‘You are what you eat’ so the saying goes, in which case for a lot of our teens we may fear that they are made of junk. While the general health benefits of a good diet are well-documented and drummed into all of us, one area that is often overlooked are the mental health benefits of a good diet.
This is true for all teens, but particularly so for our troubled teens- whether they are struggling with emotional issues like depression or anxiety, or more behavioural issues like anger, aggression, hyperactivity or impulsivity. What they eat makes a HUGE difference. And the reality is that they in general are not eating enough of the right things so that their bodies and particularly their minds can get enough of the nutrients that they need to function optimally.
Take iron for example. Iron is needed for the proper development of brain cells and for the proper function of neurotransmitters. In a piece of research which reviewed up to three thousand patients who had iron deficiency anemia whilst under the age of eighteen, it was concluded that,
“Iron deficiency increased the risk of psychiatric disorders, including mood disorders, autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and developmental disorders.” (Chen et al.: Association between psychiatric disorders and iron deficiency anemia among children and adolescents: a nationwide population-based study. BMC Psychiatry 2013 13:161).
Then consider this fact: 48% of females aged between 11 and 18 are iron deficient. Furthermore in a study of disadvantaged young males it was found that 78% were deficient.
Another nutrient, iodine helps ensure that there’s enough thyroid hormones in the brain to help it activate key neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, GABA, and acetylcholine. Without enough thyroid hormones, people may experience insomnia, fatigue, depression, and difficulty concentrating and focusing.
Then consider this: Nearly 70% of the samples in a UK study of teenage girls revealed an iodine deficiency and nearly a fifth (18%) of samples showed very low iodine levels. And remember those disadvantaged youngmales- 67% were deficient.
And this is just 2 nutrients. There are so many others that are known to impact brain chemistry, emotions and behaviour such as magnesium, zinc, vitamin B1 and omega 3s and then a whole host more whose primary function is not explicitly brain-related.
But the way I look at it, body parts cannot be viewed in isolation and so any nutritional deficiency is going to have a knock-on effect on how the brain functions.
And so one of the things I ALWAYS try and get the teens I work with to do, is take a high quality multivitamin AND mineral supplement, including Omega 3 from the get go (I’ll go into exactly what later).
While trying to improve their diet is also important and is always the best way to meet nutritional needs rather than just popping a pill, the reality is that there is often so much going on, that a radical change in diet is not going to happen anytime soon. There are often bigger fish to fry.
When parents and carers are battling with issues around screentime, sleeping, who they’re hanging around with, what they’re getting up to and a whole load else besides, adding another battle to the list can seem incredibly unappealing.
Add to this that a lot of our teens with other challenges such as ADHD or autism are often physiologically driven towards the ‘bad stuff’ and have a profound aversion to certain food groups, then taking a pill rather than starting World War 3, 4 and 5 in one day seems like the way forward.
And what I can report is that high quality supplementation really DOES make a difference. I’ve had depressed teens emerge from under their black clouds within weeks, impulsive teens calm down significantly and get into WAY less trouble than usual. The other intervention work I do with them does make a difference but I cannot take all the credit- rebalancing their brain chemistry with supplements plays a significant role.
And because I was curious as to the extent to which it made a difference, I went off to look for some research studies to refute or support my anecdotal evidence- and I was blown away by what came back and shocked that it is not more well-known.
Here are just a few examples:
A study was conducted by the University of Oxford, with 196 healthy children aged 13 – 16 years old attending a secondary school in East London. The children were enrolled into a 12 week double-blind randomised placebo-controlled trial and split into two groups. One group was given the nutritional supplements while the other group was given placebos.
Blood samples were taken to measure the change in vitamin, mineral and omega-3 levels during the study. These were found to be low at the start of the study and significantly improved in the group receiving the nutrient supplements over the 12 weeks.
Behaviour change was measured using the Conner’s behavioural scale and school disciplinary records. Using the disruptive behaviour scale, the results showed that in those with high rates of misbehaviour, the behaviour in the students receiving the supplements improved, while the behaviour of the pupils receiving the placebo worsened.
(A randomised double-blind placebo-controlled trial investigating the behavioural effects of vitamin, mineral and n-3 fatty acid supplementation in typically developing adolescent schoolchildren, British Journal of Nutrition, Volume 115, Issue 02, January 2016, pp 361-373. Authors: Jonathan D. Tammam, David Steinsaltz, D. W. Bestera, Turid Semb-Andenaes and John F. Stein)
Another study amongst young adult prisoners (18-21 years) showed that amongst the group that received food supplements, there were significantly fewer misbehaviour offences than for the placebo control group, 26.3% less. (Adolescence: Does good nutrition = good behaviour, Nutrition and Health, Volume 22, Issue 01, January 2013, pp 55-65. Authors Bernard Gesch)
Numerous studies have reported associations between deficiencies of iron or vitamin B12 and psychiatric issues including depression, and improvements after supplementation (The effects of nutrients on mood, Public Health Nutrition, Volume 2, Issue 3a, pp 403-409. Authors David Benton and Rachael T Donohoe).
I don’t know about you, but this just makes sense. We are what we eat and if we don’t have a full stock of all the necessary nutrients we are not going to be functioning optimally- physically or mentally and therefore behaviourally. This is even more the case for our teens who are undergoing rapid physical and neurological development. This makes the demands on their bodies even greater and therefore their need for good nutrition is all the more important.
So what do I recommend to my clients?
WellTeen Plus, available in either ‘Her’ or ‘Him’ versions, tailored to the particular needs of teenage girls and boys. I would like to emphasise that I am not being sponsored for recommending this- I’m just sharing what I have found works.
You may want to consider alternatives to which I would emphasise the importance of ensuring that it contains a broad spectrum of nutrients, and particularly the minerals. Most cheap supermarket brands are all about the vitamins, not so much the minerals which are REALLY important for brain function. The cheaper ones also usually contain well below the recommended daily intakes for many if not all the nutrients.
While you do pay more for the WellTeen, you know you are giving your teenager what they need, in one go. And, as I discovered purely by coincidence the research conducted in the East London school which I mentioned before actually involved this supplement.
As I said, I have seen the positive results of troubled teens taking these supplements first hand. For our teens brains to function optimally they need to have the right fuel and the reality is that they are often like a car running on dirty fuel whose oil levels are low- sputtering along, spewing out noxious fumes and making a hell of a racket. If you fix the fuel and make sure they are well stocked up on what they need to ‘go’, trust me, they will run more smoothly.
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