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Fighting Teenage Anxiety and Depression Through Nutrition

Anxiety and depression in teens took a sharp increase since the beginning of the pandemic. Finding ways to support and improve mental health outcomes has therefore become more important than ever. Thanks to ongoing scientific research, improvements in nutrition have been shown to positively affect brain development and mental wellbeing in patients of all ages.

New studies have proven the long suspected connection between mental health and digestive health (gut health), also known as the gut-brain axis. This axis explains the interactions between the enteric nervous system (digestive tract, musculature secretory glands, and blood vessels) and the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). There is preliminary scientific evidence that bacterial imbalance and inflammation of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract are connected to several mental illnesses including anxiety and depression.

Establishing healthy eating habits are important for other reasons as well. Teens are highly susceptible to the pressure of diet culture and the damage that comes with it, both to their self esteem and their long term relationship with food. Learning to eat a balanced diet that best suits their needs can have a myriad of benefits that last a lifetime. 

Digestive health in teens

Many youth have issues with their digestive system, predominantly Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) typically appears as chronic abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, gas, and changes in bowel habits (either constipation or diarrhea or both).

Since there is a correlation between digestive issues and mental health, we look for foods that will help support healthy digestion and promote a healthy microbiota. Helping them to fuel their microbiota with prebiotic and probiotic rich foods can help mediate IBS-like symptoms and hence have a direct affect on one’s mental health. More than 90% of serotonin is synthesized in the gut, so it is not surprising that changes to the microbiome due to IBS could cause this imbalance in neurotransmitter levels and subsequently, emotional changes.

Prebiotics and Probiotics for a healthy microbiota and a healthy brain

To help repair an irritable bowel and help healthy microbiota flourish, we look to prebiotics and probiotics.

Prebiotics

Prebiotics are not bacteria but are actually considered food for the “good” bacteria within our digestive tract. Prebiotics are metabolized by the good bacteria, positively impacting the digestive environment with an overall health benefit. When good bacteria consume prebiotics, they release metabolic by-products (such as short chain fatty acids) that promote health and help to prevent illness.

Prebiotics have been shown to specifically increase Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli bacteria. Lactobacilli help to digest lactose for lactose-intolerant individuals, alleviate constipation, improve IBS symptoms, lower mucosal inflammation in the GI tract and potentially help prevent traveler’s diarrhea. Increases in Bifidobacteria help lower inflammation and rates of IBS, while too little (along with lower bacterial diversity) has the opposite effect. It has even been shown to have anti-obesity effects. Bifidobacteria can also synthesize several B vitamins such as Folate (B9), Riboflavin (B2), and B12. B vitamins have been linked to mental health and wellbeing.

Prebiotics are generally plant fibers found in the following foods:

  • VEGETABLES: Garlic, onion, leek, shallots, spring onion, asparagus, beetroot, fennel, green peas, snow peas, sweetcorn, savoy cabbage and Jerusalem artichokes. 
  • LEGUMES: chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans, baked beans and soybeans. 
  • FRUIT: apples, nectarines, white peaches, persimmon, tamarillo, watermelon, rambutan, grapefruit, pomegranate and dried fruit (such as dates and figs). 
  • GRAINS: barley, rye, pasta, gnocchi, couscous, wheat bran, oats
  • NUTS/SEEDS: cashews and pistachios

Probiotics

Probiotics are a type of good bacteria (live microorganism) that can contribute to digestive health in different ways when consumed in the right form and quantity. They consist mainly of bacteria but can also include yeasts. These microorganisms are naturally present in fermented food, but can also be added to food products or administered in a dietary supplement. It is important to consult your dietitian before selecting a probiotic supplement, as not all foods and dietary supplements labeled as “probiotics” have been proven effective.

Your registered dietitian can help you select effective probiotic foods or supplements to help treat your specific health concerns.

Start in the kitchen

Recent studies have shown that consuming 3-5g of prebiotic fiber has a benefit on the microbiome. Unfortunately, most of us do not get enough fiber in our diets (28g per 2000 calories). Increasing fiber-rich foods and prebiotic-rich foods or supplements will help promote gut health and benefit your gut microbiota.

To help your teen get their daily prebiotic needs now and long into the future, I suggest starting in the kitchen. Establishing healthy eating habits while your children are young and building skills gives them the confidence and interest to continue to enjoy cooking and experimenting with healthy ingredients throughout their lives. 

If you’re not someone who enjoys this yourself, consider learning together with your child – you don’t need to be the teacher. Hopefully you can bond and find joy together. To help you get started, I’ve included one of my favourite prebiotic recipes at the end of this article – enjoy!

Mental well being through diet

Establishing proper nutrition habits at a young age helps our children learn lifelong skills that will keep them both physically and mentally healthy.

Of course, nutrition is only one of several approaches to get and stay mentally well. If you suspect your teen is suffering from anxiety, depression or any other mental health challenges, please speak with your family physician or healthcare provider so they can support a multidisciplinary approach. For expert guidance specific to your family’s dietary needs, please schedule a visit with your Harrison Healthcare Dietitian for a personalized approach to adding prebiotic fibers and probiotics to your meal and snack planning.

 

Favourite prebiotic recipe: Healthy dessert hummus

This is one of my favourite prebiotic-rich (and fun) recipes to try with your teen.

This recipe puts a nutritious spin on your typical cookie dough. Chickpeas replace flour to offer a snack that is low in glycemic index, high in fibre and a source of protein. The dates add natural sweetness, potassium, iron and magnesium. Enjoy as a snack served with graham crackers or fruit.

Cookie Dough Dip

Vegan, Gluten Free, Dairy Free, Vegetarian

Serving Size: 12

Total Cooking Time: 15 minutes

Ingredients:

    • 1 1/2 cups chickpeas (strained and rinsed)
    • 1/8 tsp baking soda
    • 1 tbsp plus 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
    • 1/4 cup peanut butter
    • 3/4 cups pitted dates*
    • 1/3 cup raw chocolate chips
    • 2 tbsp oats (if wanting to make recipe gluten free; use gluten-free oats)
    • ½ cup soy milk (or milk of your choice)
    • Optional: 1 tsp cinnamon

*If dates are dry and hard soak in hot water for 10-15 minutes prior to using in recipe

Directions:

  1. Add chickpeas, baking soda, vanilla, peanut butter, oats, soy milk, and dates to food processor; process until smooth.
  2. Add chocolate chips and pulse until combined.
  3. Transfer mixture to bowl. Serve with fruit or graham crackers.
  4. Enjoy!

 

Calories: 103 Salt(mg): 87 Protein(mg): 2.7
Fiber(g): 2.5 Total Fat(g): 3.4 Carbohydrate(g): 17
Sugar(g): 9.1 Saturated Fat(g): 0.9  

 

Adapted from Chocolate Covered Katie

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