My latest contribution to Western Sydney Mums’ Hub is the first of a three parter, focused on teenage health.
A few years ago I held a talk about some ways to nourish your teenager through diet and how to navigate the tricky periods of these years such as puberty, exams and their changing brains. I have covered this topic again, and started off by talking about the teenage brain and the changes it goes through.
The Teenage Brain
Teenagers aren’t just smaller adults. Their brains are quite different in functioning and this keeps going until the 20s and 30s.
When entering puberty the brain goes through a rapid growth spurt which is very similar to what happens in small babies.
There is a growth spurt in the frontal cortex before puberty starts, with a thickening of the grey matter in this area. The grey matter of the brain is where the thinking and processing happens, and the white matter is where the transport of messages occurs.
The brain matures in a back to front pattern, with the frontal and temporal lobes being the last to mature. The frontal lobe is the home of planning, organisation, impulse control and reasoning.
These changes help to explain why teenagers have such a hard time regulating their mood swings. The hormonal changes can bring the mood swings on, but the changes in the brain mean that can’t regulate their behaviour, and are less likely to make more rational decisions.
Teens have a harder time analysing the emotions of others, and are more likely to perceive anger and threat in others, where there may not be. They are more likely to have a ‘gut reaction’ to these ‘threats’ as well.
In a study where teenagers were shown pictures of adults with various facial expressions, which adults would normally interpret as emotions of fear or concern were often interpreted by teens as shock and anger.
Pruning of the Brain
There is also a process that occurs that is essentially like ‘pruning’ or a use it or lose it process of certain cells and connections. Choosing which habits are practised more regularly in this time is important, because for most people opting for the academic, sport or music sort of pathways rather than the video gaming pathways. The adolescent brain is very versatile and can adapt to the environment very well.
Having an immature frontal cortex also means their ability to perceive risk and consequences is quite low. Not wearing helmets, performing more daring moves on their skateboard or even having unprotected sex and drug taking are examples of this. Teens usually feel that the risk is outweighed by the reward in these instances.
It’s not that teens are dumb by any means, in fact they are at a peak time for learning and processing and making new pathways in their brain. They can be amazing at solving puzzles, memorising things and learning new tasks like languages and music, but can have difficulty with analysing emotions and correctly assessing consequences of risks.
Apart from zits, one of the other more well known problems that teenagers can struggle with is mood swings.
Thinking about how their brain develops, it’s a bit easier to understand how teenagers have a much harder time processing their emotions as well as accurately perceiving the emotions of others.
In addition to that, teens are also going through a time where they’re trying to discover their place in the world. A lot of teenagers report feeling frustrated because they’re being told to act like adults, but they’re not getting treated like adults.
It’s a hard time for parents as well, because the way that you would have dealt with your younger child’s problems is quite different to the way you would deal with teenage problems, and a lot of the time you’re in a position where you are being pushed away and you don’t even know what they’re upset about.
Depression can affect teenagers, with 5% of teens experiencing depression to such a degree that it warrants treatment. Thankfully with the way the brain is continually reprogramming itself during the teenage years it can be very responsive to interventions.
If you suspect your teenager has depression, there are a few things you can do:
- You can try to talk to them. If they’re not forthcoming with a general discussion, try asking more specific questions related to those indicators of depression
- Encourage them to talk to someone they feel comfortable with
- Talk to your doctor
- Seek counselling
- Or See a qualified natural therapist
How to reduce mood swings:
There are a few ways that you can help to reduce the severity of mood swings, by reducing the fluctuations of hormones and blood sugar levels that impact on neurotransmitters and brain function.
- Eating a low GI diet will prevent blood sugar level fluctuations which can upset moods
- Eating a nutrient dense diet can help provide the brain with nutrients it needs for a calm mood. In particular, magnesium, zinc and B vitamins.
- Exercise can release endorphins which improve mood.
- Get 9 hours sleep a night, with a regular sleep routine.
- Employ stress management techniques such as mindfulness, journaling, exercise or meditation.
- If severe, consult a practitioner.
Tips for a Low GI, nutrient dense diet
Ensure there’s plenty of good fats such as coconut oil, butter, nuts and seeds, olive oil and avocado. Nut butter and almond butter are a great snack idea and really help to satisfy hunger.
Beans, legumes and brown rice are a cheap way to add in some extra fibre, complex carbs and calories. Have a side of these with your main meals, and make dips with beans for some extra sustenance throughout the day. To reduce the gas you can experience with them, use dried beans, soak them overnight then cook on the stove for a few hours, rather than buying the tinned. You can keep them in the fridge for about a week.
Aim for 2 to 3 pieces of fruit a day, and at least 5 serves of vegetables a day. Starchy veg like sweet potato, potatoes and pumpkin are a great source of calories and have plenty of fibre.
If you choose, you can use Meat, chicken and fish for additional protein.
Whether you choose to include grains and dairy in the diet depends on the individual, but if there’s no intolerance than yoghurt and cheese are a good addition, and melted cheese can help make a lot of veg more palatable for fussy teens.