by Kevin Coluccio

The teenage brain is a marvel to behold. Between the ages of 13-19, the brain processes physical, emotional, and social change at a profound rate. From hormones to home life and peer relationships, the challenges that teens face are many and multifaceted. Managing internal factors and external influences requires a lot of mental stamina. To optimally endure this period of development, young people benefit from healthy environments and habits. Supportive relationships, proper sleep and good nutrition are especially helpful for mental well-being. Proper nutrition serves to improve the thoughts, behaviors, and emotions of teens by physiologically supporting their brain and body.

The prefrontal cortex, which controls rational behavior, does not fully mature until the end of adolescence. During this period, the chemicals in the brain that allow cells to communicate, including serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine are especially mobilized. These chemicals regulate mood, behavior, and memory. Among the most active neurotransmitters in the teen brain is dopamine. The release of natural dopamine in teenagers sets up a risk v. reward system heavily favoring the latter. According to Daniel Siegel in his book, Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, this system generates a proclivity to impulsiveness, susceptibility to addictive behaviors and hyperrationality which results in teens looking myopically at a situation rather than through a big picture schism. This period of formative experiences sets up opportunities for growth. Developing habits that bolster mental, social and physical wellness build on themselves and result in a healthy state of being.

Diet and mental health. According to statistics issued by the World Health Organization in 2019, mental disorders make up 16% of the “global burden of disease and injury in people aged 10-19 years.” As The World Psychiatric Association points out, while there are many factors at play in this statistic, researchers of a large number of studies have found a direct link between diet and mental health A healthy diet supports brain development while promoting good gut bacteria, decreasing inflammation and increasing serotonin and dopamine levels. Eating a diet rich in healthy oils, lean protein, hearty greens, vitamins and minerals boosts mental wellness and overall health. Beneficial nutrients include:

  • Omega-3 oils found in salmon, seeds, and walnuts improve mood, memory, and cognition.
  • Fermented foods such as kimchi, kombucha and sauerkraut boost serotonin production and gut health.
  • Vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6, B9 and B12 found in mushrooms, avocados, pineapple and spinach support neurotransmitter production and mood.
  • Vitamin D found in fish and eggs helps with memory and cognition.
  • Vitamin K found in dark leafy greens, avocado and onions aids memory and cognition.
  • Antioxidants found in berries and apples support cognition and mood.
  • Folic acid found in asparagus, eggs, beets, and tomatoes supports mood, memory, and cognition.
  • Iron found in liver and red meat protects against anemia and depression.
  • Calcium-magnesium found in yogurt, almonds, sardines and seaweed assists with brain development, memory and cognition.
  • Vitamins A, C, E and Zinc are found in orange fruits and vegetables, meat, shellfish, and nuts, helping to boost immunity and red blood cell production.
  • Tryptophan, tyrosine, and phenylalanine found in turkey, chicken, and cheese support memory and cognition.

In a period of life, where independence and control can feel elusive, teens can learn to choose foods that support their well-being conscientiously. A diet that includes a variety of healthy nutrients can work in tandem with supportive social and emotional conditions to promote psychological well-being in teens. Nutrition can be as effective a tool as any in maintaining a healthy mind and body