Teen Anxiety: could it be nutrition related?
Yes. Nutrition is an amazing tool at your disposal to help your anxious teen. EVEN if they want nothing to do with you or your crazy ideas. Let's dive into why and give you some action steps.
First off, if you have a struggling teen, you're not alone. Teens experience the highest incidence of mental disorders of any age group and anxiety now affects 1 in 3 of them. I'm speaking with more and more frantic parents who are worried about their spiraling 12-15-year-olds.
Our conversation typically goes something like this:
"In the last few years the anxiety has really peaked! I just can't reason with them anymore. They're scared to do things, they worry all the time. They have weird overblown reactions to little things. Maybe it's depression."
"Did it start around puberty?" I ask.
"Come to think of it, I think it got worse around then. Is this hormones? Is this just their adolescent personality? Will they grow out of it?"
I don't think so.
Growth is possible without crippling anxiety so something's up and there are ways to help.
I want to explain why I think teen anxiety is exploding, why nutrition is the missing link for prevention and treatment, and what parents can do to help their kids even if their kids are resistant.
A Typical Story Of Teen Anxiety
There can be different specifics but the core story is the same from family to family I talk to: there were some minor-to-moderately concerning issues that were more or less 'under control' or brushed off (picky eating, poor sleep, erratic temper, tummy trouble, eczema, mild anxiety, sleep issues, skin issues, weight issues).... and then puberty hit and Wham! Things got bad.
Here's how that conversation that started above often continues...
Me: "How's their diet?"
Them:"Not great. I think there's maybe some body image issues. They've always been picky but it's getting worse. It's hard to get breakfast in, that's for sure. They want to become vegetarian."
Me: "Are they a carb-a-holic?"
Them: "Oh my goodness... such a sweet tooth! I find candy wrappers in their bedroom and they love their bread!"
Me: "Do you talk to them about how food makes them feel?" I ask.
Them: "I try but there's not much I can do. The more I try the more they push back and things end in anger and tears. I don't want them to fear food and I feel like my efforts just make things worse."
Me: "Got it. Are they pooping twice a day?"
Them: "I don't think so. Tummy's never really been great. Ever since they were really little there's always been tummy pain. I kinda always thought that was from the worry."
Me: "Maybe. Maybe there's more to it. How's sleep?"
Them: "Not good. They're up too late, often have bad dreams, can't get to sleep. I think it's worry."
And So The Story Unfolds....
Often there was a c-section at birth or some other sort of trauma early in life.
Often infections and antibiotics.
Often a family history of depression or anxiety.
Maybe skin issues or allergies.
Maybe a history of overblown reactions or tantrums or phobias or nightmares.
Often weight retention or inability to gain weight.
And then there's that darn, persistent tummy pain.
It's All Connected, And It Doesn't Need To Be This Way (and it's never too late to make things better).
When I Say "Anxiety Can Be Nutritional" I mean that the health of the body and the function of the brain are connected.
Improving the health of the body can be a key part of improving mood and behavior... even in the case of crippling anxiety.
What Puts Teens At High Risk For Anxiety
Teens are going through one of life's "stress storms" - a particularly energy-intensive time of life.
Growing through stress is resource-intensive. It requires strong social supports, secure attachment, and the less talked about but supremely important biological resources - aka nutrients.
Stress management and growth require a strong nutritional foundation - iron, zinc, B vitamins, vitamin C, copper, fatty acids and all the others... they are the building blocks for neurotransmitters, hormones, skin, bones, enzymes, energy... ev-ery-thing.
Kids Need Extra Nourishment During Stress Storms.
Without sufficient nourishment, bodies and minds don't function well, the nervous system struggles to self-regulate and we become more prone to mental health issues in general.
Teens are at risk because they're caught in a perfect storm of needing more nutritional resources to fuel the surge in physical growth, brain growth, and hormone changes while being less inclined to care about those needs.
Add to this that most kids know very little about what their bodies actually need in order to work right, and we get a high-risk situation.
Our kids need those nutritional building blocks, particularly when they're under stress.
This is one of the reasons why when I coach families through diet changes with their kids I always start with the pillar of Nourishment.
If we can't get those building blocks in through food at first, we can use supplements to help them feel better quickly.
Why Do Kids Crash Around Puberty?
That child from the conversation above very likely went into puberty without well-supported biology. The mild-moderate concerns of childhood were flags indicating possible sub-optimal nutritional intake (maybe some genetic factors leading to a need for extra nutrition), inflammation, digestive distress, among other things.
They were brushed aside as being a normal part of childhood when they were in fact signs of stress.
Then the added stress of puberty - both the extra physical needs of the body but also the extra social stress - finally outweighed the body's resources and that's when symptoms deepened from mild to severe.
Where To Start With Teen Anxiety
I'm all about giving parents practical strategy, not just more information. So if you have a teen with anxiety and you don't want to use medication as a first-line therapy here's what I suggest you do...
Start by self-evaluating The Trifecta For Resilient Health - how are they Eating, Sleeping and Pooping? (that’s the trifecta).
I also want you to know about a few biological factors I commonly see accompany anxiety in particular.
I don't share this so you can go run to the supplement store or overhaul your life overnight (please don’t do that… this is not a quick fix kind of thing. You need to stay systematic and understand the interconnections).
I share this because I'm seeing this pattern over and over in my clients and I want you to start to make educated choices about the kinds of conversations you want to have with professionals about how to help your child.
Here’s What I’m Seeing A Lot Of In Teen With Anxiety…
Required for the production of more than 300 different enzymes in the body, zinc is in high demand during puberty. It's involved in the creation of digestive enzymes and stomach acids, the creation of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, as well as sex hormones like testosterone and estrogen. Zinc is also needed for memory and spatial processing. Some people have a tendency to dump zinc when under stress. Not enough zinc would mean not enough enzymes and could result in slowed digestion/nutrient absorption and slowed neurotransmitter/hormone production (aka tummy pain, nutrient deficiency despite adequate intake, moodiness, sleeplessness).
Needed for the creation of serotonin, dopamine and GABA, along with detoxification, metabolism, the creation of red blood cells and sleep. This deficiency is often a factor in social anxiety and worry. Supplementing it on its own does not seem to be terribly effective but when used in combination with zinc it can be extremely helpful for anxiety. Some people dump B6 when they're under stress (a phenomenon carefully documented by Dr William Walsh). A small subset of people can't get B6 into their cells effectively. B6 can also be depleted by some medications.
Undiagnosed Gluten Sensitivity (or other food sensitivities)
Don't worry, I'm not going to tell you to stop your teen from eating gluten right away. It would be wonderful if they would, but you need to tread carefully with teens when it comes to restricting foods. Fact is though, research quite clearly illustrates how certain foods (gluten included) can become fuel for inflammation and irritation in the gut and in the brain. This kind of inflammation can keep a child in a fight/flight or freeze stress state and when you have an anxious child it's best to do all you can to relieve that extra stress. They can't handle it right now.
Erratic Blood Sugar
There's a reason high-carb foods like bread, pasta, and sweets are considered comfort foods; sugar helps stimulate dopamine and serotonin and makes us feel comforted! (for a while, at least, until our blood sugar drops again and we feel anxious and agitated again). Teens often love sugar and it's hard to talk them down. But I think kids are becoming more and more sensitive to the inflammatory effects of sugar due to changes in the gut microbiome, nutritional deficiencies leading to poor metabolism of sugar, poor sleep, and generally poor stress tolerance. Regardless of the cause, erratic blood sugar could be a major cause of your child's anxiety.
There's no question anymore about the connection between the gut and the brain. There is a highway of messages traveling back and forth to the point where we can't even really talk about the gut and the brain as being separate entities anymore. Keep in mind that constipation is only one of many possible symptoms flagging digestive trouble. Even if there's no overt digestive pain, if you're trying to get to the root of your child's anxiety you need someone on your care team looking at their digestive health. This is a core phase of our Resilience Roadmap program.
The Bottom Line:
Many factors contribute to anxiety and there are many possible solutions. There's a lot going on in your anxious pre-teen/teen and there is no cookie-cutter solution.
What I hope you understand now is that if your child lacks the biological resources they need to manage stress, they become prone to anxiety even if you are giving them all the love, support, and social resources they need.
You might be doing everything right from a parenting perspective. The additional piece is to get to know The Pillars Of Resilient Health and, if they're ready, teaching them how to take control of their health by nourishing their bodies. That's what we do in our Resilience Roadmap program.
If they want to feel good in their minds they need to attend to their bodies. We can help them with that but don't beat yourself up if you hadn't ever seen it this way or if you've struggled with nutrition thus far. A whole-body approach to anxiety that involves giving kids the psychological, as well as the biological resources they need to weather stress storms, is hard to come by.
It's when we bring the two together that our kids can truly shine.
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