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Teen Anxiety: could it be nutrition related?

Maybe it's because I now have a teen myself, maybe it's because teens experience the highest incidence of mental disorders of any age group and anxiety now affects 1 in 3 of them. But I'm talking with more and more frantic parents who are worried about their spiralling 12-15 year olds.

The story typically goes something like this:

"I guess they've always been on the shy side but 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."

"Did it start around puberty?" I ask.

"Come to think of it, yea, 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 yes, it could be nutritional. 

Before You Sweep Nutrition Aside As Not Your Solution...

Before you either say, "this is nonsense," or "ok fine, but changing my teen's diet is not gonna happen," and certainly if thinking, "finally! An approach that makes sense and feels good! Tell me how to start!" keep reading....

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.

Here's how that conversation that started above often continues... 

"How's their diet?"

"Not great. I think there's maybe some body image issues. They've always been picky but it's gotten worse. It's hard to get breakfast in, that's for sure. They want to become vegetarian."

"Are they a carb-a-holic?" I ask.

"Oh my goodness... such a sweet tooth! I find candy wrappers in their bedroom and they love their bread!"

"Do you talk to them about how food makes them feel?" I ask.

"I try but there's not much I can do. There's no reasoning with a teen and when I try it just ends in anger and tears. I don't want them to fear food and I feel like my efforts just make things worse."

"Got it. Are they pooping twice a day?" I ask.

"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."

"Maybe. Maybe there's more to it. How's sleep?" I ask.

"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....

Maybe there was a c-section at birth.

Maybe stress around breastfeeding or introducing solids.

Maybe infections and antibiotics.

Maybe picky eating or addictions to certain foods like dairy or sugar.

Maybe skin issues or allergies.

Maybe a history of overblown reactions or tantrums or phobias or nightmares.

Maybe weight retention or inability to gain weight. 

And then there's that darn, persistent tummy pain.

There can be different specifics but the core story is the same from family to family: 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! Crippling Anxiety. 

I'm Here To Tell You... 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" Here's What I Mean

I mean that the health of the body and the function of the brain are connected.

We can improve the health of the body to improve mood and behavior... even in the case of crippling anxiety. 

We're Missing a Major Factor That Puts Teens At High Risk For Anxiety 

I’d like to flush out for you why it's worth exploring a nutritional solution to your teen's anxiety and how to get started even if they're resistant

In my book and in our community I teach parents how to support The Pillars Of Resilient Health™. You can read more about them here and hear me talk about why food matters so much here

When we support The Pillars we make sure our kids have the biological resources they need to not only manage the stressors of life, but also to grow stronger because of them. That's the meaning of resilience.

Teens are at risk for anxiety because they’re 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.

We Need Extra Nourishment During Stress Storms.

Without sufficient nourishment our bodies and minds don't function well. Our nervous systems struggle 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, hormone changes and with girls, to support menses) 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 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 During Puberty?

That child from the conversation above very likely went into puberty without well supported Pillars. 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. You can hear me explain more about that here.

So Where Should You Start?

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). Grab this assessment tool for some structure to make sure you ask the right questions

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… 

Zinc Deficiency - 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).

B6 Deficiency - needed for 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. Here's a bit more on my thoughts about gluten (and sugar, for that matter) 

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 it's possible kids are becoming more and more sensitive to the inflammatory effects of sugar due to several factors: changes in the gut microbiome; nutritional deficiencies leading to poor metabolism of sugar; poor sleepgenerally poor stress tolerance. Regardless of the cause, erratic blood sugar could be a major cause of your child's anxiety. Here's more on sugar.

Here's more on talking to your teen about sugar. 

Constipation. There's no question anymore about the connection between the gut and the brain. There is virtually a highway of messages travelling 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 Phase 3 of our Resilience Roadmap program. For a primer on why digestion matters to mood watch this and read this.

Of course there are more factors that contribute to anxiety and there are more possible solutions (here are some, and I haven't even mentioned other modalities beyond food). There's a lot going on in your 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 here is to get to know The Pillars Of Resilient Health and, if they're ready, teaching your child 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. 

Want to start teaching your teen about building Resilience from the inside out? Grab this Strategy Sheet.


Related Blog Posts & Links

Nutritional Psychiatry

The Trifecta For Resilient Health

The Pillars Of Resilient Health

Kid-friendly food for the brain

The Gut-Brain Connection

Aggression in Kids

Using GABA for Anxiety

Nutrients and Mental Health

Statement on the need for nutritional medicine in Mainstream Psychiatry from the ISNPR (2015)

Integrative Therapies in Anxiety Treatment with Special Emphasis on the Gut Microbiome


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About Jess Sherman, M.Ed, R.H.N

Jess is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist™ and Family Health Educator, specializing in brain health & resilience for kids. She is the author of Raising Resilience: Take the stress out of feeding your family & love your life, a mother and an advocate for children’s health. Her book and online resources have helped families all over the world improve the lives of their children with learning differences, anxiety, ADHD, autism and mood disorders by fitting the food and feeding piece into their health puzzles. She is the 2019 recipient of the CSNNAA award for Clinical Excellence for her work helping families get healthier, and she continues to work at bringing an understanding of the power of good nutrition to the mainstream conversation about children’s mental health, learning, and overall resilience through her blog, courses and as a  contributor to print and online magazines. You can reach Jess at www.jesssherman.com 

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