Adolescence is a time in your child’s life when you don’t know who is going to greet you from one day to the next. One day it is the polite angel who lights up your life. The next day it is the sullen, eye-rolling monster from the gloom.

It is a time of discovery when your teen is creating his own identity. It is a time of transition and disorientation. It is a time of rapid change from being a child to becoming an adult. Adolescence is characterized by egocentricity, insecurity and independence.

It comes as no surprise that this is a fascinating and challenging time in your child’s development. Not only is your child’s body growing and maturing, his brain is undergoing many changes too.

THE MATURING TEENAGE BRAIN

The structure of the brain changes during adolescence and so does the way it works1.

Studies have shown that neural pathways in large parts of the brain develop and strengthen during the teenage years. These changes are observed in the brain stem, cerebellum, occipital lobe, parietal lobe, frontal lobe, and the temporal lobe1.

Next time your teenager does something impulsive with poor judgment, blame it on the frontal lobe. The behavioural changes you see in your teen stem from there. It is involved in problem solving, spontaneity, judgment, impulse control as well as social and sexual behaviour1.

The growth that takes place in the brain during the teenage years is second only to that seen in early childhood. Your teen is constantly being exposed to new situations and learning new skills. The neural pathways required to develop these skills are being laid down on a daily basis. Because these pathways are “under construction” there is a lot of room for error. Your teenager probably doesn’t even realise when he is making poor decisions or engaging in risky behaviour.

THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE EMOTIONAL BRAIN

Teenagers are particularly sensitive to their social and emotional environment. They are not being overdramatic to manipulate you or get what they want. Their brains are undergoing so many changes, that their emotions are very unstable2.

There are several models proposed by scientists to explain what happens in the brain during adolescence. Some are very complicated and look at how the various parts of the brain are linked to each other and which ones play more prominent roles at each stage of development. Theories most commonly look at two competing brain systems2

Teenagers often react very quickly. How many times have you had to remind your teen to think before they act. The reason this is a problem for them is because their executive control is still immature. Their reasoning only kicks in after they have responded to the given situation2.

Emotional maturity is only reached after the age of 21 years2. So you may be in for a long emotional rollercoaster of a ride.

WHAT INFLUENCES THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE ADOLESCENT BRAIN?

Human beings are susceptible to the environment in which they live. Your teen and his rapidly changing brain is going to be influenced by2:

  • Genetic and hereditary factors
  • Home environment
  • School environment
  • Nutritional status
  • Sleep patterns
  • Stress – physical, mental, economical and psychological
  • Drug use
  • Sex hormones

With all these factors involved in shaping who we become, it is no wonder that everyone is unique. Even siblings don’t have the same experiences as each other.

The Amazing Adolescent Brain

NUTRITION STATUS AND THE BRAIN

You can control some of the factors that affect your teen’s brain development and functioning and some are completely out of your control. One of the key areas that your input matters is what food you make available to your family.

Malnutrition has an impact on the brain’s development. Insufficient protein and energy has been shown to be linked to poorer cognition scores than in children whose brains receive optimal amounts of energy and amino acids from protein3

There is also a possible link between overweight and obesity and poorer academic performance and cognitive performance possibly due to disruptions in insulin sensitivity and blood glucose metabolism. In a human scientific study4, researchers from the University of South Carolina have described such an association in 8–16-year-old children and adolescents, whereby an increased body mass index (BMI) is associated with reduced cognitive performance.

Specific amino acids that have been shown to be beneficial in supporting the teenage brain include L-tyrosine which is a precursor to the neurotransmitters dopamine, epinephrine and nor-epinephrine. These neurotransmitters help to regulate your mood. 

L-theanine is an amino acid that is naturally present in tea leaves. L-Theanine has been shown to help reduce anxiety by modulating increasing alpha waves in the brain that are associated with a focused and relaxed state. Considering the psychological stress can affect your teen’s brain development, ensuring a regular intake of L-Theanine can be useful in managing the stress response. L-Theanine is provided in several Bioteen products, from a highly bioavailable form called Suntheanine®.

Another amino acid of significance is acetyl-l-carnitine (ALCAR). It is widely distributed throughout the human body, including the brain, blood-brain barrier, neurones, and astrocytes. ALCAR is involved in energy generation in the brain, in addition to acting as an antioxidant to protect cells in the nervous system. 

Essential fatty acids have long been known to be brain food. Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids are dark oily fish. Lesser amounts are found in nuts, seeds, avocado pears, olives and some plant oils. They have a role to play in the functioning of the nerve synapses, or the spaces between the nerves through which chemical messages pass from one nerve to another4.

Iron is an essential nutrient for the transport of oxygen around the body. It is a structural component of haemoglobin which is part of the red blood cells. If iron levels are low, the brain does not receive enough oxygen and development is slowed. Correcting iron levels has been shown to improve cognition in both children and adults3,4. 

One of the most prevalent minerals in the brain is zinc. It plays an important role in the synthesis of DNA and RNA. It is also involved in the metabolism of carbohydrates, proteins and fats3

The B-vitamins are involved in the release of energy from the food we eat. They are involved in the metabolism of the brain’s primary source of fuel – glucose. They also play a part in the structure and function of cell membranes and nerve synapses3.

CONCLUSION: THE AMAZING TEENAGE BRAIN

With so much going on inside your teenager’s head, is it surprising that their behaviour can be a little odd at times. They are working hard to create their own identity and along the way they have to deal with some big emotions that they don’t yet know how to handle. Adolescence is not a time for parents to apply the breaks. Your teen needs at least a little freedom to explore his world and learn new skills. It is the way the brain grows and matures. 

Support your teens’ amazing brain with good nutrition. Your teenager’s brain needs all the help it can get to lay down new neural pathways so that he can move successfully from childhood to adulthood.

REFERENCES

  1. Sharma S, Arain, Mathur, Rais, Nel, Sandhu et al. Maturation of the adolescent brain. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment. 2013;:449. (PubMed)
  2. Casey B, Heller A, Gee D, Cohen A. Development of the emotional brain. Neuroscience Letters. 2019;693:29-34. (PubMed)
  3. Gómez-Pinilla F. Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 2008;9(7):568-578. (PubMed)
  4. Li Y et al. Overweight is associated with decreased cognitive functioning among school-age children and adolescents.Obesity (Silver Spring). 2008 Aug;16(8):1809-15. (PubMed)