPA at a 1-to-1 level, but does not convert to DHA. Flaxseed oil is mostly alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which converts to DHA and EPA at only a 3 percent to 7 percent rate.

Phosphatydilserine. PS is a fat that facilitates communication among brain cells. “It’s a natural substance your brain makes,” says Neustaedter. Although PS has many years of research supporting its ability to enhance memory in older adults, preliminary evidence shows the fat may also improve attention, concentration, learning, behavior and school performance in children.

PS is found in foods such as eggs and soy, but only in small amounts. Thus, dietary supplements are more effective options to top off the body’s supply of PS. Neustaedter recommends 100 mg a day for children who need a brain booster. Formerly, PS supplements were derived from bovine brains, but due to concerns about mad cow disease, they are now made from soy.

Improve immunity
Vitamin D. “My top immune-supplement choice for most every child is vitamin D,” says Rountree. Vitamin D is crucial for triggering the immune system to react and fight off infections. Case in point: An April study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that daily supplements of vitamin D3 reduced the incidence of seasonal flu in schoolchildren by more than 40 percent.

In a perfect world, children would produce adequate amounts of vitamin D when they expose their skin to the sun. But most kids live far from the equator and use sunscreen, so they have fewer opportunities to catch rays. Neustaedter recommends school-aged children supplement with 2,000 IU of vitamin D3 a day. Unlike D2, D3 is natural and nontoxic, Neustaedter says.

Probiotics. These “friendly” bacteria help reestablish beneficial intestinal flora, which not only help digestion but boost immunity. “Eighty percent of the immune system is produced in the small intestine,” says Neustaedter. “Having a healthy small intestine will lead to a healthy immune system. Probiotics will go a long way to doing that.” Recent studies show that probiotic supplements may reduce the incidence of fevers, coughs, runny noses and other infections in young children.

Rountree recommends children take a mixture of Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria—at least 15 billion colony-forming units a day.

Elderberry. “If kids get colds frequently, taking elderberry can be helpful,” says Neustaedter. “It’s a good antiviral and immune-system stimulant.” Elderberry’s high antioxidant activity may be responsible for its immune-boosting potential. A few small studies have shown that black elderberry extract may shorten the duration of flu.

Neustaedter says children can take elderberry extracts according to label instructions for acute sickness during the cold-and-flu season.

Soothe stress
Magnesium. “If kids have a hard time turning their minds off and going to sleep, calcium and magnesium will help,” Neustaedter says. As a calming mineral, magnesium trumps calcium, but “kids tend to need more calcium for their bones, so the two nutrients are usually given together,” says Rountree, who recommends children take 100 to 300 mg of magnesium daily, depending on their age and weight.

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis). To soothe anxiety, Rountree points to lemon balm, “which is very safe and gentle but effective.” Researchers have found that lemon balm, in combination with other herbs—for example, valerian—may ease restlessness, anxiety and sleep disorders. Kids can drink 1 to 2 cups of freshly brewed tea daily. Or a tastier and more convenient option: glycerites, which are tinctures that use glycerin to extract the constituents from an herb rather than alcohol.

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