Teens are notorious for loving junk food. Whether it’s sweet or salty, these foods are usually high in fat and low in nutrients. Experts say this preference for unhealthy food choices has to do with the teenage brain. The prefrontal cortex, which is crucial to decision making and behavioral control, does not fully mature until the early 20s.1 While an adult may be able to resist the urge of eating a whole bag of candy thanks to their fully-developed prefrontal cortex, a teen may find the temptation too alluring. This can be even more problematic for teens with ADHD because symptoms like inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity stem from executive dysfunction in this very part of the brain.
Even more, the teenage brain is home to increased dopamine receptors, which are stimulated by “rewards” like sweet and calorie-dense foods.2 Unfortunately frequent stimulation of the reward system may cause long-lasting shifts to the balance of brain chemicals and end up harming your teen’s mental health.
Read on to find out which nutrients are crucial to mental health and explore the top nutrition hacks to improve your teen’s diet and mood.
What are Important Nutrients to Improve Mental Health?
What your teen eats is closely related to their emotions and mental health. Studies indicate that the risk of depression is 25 to 35 percent lower in those who eat a diet high in vegetables, fruits, grains and fish, while avoiding processed foods and sugar.3 In teens, those who eat a low-quality diet have an 80 percent higher risk of depression compared to those who follow a higher-quality, whole-foods diet.
Some of the nutrients identified as having a positive impact on mental health include:
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Salmon, eggs, chia seeds
- Vitamins D, B, and C: Eggs, oranges, spinach, kale, broccoli
- Folic acid: Whole-wheat bread and pastas, green vegetables, nuts
- Magnesium: Oatmeal, almonds, soymilk, pumpkin seeds
- Tryptophan: Turkey, chicken, egg whites
- Complex carbs like whole grains: oatmeal, quinoa, whole-grain breads, whole-grain cereals
- Polyphenols: Dark chocolate, berries, nuts, olives
- Probiotics: yogurt, kefir, kimchi
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Here are some nutrition hacks to use with your teen at home:
1. Find the Right Fats
Healthy fats are crucial for your teen’s brain development. After all, the brain is composed of 60 percent fat and requires essential fatty acids to keep it working well. Some of the top sources of healthy fats include fatty fish like salmon or tuna, eggs, whole milk, avocado, nuts, and coconut oil.
2. Include Vitamin D + C
Vitamin D and C foods like citrus, potatoes, oily fish, and egg yolks are crucial in lowering your teen’s risk of depression and anxiety. This is thought to be due to the anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective effects of vitamin D and vitamin C’s antioxidant qualities.4, 5
3. Support Healthy Sleep
What does sleep have to do with nutrition? More than you may think. According to Rebecca Stetzer, RD, of Gundersen Nutrition Therapy, lack of sleep may affect hunger-regulating hormones, which can lead to your teen eating more food more often.6 Their cravings may increase for foods that are higher in added sugar, fat and sodium, which can mess with their mood and overall health. To make things even more complicated, some dietary choices can wreck your teen’s sleep. To support sleep through diet, help your teen steer clear of sugar and processed foods and eat more tryptophan-rich foods like turkey, dairy products, and bananas. Check out these bedtime snacks for better sleep.
4. Be Aware of Iron Levels
Researchers have discovered a link between iron deficiency and mood disorders. They theorize that iron deficiency in childhood leads to abnormal myelination (covering) of neurons and altered neurotransmitters that contribute to child and adolescent-onset psychiatric conditions.7 Some iron-rich foods to incorporate into your teen’s diet include beans, leafy greens, dried fruit, peas, and lean, red meats.
5. Improve Digestion
The brain and the gut are intricately connected. A large portion of serotonin, a neurotransmitter referred to as a “happy chemical,” is synthesized in the gut and when your teen’s gut is unhealthy and their digestion is out of whack, they are likely to experience more anxiety and stress. Encouraging your teen to drink plenty of water can help aid digestion, but they should also aim to consume probiotic- and prebiotic-rich foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, pickles, whole grains, bananas, onions, greens, and soybeans.
6. Prioritize Exercise
Teens who exercise regularly have better mental health and emotional well-being. A recent study also found that the combination of healthy foods and exercise had significant effects on mood and increased life satisfaction.8 Your teen doesn’t have to run a marathon or get a gym membership to prioritize exercise. Help them find activities they enjoy doing, whether it’s rock climbing, dancing, or playing a game of frisbee. Exercise is also a great way to help release pent up stress and anxiety and it creates an outlet for hyperactive teens.
7. Balance Blood Sugar
If you’ve ever referred to your teen as “hangry,” their blood sugar is likely to blame. Studies show that there is a close relationship between mood and blood-sugar, or glycemic, highs and lows.9 In fact, symptoms of poor glycemic regulation mirror many mental health symptoms, including irritability, anxiety, and worry. This makes sense if you consider that the brain runs primarily on glucose. To support your teen’s blood sugar balance, aim for a diet low in refined carbohydrates and added sugars and high in foods like beans, apples, leafy greens, berries, and the spice turmeric.
Your teen may be resistant at first to a major overhaul of their diet if they’re hooked on junk food, but with time and the motivation of their better mood, they’ll soon notice the benefits. One way to help ease them into the transition and feel empowered with their new and improved diet is to grocery shop with your teen.
Proper nutrition is one component of Brillia’s holistic approach to managing anxiety and symptoms associated with ADHD. Other healthy lifestyle habits like getting adequate sleep, controlling screen time, and practicing mindfulness have all been shown to contribute to a healthy, balanced mood.
If you think your teen could use more support, consider trying Brillia, a non-prescription, homeopathic medication that helps to safely reduce symptoms like hyperactivity, anxiety, impulsivity, and lack of focus without harmful side effects. Free from harsh, synthetic chemicals, Brillia works by zeroing in on the S100B protein, a crucial regulator of many different intracellular and extracellular brain processes, including various enzyme activities, calcium homeostasis, and communication between neurons. Studies show that when the S100B protein is out of balance in the body, there is a disruption of these brain processes, leading to increased irritability and stress. Brillia reinstates this balance without causing drowsiness, masking your teen’s personality, or affecting any other systems in the body.
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