Why Nutrition Matters For Teenage Stress
"I guess he’s always been emotionally volatile, but in the last few years the anxiety has really peaked! I just can't reason with him anymore. He’s scared to do things, he worries all the time. It just seems like he can't slow down, turn off, know what's appropriate and when, you know? His reactions are totally overblown!"
This is a common story I hear from parents. Their kids are struggling in school, they have unstable moods, they struggle to focus and learn, they get in trouble too much. They are the one out of five kids dealing with a mental health diagnosis; they are the one in ten that has a learning difficulty; they are the one in three that struggles with anxiety.1
If this sounds like your situation, you are far from alone. Consider the following statistics:
50% of Ontario parents report having concerns about their child’s anxiety
Five out of six kids do not receive the support they need for their unstable mood
Suicide accounts for about a quarter of all youth deaths, making it the second leading cause overall, with rates among Indigenous youth among the highest in the world1
Only 43% of Canadian youth report a high capacity to cope with unexpected and difficult problems and day-to-day demands1,2,3
Many of these kids are picky, angry, sleep poorly and generally drive their parents to the edge and back again, countless times a day, and making parents feel like they’re walking on eggshells.
There’s no question children are under more stress now than ever before, but parents come to me asking, "Shouldn't my child be able to grow in the face of stress without this crippling anxiety, anger and depression they’re experiencing?"
My answer is that their struggles could be, in part, nutrition-related.
How nutrition helps stressed teens
10 years ago, while I was working as a high school teacher, and with a front-row seat to the struggles so many kids were experiencing, I began researching nutrition and its effect on mood, the brain, and learning. The more I learned, the more I understood a paradigm-shifting concept: the health of the body and the function of the brain aren’t two separate constructs, but were inextricably connected, and making significant improvements to the heath of the body would have direct effects on mood, behaviour, and capacity to learn.
The stress kids are under puts them at high risk for mood instability, but there's hope; research showing a clear connection between nutrition and the brain is so compelling that in 2015, a consortium of researchers and clinicians published a statement in The Lancet urging the “recognition of diet and nutrition as central determinants of both physical and mental health.” The authors also highlighted the need for a “move towards a new integrated framework in psychiatry, whereby consideration of nutritional factors should be standard practice.”4
While social and emotional supports are critical for kids, if they lack the biological resources (i.e. nutrients), they are at risk for developing mood instabilities and other inabilities to cope with the world, even if they have ideal supportive social structures around them.
Nutrition and teenage mood swings
Puberty is a particularly energy-intensive time of life. I often hear the same story from parents of teens: there minor-to-moderately concerning issues during childhood (such as picky eating, poor sleep, erratic temper, tummy trouble, eczema, mild anxiety, or weight issues), but once puberty hit, crippling anxiety, spiraling depression, or explosive agitation seemed to come out of nowhere!
While it’s critical to provide strong social supports and secure attachments for teens as they weather the physical, emotional, and mental changes of puberty, deal with growing stress levels, and navigate their complex worlds, not enough emphasis is placed on their need for the essential biological resources that nutrients provide.
Nourishment is key for growing bodies and minds. Without nutrients, the nervous system struggles to self-regulate and can quickly become unstable. This is one of the reasons why, in coaching families through diet changes with their kids, I always start by helping them get more nourishment. If a child enters puberty well-nourished, the mild-to-moderate concerns of childhood are more likely to dissolve rather than deepen. If they have already hit puberty and the extra stress has noticeably become too much, flooding them with nourishment through food and, if needed, nutritional supplements is an excellent therapeutic adjunct to emotional support.
Of course there are more factors that contribute to a child’s mood and behavior than a lack of nutrition, and with them, more possible solutions. But the takeaway is this: if your child lacks the biological resources they need to manage stress, they can become prone to mood instability even if they are getting all the love, support and social resources they could possibly need.
When we think of the word "stress," most of us think about causes like strained social relationships or increasing expectations. But in fact, stress is any influence, internal or external, that causes a temporary change in the body’s function.5,6,7
Stress of any kind causes an inflammatory response in the body that fills us in just the same way that water fills a glass. And research shows that our mood can change in relation to our levels of inflammation! Our bodies have a remarkable ability to keep the “glass” from overflowing, which allows us to tolerate stressful events, but if there is too much stress to tolerate, or too much inflammation to reduce, the glass overflows and the body experiences further negative symptoms due to persisting altered function.
What foods trigger stress?
Aside from the general stressors of life kids are under, there are a number of internal stressors that cause inflammation and affect mood.
Undiagnosed food sensitivities
Undiagnosed food sensitivities can do more than just give you a sore stomach! When proteins interact with the immune cells of the gut, they can become fuel for inflammation. Gluten is a common culprit because many people lack the enzymes and bacteria to sufficiently digest it. Various studies have shown that undiagnosed gluten sensitivity or celiac disease may underlie serious cases of mental illness.8,9,10
Sugar and refined carbohydrates
Sugar and refined carbohydrates, while tasty, can also wreak havoc on the body’s stress load. There's a reason why high-carb foods like bread, pasta, and sweets are considered comfort foods: sugar helps stimulate dopamine and serotonin, leaving us feeling comforted! But, shortly after our comfort food binge, our blood sugar drops, and we feel anxious and agitated again; our brains lack fuel, and our stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, try to pull the body back to balance again. As tough as it can be, cutting added sugar back to below the recommended guidelines of less than 25 grams per day can be an important component of taking a nutritional approach to mood stability and calming inflammation.11,12,13,14
Signs your child may be extra-sensitive to sugar include:
Difficulty sleeping (can’t settle, wakes during the night)
Erratic hunger patterns (hungry all the time, or not at all)
Feeling tired after eating
Cravings for sugar and carbohydrate-rich foods like fruit, sweets, bread, pasta
Weight instability (can’t gain or lose weight)
Feeling grumpy in the afternoon
Struggling to focus and think clearly, particularly later in the day
Poor mental or physical stamina
Irritated and combative behavior, especially around food
Pathogenic microbes in the digestive system, such as clostridia, H.pylori and candida albicans can be a source of stress. These microbes can cause inflammation, release mood-altering metabolites, and deplete digestive fire, leading to a lack of critical nutrients needed for growth and development.15
Neurotransmitters and digestion
The key to helping your child feel, behave, and learn might be found in the gut. The gut and the brain are in such constant conversation that they can no longer be considered separate entities. The digestive system is an interface between the external environment and the internal environment of the body, houses most of our immune cells, contains more neurons than the spinal cord, and is home to trillions of microbes that have distinct effects on mood. In fact, scientists have been able to completely alter the behaviour of rats—making them antisocial, reducing their ability to learn, and causing them to run and push—within two minutes of altering the microbes in their bodies. Today, drug companies are pouring resources into psychobiotics, a new area of research aiming to create mood-altering medications using microbes.
Hormones and neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine are chemical messengers that communicate with the nervous system and affect how we think, feel, and respond to stress. They are mostly created in the gut and affect executive function, sensory experience, bowel motility, and even sleep! For these chemicals to work effectively, a variety of nutrients, enzymes and amino acids including tryptophan, tyrosine, and glutamic acid need to come together to create and transport them. Deficiency in these building blocks and co-factors, along with infections and inflammation in the gut, can lead to functional problems with these chemicals, which culminate in mood instability.
Nutritional research points to the need for a wide variety of nutrients including fibre, zinc, omega fatty acids, plant chemicals like carotenoids, and probiotic microbes to keep the terrain in the gut healthy. When the digestive ecosystem is in balance, inflammation is modulated, cells are well-nourished, and microbes can produce the hormones and neurotransmitters our nervous system needs to keep us feeling well.16,17,18
Nutrients for stress management
A number of nutrients have been well-researched for their effects on mood, behavior and ability to learn.
Zinc is required for the production of more than 300 different enzymes in the body and is especially important during childhood and adolescence. It's involved in the creation of digestive enzymes and stomach acids, neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, sex hormones like testosterone and estrogen, and melatonin, our sleep hormone. Zinc is also necessary for memory and spatial processing. Some ADHD studies have found zinc to be particularly helpful for focus and energy stability, and it has been used successfully in the treatment of some cases of eating disorders.19
Zinc deficiency can be caused by insufficient intake but also by poor absorption. Some people will dump excessive amounts of zinc via urine in times of stress, creating a vicious cycle of poor stress tolerance and digestive insufficiency. Where and when children's zinc levels are corrected parents have reported improvements in learning, memory, sensory processing issues, digestive troubles, hunger or satiety, depression, anxiety, and picky eating.20
Vitamin B6 is involved in over 100 enzymatic reactions, affects metabolism, aids in the synthesis of serotonin, dopamine, and GABA, and helps with detoxification and hemoglobin formation. Vitamin B6 is also critical for the proper functioning of cells and immune function. Researchers and clinicians have found this deficiency to sometimes be a factor in social anxiety and worry. Supplementing with B6 alone does not seem to be terribly effective, but when used in combination with zinc it can be extremely helpful for anxiety. As is the case with zinc, some people seem to dump B6 when they're under stress. A small subset of people can't absorb B6 effectively, leaving them with a functional deficiency despite adequate intake. B6 can also be depleted by some medications like corticosteroids. 21,22
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids - eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA, and docosahexaenoic acid, DHA - are probably the most well-researched nutrients when it comes to the brain and mood. While most studies demonstrate mood improvement when omega-3 supplements are used for at least ten weeks, they do differ in the extent of improvement, the dosage needed, and the explanation of why this helps. Since adequate levels of omega-3 are necessary for our cell membranes and neurotransmission, it’s critical that we ensure our kids are getting enough. Some children absorb fatty acids poorly due to the presence of a genetic variant in a cluster of fat-absorbing enzymes called FADS (fatty acid desaturase), A child with FADS1 or FADS2 polymorphism will likely be deficient in fatty acids even if they eat a healthy fat-rich diet because their capacity to get fatty acids into cells is significantly reduced. Interestingly, this genetic variant seems to be over-represented in kids with ADHD behavior and reduced cognition. Supplementing with omegas in conjunction with magnesium and zinc and in some cases digestive enzymes may be the best way to ensure adequate absorption.23,24,25
Vitamin D deficiency has been linked in observational studies to everything from depression to anxiety and behavior problems in kids. While experts still aren’t entirely sure how vitamin D plays a role in our mood, there are many developing theories. Some studies point to vitamin D’s role in serotonin production (via tryptophan hydroxylase), while others indicate vitamin D’s significance in balancing the microbiome where it helps to decrease inflammation allowing the brain and gut to more efficiently send messages back and forth through bacteria, chemical messengers, and the vagus nerve. Further studies now show that the brain’s neurons and glial cells, particularly in areas of the brain associated with executive function and depression, have vitamin D receptors indicating a potential link between vitamin D and mood.26,27,28
Cholesterol, like omega-3’s, plays a key role in cognition. Published research shows a connection between low total cholesterol and some cases of mood dysregulation, including suicidal ideation. This is an area in further need of study but could reveal a promising biomarker for suicidal risk.29
Experts tell us that “a traditional whole-food diet, consisting of higher intakes of foods such as vegetables, fruits, seafood, whole grains, lean meat, nuts, and legumes, with avoidance of processed foods, is more likely to provide the nutrients that afford resiliency against the pathogenesis of mental disorders.”30 We know now that a stable, well-balanced mind goes hand-in-hand with a stable, well-balanced body. Taking a whole-body approach to mood stability that involves providing your child the psychological and the biological resources they need to weather stress storms helps them not only manage the vagaries of life, but also grow stronger, and become more resilient because of them.
For references and further reading visit ecoparent/TWF/WIN21.