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A-Z Teen Health Glossary

How Does Nutrition Affect Teens’ Mental Health?

Nutrition and Food Affectings Teen Mental Health and Mood - Paradigm Austin

Nutrition and gut health play a large role in affecting mood. Here’s how food affects your teenagers mental health.

Every teen has neurotransmitters, or happy chemicals, that regulate mood. Until recently, neurotransmitters were thought to be located only in the brain. When they are healthy, they send messages telling teens to feel happy, excited, and energized.

Recent research found these same types of neurotransmitters are found in the gut, as well as the brain. In fact, 95% of serotonin is found in our guts, which some researchers call the “second brain”. Having a healthy gut reduces stress and anxiety.

This means what a teen eats literally affects their mood.

The most talked about neurotransmitters that send messages related to mood include serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, epinephrine, and glutamate. But what happens when these happy chemicals are not so happy? They can’t perform their jobs of making teens feel good.

This causes teens to feel unrewarded, more susceptible to pain, sadness and imbalanced hormones.

The foods that hinder neurotransmitters include anything with added sugar, fast food, and processed foods.

Sugar and Teen Mental Health

Sugar is one of the most addictive chemicals on the planet. And it’s in almost everything. Sugar is sneaked into products using aliases like:

High fructose corn syrup

  • Syrup
  • Dextrose
  • Galactose
  • Lactose
  • Maltose
  • Molasses
  • Nectars, and the list goes on

There are nearly 60 different names for sugar, all of which can have negative impact on a teen’s mental health.

Sugar acts like addictive drugs do in the brain. It causes a high release of dopamine, making teens feel good, and then a crash and then a craving to consume more sugar.

Sugar also has a connection to the growth hormone in the brain. Sugar lowers this hormone, also called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). A lowered BDNF has been connected to Alzheimer’s, dementia, depression and schizophrenia.

Fast Food and Teen Mental Health

One study found a direct link between fast food and mental health, specifically, depression. Out of the nearly 9,000 participants who had never had depression before. They were instructed to eat a diet of fast food and junk food, 493 reported feeling depressed and sought help or medication for their symptoms within just six months.

Another study, conducted in Alabama, found teen participants who consumed mostly fast food or junk food has high levels of sodium in their urine. Too much sodium can have negative effects on mental health and can lead to teens feeling depressed.

Fast food and junk food can lead to physical problems like obesity that are linked to depression, anxiety, attention deficit issues, and other mental health disorders.

Even More Dangerous Chemicals

The list of added chemicals and preservatives in foods today is increasing. Some foods have fifteen or more ingredients. This is not healthy for anyone, especially teens, since their brains are not completely developed until their mid-twenties.

  • Some of these chemicals include bisphenols, which can mimic estrogen and interfere with a teen’s hormones during puberty. They can also hinder fertility.
  • Phthalates also act like hormones but can mostly interfere with genital development in males.
  • Perchlorate can interfere with thyroid function and brain development. Artificial food colors have been found to increase symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
  • Finally, nitrates and nitrites can hinder thyroid function and make it harder for blood to carry oxygen to the body.

These bad chemicals and preservatives can be found in the lining of soda cans, the lining of food, the plastic containers and papers in which they are stored and in the foods themselves.

Parents, while this sounds frightening, and it is, there are things you can do to help your teen experience positive physical and mental health.

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Good Nutrition and Teen Mental Health

There are many things you can do as a parent to promote positive mental health in your teen. Their nutrition, and what you choose to feed them is one of the most important factors.

You don’t have to do a complete overhaul and cut your teen off from their favorites in one night. What you can do instead is start slowly cutting out the poor nutrition items and replacing them with something better.

One week you can stop purchasing potato chips and instead purchase fruits for your teen to snack on. The next week you can replace sodas with real fruit juices or flavored water. And then continue this until the majority of what your teen consumes is healthy.

Pay attention to the number of ingredients in the products you buy. The smaller number of ingredients, the better. Make it your goal to eventually start eating items with just one or two ingredients.

Vitamins in Foods Support Teen Mental Health

Your teen needs daily doses of vitamins that lead to positive mental health. Vitamins such as Omega-3 Fatty Acids, Vitamin D, Folic Acid are a few examples.

  • Omega-3s offer your teen mood stabilizing benefits. They have been connected to helping teens manage any attention deficit symptoms, as well as depression. Oily fishes like salmon are a great source of Omega-3s.
  • Vitamin D deficiency has been associated with depression and seasonal affective disorder. Help your teen get the right amount of Vitamin D by helping them get outside on sunny days. One of the best sources of Vitamin D is the sun. However, giving your teen a supplement is advised by many doctors.
  • Folic Acid is found in many food sources like kale, leafy greens, spinach, nuts, beans and whole grains. All of these can lower the risk of depression in teens.

Healing Your Teen

Food alone is not always the answer. Teens can benefit from working with professional nutritionists, as well as mental health providers.

Together, your teen and their counselor can create meal plans that support positive mental health. This allows your teen to be in control of their diet, and accountable for following through with it. Teen treatment professionals can help your teen understand the connection between mood and nutrition.

The good news is that it is never too late to make positive changes in a teen’s diet that can lead to better mental health.