Health hacks for kids, teens

As the foundation for her “health hacks” advice for kids and teens, Steamboat Springs Naturopathic Dr. Grace Charles begins with the basics of lifestyle changes starting with good sleep and nutrition.

During a Dec. 8 presentation at the annual Parent Connection Summit hosted by the Routt County Youth Services Coalition, Charles advised parents to appeal to kids’ interests to bring them on board with the key health priorities of sleep, nutrition, movement and stress relief. If making improvements feels overwhelming, Charles recommends starting with a single improvement in one of those four health categories, which will benefit the other three areas as well.

For sufficient sleep, if regular bedtime is a struggle, parents can explain the benefits of getting enough sleep — including more energy and better attention span, judgement and adaptability. If children value playing sports, then parents can explain how sleep can help them play better. If children value academics, explain how sleep can benefit learning, said Charles, who works at Emerald Integrative Health in Steamboat.

Charles points out that preschoolers ages 3-5 need 10-13 hours of sleep per night, kids ages 6-12 need 9-12 hours, and teens ages 13-17 need 8-10 hours.

One of the best ways to promote healthy sleep is a “no electronics in the bedroom” rule, Charles said. For older kids, some parents impose curfews on electronics or turn off the house wi-fi at a specific hour. If kids need white noise or soothing music to sleep, a wireless speaker can be placed in the child’s bedroom with the cell phone outside the bedroom.

“Electronics are too tempting,” Charles said. “We are all scrolling a little later at night than we like, and our children’s brains have no self-control. Children who get enough sleep make less risky choices than kids who don’t.”

If kids have trouble sleeping, she recommends practicing good sleep hygiene rules of bedrooms that are cool, dark and quiet, as well as considering temporary use of Melatonin gummies or L-theanine, an amino acid found in some mushrooms and teas. Not drinking caffeine and getting enough exercise to make the body tired also are key.

Grace Charles, holding her younger son Jack, 1, has served as a naturopathic doctor in Steamboat Springs for 10 years.
Grace Charles/Courtesy photo

The practitioner noted that sleep experts now say people can catch up on recent lost sleep by going to sleep a little earlier, sleeping in a little later on weekends or taking an afternoon nap.

To promote movement, Charles’ advice is that time playing sedentary video games should match minutes of exercise. That exercise does not mean riding an e-bike to school but instead means active sports practice or playing tag.

One of the strongest motivators for kids to move is their parents setting a good example of regular exercise, Charles said. If kids need extra motivation, parents can, for example, let kids skip out of boring, stationary chores if the kids take the dog for a walk or shovel snow instead.

“Unstable blood sugar changes our mood and energy. High blood sugar makes kids angry or sad. Low blood sugar makes kids feel nervous or anxious. Being caught in that seesaw is very uncomfortable for children.”

Dr. Grace Charles, Emerald Integrative Health

Good nutrition for children means stable blood sugar levels and avoiding sugary foods, especially bypassing sodas and energy or coffee drinks. Adding protein to breakfast is key, as well as adding chopped vegetables into dishes. Charles advises leaving a bowl of fresh fruit on the counter, cutting up fruit before breakfast, putting out a plate of cut veggies as dinner is cooking, serving veggies with a healthy dip or hummus, and playing to family favorites by putting well-liked healthy meals in a regular rotation.

When healthy eating is lagging, Charles recommends considering the dietary supplements of multivitamin or B complex vitamins, fish oil and vitamin D. As a naturopathic doctor for 10 years in Steamboat, Charles recommends adaptogenic herbs to help the body cope with too much stress, such as Ashwagandha, lemon balm or Tulsi, otherwise known as holy basil.

Ashleigh Seely, a personal trainer at Trapper Fitness Center in Craig, is a patient who said Charles’ advice has helped her family with many suggestions, including natural supplements and blood sugar regulation.

“It’s been a lifestyle for our family, which has benefited every aspect of sleep, health and wellness for my children,” Seely said. “Implementing these concepts, although we are not perfect every day, has helped me understand child behavior and wellness for my kids in a way I may have never looked at it before.”

Charles said her goal for patients is to treat as low on the therapeutic scale as is effective, with measures such as prescription medications or surgery later in line. That is why measures such as good sleep, nutrition, movement and nervous system regulation are so important. To that end, she advises families not to over schedule.

“Make sure schedules aren’t insane,” Charles said. “Decide what your family values are and prioritize and make decisions as a family and setting kids up for success.”