Just as our mental health has an impact on our physical well-being, so does our mood influence how and what we eat – and the reverse is true in both cases, as improving physical health and eating healthy has shown to have a significant impact on mood and mental health. A good diet correlates with fewer instances of depression, even when accounting for other factors and stressors, and improving one’s nutrition can relieve and reduce anxiety.
This is doubly important for teens, who are still growing and need as many quality nutrients as possible to reach their full potential. How and why food interacts with the mind is a complex question, and the answer lies in the many interactions between nutrition, nutrients and the brain, as well as the effects of so-called micronutrients – minerals, vitamins, beneficial fatty acids, antioxidants, and polyphenols.
On the flip side, there are the negative effects of certain additives, calorie-dense but low-nutrient foods, diet-related inflammation, and meals loaded with simple sugars and trans fats. Maximizing the good and minimizing the bad – and identifying between them, as well as cost-effective and simple ways to eat “clean” – can go a long way towards reducing symptoms and helping in the management of anxiety and depression.
How Nutrition Shapes the Developing Teenage Brain
A healthy diet and a conscious approach to nutrition is no substitute for an individually-tailored treatment plan – but it can be a critical part of it. Identifying a teen’s eating habits and improving on them can help improve symptoms of mental health conditions by:
Improving Mood via Key Nutrients
The mysteries and complexities of the mind are ultimately tied to the mechanical and physical nature of the brain, and like most thins, the brain needs fuel to run well. Premium fuel does less damage and gives you more mileage, and the same goes for food. Key nutrients can protect the brain from oxidative stress, eliminate potential deficiencies, and correlate with better mood regulation. These include:
- Polyphenols: A family of thousands of different compounds (mostly found in plants) thought to play a role in anti-inflammation.
- Omega-3: A fatty acid found mostly in oily fish, certain types of algae, and flax, and a key nutrient that is often missing in standard Western diets and correlates with better heart and brain health.
- Vitamin D: The most important source being ultraviolet light. Vitamin D supplementation is not heavily researched, and a good dietary source would be eggs and fish. However, making sure to get plenty of outdoor activity in during the summer months is often enough to reduce the likelihood of deficiency. Vitamin D may be linked to seasonal affective disorder.
- Folic Acid: A deficiency of which is often linked to depressive symptoms and low mood. Folate supplementation may help improve mood regulation and serotonin levels.
- Tryptophan: An amino acid found in several different protein sources, may have a link to serotonin release and mood regulation. However, more research is needed.
Better Gut Health
Scientists have increasingly been paying more attention to the neurological role that our gut plays, to the point that our digestive tract has colloquially been named the “second brain”. Every human body contains billions of bacteria living in a microbiome within our digestive system, and careful balance and health of these bacteria seems to play a vital role in mood, emotion, and even thoughts.
Our guts are individual enough that people will be sensitive to different foods, meaning your teen may require minor dietary adjustments to keep their gut healthy, and in turn influence their mental health. Probiotic foods have long been associated with better gut health. Some teens are more sensitive to certain foods that may negatively impact their gut.
Experimenting with probiotic foods and food sensitivity diets may impact your teen’s mental as well as physical health. Future, more in-depth gut-related treatments for mood and mental health may include fecal transplants, but it will take time before we fully unlock the mysteries between the gut and our mental health.
Addressing Inflammation via Food
Inflammation is a critical function in the body for preserving important life processes and fighting off potential foreign bodies and infections. It is by no means “bad”. But prolonged inflammation, and inflammatory foods, are associated with several chronic illnesses, stressors, and low mood, as well as much more oxidative stress.
Managing sources of inflammation from outside via anti-inflammatory foods may help certain teens better manage both their physical and mental health. Polyphenols and antioxidants may help reduce unnecessary or excessive inflammation or aid the body’s own antioxidant functions.
The Benefits of Homegrown Food
There’s more to food than just eating it, and another way in which our diet and nutrition may play a role in treating mental health issues is by taking more interest in the way we grow and precure our own food. Even when space is an issue, certain herbs and spices can be grown on minimal real estate with nothing but a south-facing window and some do-it-yourself (DIY) pots.
For families with more space, setting up a small vegetable patch can be incredibly rewarding, and can make for a source of nutritious food. Pumpkins, leafy greens, potatoes, peppers, and various herbs can easily be grown in a backyard, and gardening has a number of benefits from the rewarding feeling of nurturing something, to the benefit of an outdoor physical activity. A meta-analysis on the topic shows that growing your own vegetables can have a tremendous effect on mood and mental health.
Why Teens Should Learn to Cook
Growing and eating good food can affect mental health, and so can preparing it. Not only does preparing a meal help teens cultivate a greater understanding and respect for the ingredients they’re working with, but cooking itself is a creative craft, one that requires a lot of improvisation and leaves room for experimentation with a myriad of potential results.
Not everyone can be a great cook, but it does not take much effort or practice to be a good cook. Learning to prepare and enjoy a variety of meals can also instill a sense of independence and freedom, and help a teen feel like they are ready to live on their own at some point.
While formal research on the topic has led to positive albeit limited results, demanding more qualitative research, cooking interventions may be an effective way to further boost a teen’s self-esteem, help them embrace a creative endeavor, potentially discover a new talent, and learn to provide for themselves and feel accomplished in the process.
Food, from its origins in the soil to how it interacts with the bacteria in our gut, plays an important role in our mental and physical development and health. We eat and enjoy food every day, usually multiple times a day, and developing a healthy relationship with nutrition pays dividends.