‘You don’t know what it’s like, you don’t understand!’… Sound familiar? If you are a parent to a teenager, we know this is most likely a mantra in your household. Now, more than ever, teenagers are stressed out. We live in a fast paced, constantly evolving world and they have not been spared. Maybe they are right. Maybe we don’t understand. Teens are under extreme pressure to perform, whether it’s socially, on the sports field or academically, it’s a tough world out there! An imbalance of chemicals in the brain can add to this pressure and trigger feelings like worry, stress, anxiety and fear, which are definitely not the ingredients for a good time. Unfortunately we can’t protect our kids from the world, but we can help them deal with whatever life throws at them.

 

WHAT IS STRESS?

Stress is the way the body responds to challenges or difficult situations. It prepares you to face these challenges with attention, energy and strength. It gets you ready for action and can even give you motivation to get things done.

Everyone experiences stress and believe it or not, some stress is okay. In fact, it can act as a catalyst to work harder. Controlled stress (even in a teenager) is not a problem. However, prolonged (or chronic) stress can wear away at your teen and cause permanent damage. With stress having such a fine line between good and bad, what kind of signs should you look out for that indicate things are getting too much for your teen?

 

SIGNS THAT TEENS ARE STRESSED

From a behavioural point of view your child may not want to take part in activities that they used to love and they may even refuse to go to school (or you may notice that they are not doing very well from an academic standpoint). Their eating and sleeping patterns may change, either too much or too little and they may try to find coping mechanisms like drinking more coffee (or caffeine containing energy drinks) to try to stay awake or over the counter painkillers, alcohol or other drugs like marijuana to try to relax or help them sleep.

In addition to these behavioural signs, your teen may also start to come across as moody or irritable (more so than usual) and their roller coaster of emotions may seem especially erratic for no apparent reason. They may even cry and express that they feel sad or ‘down’ and have strong feelings of FOMO (fear of missing out) and find it hard to relax or ‘switch off’.

On the physical side, you may notice that their weight is fluctuating and they may tell you that they feel sick, with stress usually manifesting as a headache, shoulder tension or pain or a stomach ache. Panic attacks may cause dizziness, fast breathing or pins and needles and their immune system may be compromised and as a result they may get frequent colds or infections. If your teen is menstruating, it may become irregular, be lighter than usual or possibly disappear altogether!

 

WHAT SHOULD I DO IF I NOTICE THESE SIGNS?

If you notice some of these signs in your teen, your first port of call should be to visit your doctor to rule out anything more serious like anxiety or depression. Lifestyle management which includes nutrition, exercise and stress coping activities, can go a very long way to helping your child manage their stress and live their best life. In this article, we will explore how nutrition can be tweaked to give your teen the upper hand.

 

EAT A BALANCED, NUTRIENT DENSE DIET

Stress elicits hormonal changes in the body and this may lead to some nutrients being used up more quickly than others. Eating foods that are nutrient rich act as insurance against nutrient deficiencies which may exacerbate the stress response or cause new problems altogether.

Nutrient dense foods are usually those that are unprocessed or minimally processed (in other words, they are nearly in their natural form). The plate model is an easy and practical guide to help you make the right decisions.

Fill ½ the plate with colourful fruits and vegetables

Each colour represents a different set of nutrients, either important vitamins and minerals or specialised phytonutrients (which are plant nutrients that give health benefits over and above prevention of deficiencies). Eating a variety is key, meaning to eat a variety of types of fruits and vegetables, but also prepare them in a variety of ways. Not only will this make meals fun and prevent taste fatigue, but it will also enhance the absorption of various nutrients. Some fruits and veggies are best eaten raw (especially if they contain heat sensitive B-vitamins or vitamin C) whereas fat soluble vitamins like vitamin A/ beta carotene and lycopene should be cooked with a touch of fat.

A plant based diet has consistently been associated with improved health outcomes and certain phytonutrients known as flavonoids have been associated with improvements in enhanced learning and memory. The most well researched flavonoids are curcumin (which is derived from the turmeric root) and quercetin which is found in citrus pulp, apples and onions.

 

FILL ¼ OF YOUR PLATE WITH WHOLEGRAIN OR HIGH FIBRE STARCHES

If your starch looks the same on your plate as it does on the plant, then you are choosing the right kinds! Let’s give an example, are there flour trees? Nope. Flour is a processed product of wheat. The more processed the product, the less it looks like it’s original form. It’s not that you should be eating foods made with flour, you should just be choosing unprocessed or minimally processed items like brown rice, corn, pearled wheat or barley, quinoa or even baby potatoes more frequently. If you do choose to eat processed foods, like bread, choose those that have as much of the natural product in them as possible i.e. low GI seeded bread made with whole wheat flour. This means that the manufacturer has used the whole kernel of the wheat seed to make the flour, maintaining all its goodness! Besides all the beneficial nutrients, starches that are high in fibre will also help to stabilise your teens blood sugar levels and keep them feeling fuller for longer. Less ‘hangry’ and more happy!

 

FILL ¼ OF YOUR PLATE WITH HEALTHY PROTEIN

High quality proteins should be eaten everyday, they also play a role in keeping you feeling fuller for longer and are essential for proper growth and development. Protein is the building block of literally every cell in your body. Protein sources can vary from vegetarian proteins like legumes or tofu to lean animal proteins like meat, poultry, fish, eggs and low fat dairy products. Once again, try emphasise proteins in their most natural state and avoid processed meats.

Oily fish like sardines, salmon and trout are fantastic sources of omega 3 fatty acids. These are considered to be essential (meaning that the body doesn’t make them and we have to get them through our diet). Omega 3 is important for brain and eye health and some studies have shown that teens who suffer from stress and ADHD have lower levels of omega 3 levels in their blood (indicating a possible link). Including fatty fish in your teen’s diet 2-3 times a week is a great food first way to make sure they are getting their fill.

 

ADD HEALTHY FATS TO EACH MEAL

Healthy, minimally processed plant based fats like olive oil, avos, nuts and seeds should be added to most meals. Try to replace animal fats with plant based fats wherever possible (as this has an anti-inflammatory and heart health beneficial effect). For example choose low fat plain yoghurt, but then add some nuts and seeds. Or remove the skin from your chicken but eat it with a few slices of avo.

Fats are also the basis of all of our hormones (including our stress hormone cortisol) and if we want to manage hormones and ensure optimal production, we need to consume sufficient amounts of the right kinds of fats (without compromising our health).

WHAT ELSE CAN WE DO?

Continuing in a dietary vein, teens are more likely to have inadequate intakes of calcium, magnesium, potassium and vitamins D and E. From a mental health perspective, two of these nutrients stand out: Magnesium and vitamin D.

Magnesium deficiencies have been linked to anxiety and insomnia, both which can magnify stress in your teen. By including magnesium rich foods like tofu, legumes, whole grains and green leafy vegetables regularly (to name but a few), you can mitigate this risk and promote a calm and relaxed mood (Raymond & Marrow, 2021). To learn more about magnesium as a supplement, check out our article ‘Can supplements help my stressed teen’.

Vitamin D is what we call a prohormone, meaning that although it is a vitamin, it acts like a hormone. Commonly referred to as the ‘sunshine’ vitamin, our bodies convert sunshine into active vitamin D. Deficiencies are becoming increasingly common as we learn more about the harmful effects of the sun and are also more common in those who have darker skin, are overweight or cover up when going outside (e.g. for religious reasons). A recent systematic review found that vitamin D is an essential component of good mental health in children and that adequate levels should be maintained to prevent or alleviate mental health problems (though diet or supplementation).

There is a special group of probiotics, called ‘psychobiotics’, they are not a character out of a horror movie, but rather probiotics that have been shown to produce a psychological health benefit  – specifically in those with stress.

We need to do more research, but it seems as if psychobiotics communicate with the brain (through what is known as the gut-brain axis). They produce neurotransmitters (like serotonin or your happy hormone) that then have a positive effect on your mood. So basically, a happy gut can result in a happy person!

Along with a healthy and varied diet that contains enough fibre (which feeds and nourishes the beneficial microorganisms), we can also take probiotic supplements. The beneficial effects we get from probiotics are strain specific and the strains you want to look out for include Bifidobacterium longum 1714 or R0175 or Lactobacillus acidophilus R0052 or Lactobacillus casei Shirota.

WRAPPING UP

At the end of the day, we all want what is best for our children. A balanced diet together with appropriate and science backed supplementation like Bioteen’s Relaxify together with some nutrition and lifestyle modifications should be your starting point. Creating a healthy and safe environment for them to thrive in is key to a happy and healthy teen and noticing the subtle (or maybe not so subtle) signs that they are stressed and addressing them head on will lead to better coping behaviours in the future.