The teenage years come with their own set of challenges. But did you know that you can use nutrition to your advantage?
Our diet provides the building blocks for maintaining both our mental and physical health, and yet the influence of nutrition on mental wellbeing is often overlooked, despite the fact that physiological factors, such as brain chemistry and blood sugar imbalances, can contribute to the development of anxiety and low mood as much as emotional and social issues can. In the teen years, when growth and puberty increase demand for nutrients, mental health can suffer as a consequence.
Understanding how diet can both support and impact mental health can give you tools to support your teen through trickier times. Here, we share tips to help teens take care of their mental wellbeing with nutrition.
If your teenager complains of stomach aches, bloating, or if they have ongoing constipation or diarrhoea, then check-in with a doctor or nutritionist to identify whether their digestion needs support. If there are signs your child isn’t digesting their food well, then they may not be able to process all the nutrients from their diet. If you have ruled out medical issues, then focus on encouraging your teen to sit down and take time to eat. A stress-free, unhurried meal, and chewing each mouthful well, will help the absorption of nutrients.
Find the right fats
Omega 3 fats are vital for supporting brain chemistry and lowering inflammation, both of which have been associated with low mood and depression. Although omega 3 fats can be found in walnuts, chia seeds, and flax seeds, some people struggle to convert these to the longer chain omega 3 fats, found in oily fish. If your teenager isn’t keen on salmon, mackerel, or sardines, it might be worth considering a good quality omega 3 fish or algae oil supplement. Don’t let your teen shy away from healthy fats in a misguided attempt at weight control. Healthy fats from olive oil, avocado, nuts, seeds, olives, and oily fish, play an important role in keeping our minds and bodies healthy.
Circadian rhythms, that keep us awake during the day and sleepy at night, shift slightly in the teenage years. This could go some way to explain why many teenagers are generally night owls, and can struggle to wake in the morning. Allowing the sleep-wake cycle to shift too much can disrupt mental wellbeing – any loss of sleep can also negatively affect mood. If your child struggles to get off to sleep due to worries or concerns running through their mind, I recommend using either Epsom salt baths before bed, a magnesium oil applied topically to the feet, or a magnesium-rich smoothie containing milk, banana, and almond nut butter. Magnesium helps to promote gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA), the neurotransmitter that helps us to feel relaxed, calming the mind before bed.
Include vitamin D
Low levels of this vitamin have been linked to anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions. We need exposure to the sun to maintain our levels, but with more and more teenagers opting to spend time indoors, this can be a factor in developing poor mental health. If your teen’s anxiety or mood worsens during the winter months, speak to a GP about how this might be related to vitamin D, and consider supplements or spending more time outdoors.
Be aware of iron levels
Low iron levels have also been linked to anxiety and depression. Teenage girls are at risk of iron deficiency anaemia if they have very heavy periods, or follow a poorly balanced vegan diet. You may also notice other signs of low iron, which include fatigue and pale skin. You can ask your GP to check the levels of the iron storage protein ferritin. Iron from animal sources, like red meat and eggs, are generally better absorbed than plant-based sources. However, pairing beans, dark green leafy vegetables, dried apricots, pistachios, or other high iron plant-based foods, with foods rich in vitamin C (think berries, peppers, and oranges) can enhance absorption of iron.
Balance blood sugar
Teenagers sometimes choose starchy or sweet snacks over more nutrient-dense meals. These foods are digested quickly, and glucose enters the bloodstream rapidly. Insulin is released to control the amount of glucose in the bloodstream, and subsequently, blood sugar can drop too low. When this happens, anxiety can increase and panic attacks can occur, and low blood sugar can affect mood and cause irritability. Keep blood sugar stable by increasing the amount of protein, vegetables, and healthy fats in a meal, and by avoiding too many sugary snacks or caffeine.
Sarah Hanratty is a clinical nutritionist at the Brain Food Nutrition Clinic, and a tutor at the School of Health.