The adolescent mind is fascinating in its complexity and development. And while this isn’t the place to get into detail about it (I highly recommend reading The Teenage Brain: A neuroscientist’s survival guide to raising adolescents and young adults if you’re interested in getting into the specifics), let’s talk about the intersection between mental health and nutrition. Because while we probably all have seen the direct affect food has on our mood (hello hanger!), there is a greater role food plays on the actual function of the brain.
I’ve written previously about the importance of adolescents eating enough for physical wellness, and that is just as important for mental wellness. Malnourishment has many negative effects on the brain’s functioning. For adolescents who have a diagnosed eating disorder, or even those with disordered eating, you can clearly see the affect on their brain function with trouble concentrating, poor focus and judgement, and food obsession.
Nutrients to support mental health:
*please note: the following is general information and should not be used to diagnose or treat yourself and/or child. Please talk to your medical practitioner before taking any supplements.
Fat for brain structure and function
The brain is 60% fat, and so fat is amongst the most important nutrient to ensure its structure and ability to perform. Fat is in many foods, including cheese, meat, avocado, nuts, and seeds amongst others. One fat is slightly harder to get enough of (without trying) yet plays an important role in mental health. Let’s discuss omega 3 fats – specifically DHA and EPA, which should ideally make up about 10-15% of your adolescent’s fat intake.
Omega 3 is naturally found in fatty fish, including salmon, herring, and sardines. While also found in plant-based food like walnuts and flax seeds, that form needs to be converted into a more usable format in the body, and so isn’t as ideal.
Omega 3 fats play a role in brain structure and function, nerve signal transmission, inflammation, and immunity amongst other things. While research is still not totally clear on how it works, there is accumulating data to support that EPA and DHA (the components of omega 3 fats) may help with the management of some neurodevelopmental disorders including mood disorders, schizophrenia, ADHD, and ASD (autism spectrum disorders).
If your adolescent is not a fish eater, you may want to consider a fish oil supplement in capsules or oil form to meet their needs.
Without eating enough fat, mental health can suffer, so ensure your adolescent is eating sufficient amounts of fat throughout the day to support their mental wellness.
Protein supports hormone production
Protein makes up the neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, melatonin, norepinephrine. You may be familiar with how they affect our moods or mental wellness. While there are so many, adolescent’s protein needs aren’t super high and can easily be met with regular meals and snacks.
Carbohydrates fuel the brain
The brain needs constant fuel to do all the things it does, and that fuel of choice is glucose – which we get from carbohydrates! The brain alone needs about 130 grams of carbohydrates a day (the amount found in 8 slices of bread). If there’s not enough carbs in the body, the brain won’t be fueled adequately. Brain fog, inability to focus or concentrate, sluggishness… these are some signs of mental fatigue you’re likely familiar with.
Read more about carbohydrates for kids and teens
Vitamins and minerals for brain functioning
Many vitamins and minerals play important roles in brain function, including vitamins C, D, B-complex, Magnesium, Selenium, Iron, Zinc, Iodine, Copper, and Choline. In general, if your adolescent is eating enough of a varied diet, he should be getting enough of these. Vitamin D is a hard one to get from the diet, as it’s naturally in few foods (including fatty fish and fortified in milk). It can be made in the body from sun, but many people don’t have enough safe and reliable access to reach the level they need.
Vitamin D deficiency and insufficiency are both prevalent in adolescents with mental illness. While there is increasing evidence that reveals vitamin D’s role in brain function and development, a lot of the research is correlational, so it’s not clear how levels are associated with mental illness, only that they are.
I mentioned this in passing to a couple friends who experience anxiety and depression. They came back to me less than a week after taking daily vitamin D that they were experiencing better feelings already! Placebo affect? Perhaps. But it’s also very likely they were low in vitamin D and having higher levels in their body had noticeable benefits.
In Canada and other areas that are further north, or don’t have consistent access to sun, a daily vitamin D supplement of 400 IU is recommended.
Water supports mental wellness
Water is an often-overlooked nutrient. But it’s important! Water helps the blood circulate better around the body, so essentially the brain (and the rest of our body) is better oxygenated when we’re hydrated (in case you’ve forgotten, oxygen travels in our blood). Being dehydrated can cause dizziness and headaches, along with increasing negative emotions like anxiety and nervousness.
I don’t usually recommend a certain amount of water to drink, as needs vary depending on activity, weather, foods eaten etc. All drinks “count” as hydration, as do many foods. Drink when you’re thirsty and monitor your urine amount and colour. It should be pale yellow- not clear as that may be a sign you’re drinking too much.
Mental health is a very common concern in adolescents and teens. While food alone doesn’t address mental health issues, ensuring your adolescent is eating enough can significantly support them. Providing a variety of foods with protein, carbohydrates, fat, and water, along with foods high in vitamins and minerals provides the building blocks to support brain structure and function for better mental wellness.