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Food, Mood and the Teenage Brain

By Ethan Watters

Being a teenager is tough. Going through adolescence, kids have to navigate intense social pressures with a body and brain that is constantly developing and changing. Researchers are just beginning to understand that the anxiety, emotional instability and depression teens often experience may not begin in their brain or environment – but in their gut. What we feed our teens may prove to be critical not only to their physical health but their mental health as well.

Parents already understand that good eating habits can give a teen the energy to make it through their daily gauntlet of school, activities and sports. The high-revving teen metabolism needs good and consistent fuel that should include meals and snacks with complex carbohydrates and slow-burning proteins. Regular family meals, away from screens and the siren call of social media, can also improve a teen’s mood.

Until recently, what happened in the gut was thought to be fundamentally separate from the neurochemistry of the brain.

Collectively known as the microbiome, our gut bacteria helps we break down food to release nutrients, vitamins and energy. Research now suggests that the gut also sends chemical signals to our central nervous system. Critically, the microbes in our gut secrete the hundreds of neurochemicals, including both serotonin and dopamine that help us get good sleep and affect memory, learning and appetite. There are now fairly conclusive studies with animals (mostly mice but sometimes monkeys and in one case zebrafish) that show how changes in gut bacteria can increase or calm anxious behavior.

Human studies on the microbiome-brain link have recently begun in earnest. In one of those, researchers at Ireland’s University College Cork gave a group of healthy men either a supplement of Bifidobacterium or a placebo. The 22 men who ingested the live bacterium reported feeling less stress than the placebo group.  Even more tellingly, the bacterium- ingesting group showed lower levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol and had measurable improvements in tests of visual memory. Combined with earlier animal studies, these results have caused a stir in the research world.  Some scientists have speculated that we may soon have psychobiotics in the form of supplements or pills that plant specific microbes in the gut to maximize brain efficiency or even target mental illnesses like depression, ADHD or acute anxiety.

Food and lifestyle blogs are now full of advice and new products that have come onto the market claiming to be probiotics or prebiotics. These are often foods, drinks or supplements that claim to plant or protect certain good bacteria in the gut. While the particular claims of these supplements have yet to be proven, there is a growing consensus that having a healthy gut is important for brain health.

There is no one diet or set of foods guaranteed to elevate and stabilize moods for everyone. The microbiome in the human gut, in fact, appears to be uniquely adaptable to dietary changes.  Go from a vegetable-heavy diet to one favoring meat (or vice versa), and your microbiome will quickly adjust.

For a parent preparing food for a teen, there are certain foods that you might consider putting into the rotation. Fiber in food, for instance, appears to create the environment in which a healthy microbiome can thrive.  Foods including pickles, miso soup, dark chocolate, sauerkraut, yogurt or yogurt drinks and other fermented dairy products like cheese are also considered to be beneficial. Most of those (with the possible exception of sauerkraut) are pretty attractive to the fickle teen palate.

We are far away from being able to precisely predict how changes in diet will impact each individual. But, knowing the connection between gut health and mood might lead parents to experiment with new food choices and to track subsequent mood and behavior changes. With the right mix of foods, we might not just be providing our children with a healthier day, but a happier one as well.

Ethan Watters is an author, journalist and trend spotter who has spent the last two decades writing about culture and social psychology. Most recently, he is the author of Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche. Prior to that, he wrote Urban Tribes: Are Friends the New Family?, an examination of the growing population of “never marrieds.” Watters is a contributor to The New York Times Magazine, Outside, discover, Men’s Journal, Details, Wired, and This American Life. His writing on the new research surrounding epigentics was featured in 2003’s Best American Science and Nature Writing series.