Some of the factors that have a significant impact on the maturation of the adolescent brain are: genetic and environmental factors, prenatal and postnatal insult, age, disease, nutritional status, substance abuse (nicotine, caffeine, alcohol etc), sleep patterns, pharmacotherapy, physical-mental-economic-psychological status and sex hormones (oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone) (1).
There is a clear need to support teenagers to establish a healthy eating routine with a balanced diet, as it will not only help them to flourish during these nutritionally demanding years, but also to establish dietary habits that will remain in later life.
In this blog, I will explain some of the functional imbalances affecting teenager’s brain health and how to support it.
The brain is one of our heaviest organs, demanding the most oxygen and glucose. It needs around 30% of the body’s glucose to function well. It is in the early years of life that the ability to build new neuronal network is particularly pronounced, this is called plasticity. Plasticity permits adolescents to learn and adapt in order to acquire independence; however, plasticity also increases an individual’s vulnerability towards wrong decision making, such as, excessive consumption of high fat and high sugar foods (2). The brain needs a steady supply of glucose (sugar) through the day, as an excess of it will actually impair its function. This is why it is crucial to support adequate blood sugar balance in teenagers with a healthy balanced diet, rich in protein, fiber, minerals and vitamins and low in processed foods, sugar and damaged fats.
The brain is a factory of chemicals. Signalling between neurons relies on some of these chemicals which are called neurotransmitters and neuromodulators. Neurotransmitters are a group of chemicals that enable the communication and rapid exchange of information among adjacent neurons within local neighbourhoods in the brain. Connection between neurons occurs through the use of extension of the neuron called a dendrite. Where one dendrite meets another there is a gap, called synapse, and it is across this that messages are sent from one neuron to another. The receptors and sending stations are built out of essential fats – omega 3 and phospholipids and amino acids (protein). These neurotransmitters are made from amino acids but need key vitamins and mineral such as B6, Zn and vitamin C, to turn amino acids into the neurotransmitters.
The main functional imbalances affecting brain-cell health and neurotransmitter production are:
- Blood-sugar imbalances
- Toxic load
- Hormone imbalances
- Insufficient key nutrients
In response to these possible functional imbalances, we can support teenager’s brain health with the following steps.
1. Remove toxins and anti-nutrients which are known to affect brain health and function. We know that at any age, high intake of anti-nutrients such as sugar; damaged fats (fried foods hydrogenated fats); chemical food additives (colourings, flavourings, preservatives, MSG, sulphites); toxic minerals such as cadmium in cigarettes, mercury in pesticides or fillings, aluminium in cookware and lead in exhaust fumes; plus food allergens or sensitivities (gluten, milk, egg, shellfish, nuts, peanuts, soya etc),can affect learning, behaviour and mood. Some of these toxins and/or anti-nutrients are difficult to remove as they are everywhere. Sugar for example, is a class of molecule called carbohydrate, and it is found in a variety of food and drink. Glucose, sucrose, maltose, dextrose, lactose and star are all forms of sugar, so is corn syrup, fruit juice, raw sugar and honey, which are not only added to cakes and sweet puddings but are also added to many products such as yogurt, tomato soup and granola bars.
2. Add nutrients that help detoxification in the body.
- Antioxidants to protect the body from oxidative damage and inflammation
- Foods high in sulphur: garlic, onion, leeks and eggs
- Pectin-rich foods such as apples, carrots, bananas and citrus. They are full of fiber an help with the process of elimination
3. Protect and nourish the brain with:
- the right types of fats (omega-3 and phospholipids) omega- 3 fatty acids are one of the most essential nutrients for the brain and nervous system. They are also important for a steady mood, healthy skin and balanced hormones.
- anti-inflammatory foods
- amino acids and other nutrients such as B6, Zn, and vitamin C are important for neurotransmitter production. Amino acids are organic compounds that combine to form proteins. To function adequately, the central nervous system requires a number of amino acids found in protein foods. Amino acids such as tryptophan, tyrosine, histidine, and arginine are used by the brain for the synthesis of various neurotransmitters and neuromodulators (3) Brain function can be impacted when neurotransmitters levels are too high or too low. Amino acids and proteins are the building blocks of life. Improving protein intake can support mental and physical energy, for that reason we need to include some protein at each meal and snacks. Some examples of how this can be implemented are: adding nuts and seeds to breakfast; adding shredded chicken or tofu to lunch and then for dinner adding an adequately sized portion of protein.
Why do teenagers need omega -3 and how much do they need?
- The recommended daily intake is 1,000 mg EPA+DHA per day for general health.
- Omega – 3s play important roles in the body as components of the phospholipids that form the structures of cell membranes. DHA, in particular, is especially high in the retina, brain, and sperm.
- During teenager years, the areas of the brain associated with learning and memory, undergo active turnover requiring adequate DHA and EPA.
- Teenagers brain contains vast amount of cholesterol, used to make sex hormones, support adrenal health etc.
- Every neuron in their brain is surrounded by Myelin sheaths, protective sleeves of fatty tissue, which are made by 75% fat, been omega 3 and 6 and phospholipids are particularly important.
- Omega-3 fatty acids and monounsaturated fats can help to reduce inflammation throughout the body.
- For teenagers to be able to absorb and utilize certain key nutrients for brain health such as vitamin A, D, E and K, they need good supply of fats. These key vitamins are fat-soluble and therefore need fat to become available to our bodies.
- During teenager years, we tend to consume more processed foods and fast foods (pizza, burgers, soft drinks etc) than in other stages of our life. These foods are associated with impaired brain metabolism and function.
4. Re-energize the body with good sleeping patterns, physical activity and stress reduction activities.
- Teenagers need 8-10 hours sleep each night
- Sleep hygiene – start the day having breakfast outside or by a window with natural sunlight; keep a regular sleep schedule; the bedroom should be cool and dark; avoid using gadgets (mobile phone, laptop…) at least 1 hour before bed; leave all devices on airplane mode and outside the bedroom.
- Aerobic exercise has been shown to be a better antidepressant than may medications. Exercise creates brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDMF), which is basically a miracle enhancer of your brain. Exercise makes your cells and muscles more sensitive to insulin, so that the muscles then require less of it. This is an effective way to improve blood sugar balance.
- To learn how to reduce or manage stress, exercise is extremely useful and beneficial for teenagers. Yoga, martial arts, and meditation are amongst the best, as they teach breathing skills. One of my favourites is the 4-8 breathing technique, as it is very effective, quick and easy to do. Lie on your back and place your hands on your stomach with your fingers loose. Take deep breaths to fill your stomach, then the chest, then the mouth; this will cause your stomach to expand to which you will be able to feel as your hands putt gently apart. Take a full breath while counting to 4. Then hold that breath for 8 counts. Slowly let it out to the count of 8, or even longer if you can. This will relax your body after a few breaths, but just as importantly it requires your full concentration. Your mind is too focused on breathing to focus on any stress you are holding on to. Do this, 10 times and you will feel much more relaxed.
Tips to support your teenager’s brain health through their diet.
- Oily fish 2-3 times a week (around 100g portion size) avoid larger fish, high in toxins such as tuna and swordfish, and go for salmon, mackerel, herring, anchovies, sardines.
- 5-7 organic eggs a week.
- Snack on walnuts, brazil nuts, pecan nuts, macadamia, hazelnuts.
- Store in the fridge a jar with equal measures of sesame, pumpkin, sunflower and 3 measures of flaxseed. Add a couple of teaspoons of these ground seeds into porridge or smoothies. GRIND SEEDS AT HOME.
- Make your own dressings with hempseed oil, avocado oil or extra virgin olive oil.
- Include in every meal antioxidant-rich food with colourful fruits & vegetables and herbs & spices. DO HOMEMADE PESTOS.
- Include enzyme-rich food in your smoothies or salads with pineapple core, papaya, sprouted seeds and sprouted bean and pulses.
- Drink antioxidants with green tea, matcha green tea powder, black tea, redbush tea.
- Include fermented foods such as probiotic yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, natto, tempeh.
- Green superfoods such as chlorella, spirulina and wheatgrass can be included in HOMEMADE SMOOTHIES.
- Sea vegetables such as kelp, kombu, nori and wakame
- Mushrooms – oyster mushrooms, shiitake, lion’s mane, maitake and enoki.
- Include choline-rich food such as liver and organ meats, egg yolk, beef, tofu, nuts, cream, milk with fat and fatty cheese.
- Include wild/ grass fed meats.
Foods that support your teenager’s brain health due to their anti-inflammatory effect, ability to promote gut health, and high-content of omega – 3 fatty acids and protein are absolutely essential
Do you need help determining the best diet to nurture the health of your family? Get in touch with me or visit my Consultations & Packages page to learn more.
(1) Arain M, Haque M, Johal L, et al. Maturation of the adolescent brain. Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat.2013;9:449-461. Doi:10.2147/NDT.S39776
(2) Reichelt, AC, Rank, MM. The impact of junk foods on the adolescent brain. Birth Defects Research. 2017; 109: 1649-1658. https://doi.org/10.1002/bdr2.1173
(3) Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Military Nutrition Research. The Role of Protein and Amino Acids is Sustaining and Enhancing Performance. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1999. 14, Amino Acid and Protein Requirements: Cognitive Performance, Stress, and Brain Function. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK224629/