Teenage Angst and the Gut-Brain Axis

5 min read

If you have fond memories of your teenage years, you’re in the minority. Many of us feel lucky to be past the pimples, angst, and broken hearts of these formative years. If you are a teen, then you know personally how much this developmental phase can bite.


Can diet help with the blues?


Depression and anxiety run high amongst teens. In fact, people between the ages of 18 and 24 have the highest average rates of depression, more than 20%. That rate isn’t uniformly spread throughout the states, however. The rate of depression ranges from 12% in Hawaii to 28% in West Virginia. Some of the manifestations are deadly serious: According to a recent CDC report, one-third of teenage girls contemplate suicide, and one-fifth of LGBTQ teens actually attempt it.

Surprisingly, depression also correlates with an unhealthy gut. Gut microbes, collectively known as the microbiome, play an outsized role in mental health.

While plenty of studies of the relationship between the gut and the brain have been done on adults and the elderly, teenagers are relatively unexplored. Newborns, of course, have a big job ahead of them building their brains from helplessness to learning to walk, talk, and be fed. But teens also have a lot of learning to do, and their brains are thirsty for knowledge about how to get ahead, how to deal with sex, and how to survive drugs and alcohol. Much of the learning happens on the sleeping schedule of a vampire while frantically swiping through social media apps.

It is a heady time, and their gut microbes are in on the adventure. Intriguingly, teen stressors can negatively impact their gut microbes. Worse yet, the microbes that set up shop in their guts during the teenage years can persist for years. If they are not a healthy batch, they may lead to depression or anxiety. That means the patterns we set in our teen years can plague us for years after.

The Horrors of Teen Diets

Teens have a variety of foods available to them, but they are not always the best arbiters of what’s healthy. Sadly, our schools are not up to the task of educating them about one of the most important aspects of their life.

Teens are a prime target for savvy marketers, who love to exploit a group that is easily swayed by fast, convenient meals and energy-intense, sugary foods. Such edibles typify the standard American diet (SAD), which leaves a long-lasting imprint on the microbiome.

American teens are major consumers of the processed products found in the center of the store: the cheese puffs, cookies, macaroni and cheese, candy bars, and ramen. These products are engineered to last in the pantry for years, unlike the natural foods in the less-visited vegetable aisle.

Mediterranean teens have a healthier microbial profile than American teens. Their marvelously tasty cuisine has a great variety of fresh foods and lots of fiber to support a wide diversity of microbial species, a hallmark of health. Even poor Bangladeshi teens have a healthier microbiome than Americans, and, again, it is due to a diet of fresh foods with plenty of fiber.

This is a sad testament to the fact that today the American diet is more manufactured than grown.

The Gut-Brain Axis

We now know that the gut microbiome has a strong effect on the brain. What may be less appreciated is that the stresses of being a teen also have an impact on their microbiome.

The gut-brain axis is a cacophony of biological messaging pathways, including hormonal, neural, and immune signals, not to mention microbial secretions. The setup allows fast signals, like a food poisoning alert, to race through the nerves at 200 mph. It also provides for slower signals mediated by hormones and inflammatory factors to produce long-term change, like depression.

In a recent article, researchers John Cryan, Ted Dinan, and Karen-Anne McVey Neufeld of University College Cork, posit that much of teenage angst involves the gut-brain axis. They say, “Identifying a role for the microbiota in psychiatric illnesses opens up an exciting opportunity for therapeutic advances via bacterial manipulation. This could prove to be a beneficial and novel avenue for treatment of mental illnesses in the developing teen.”

What to Do

The therapeutic bacterial manipulation that Cryan and colleagues mention is actually simple to describe. It involves less processed food and more fresh vegetables. They emphasize fermented foods as well, including yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, and kefir.

If you can’t get enough diversity in your diet, you might try supplements. Today’s probiotics are improving, with better strains and higher doses of microbes. Prebiotics, the food for probiotics, can also be helpful.

There are plenty of reasons to despair in today’s society, but a strong gut builds resilience and can help us all cope better.

It’s tough to be a teen, but we put a lot of rocks into our own shoes at that age. Having provided meager education on the subject, we can’t blame kids for a lousy lifestyle. Food manufacturers are master formulators of hyperpalatable, low-fiber food, and we are inundated with fast-food cues all day. That’s a problem for all of us, but particularly for teens, who are especially susceptible to peer pressure and smart marketing.

But as teens from other cultures prove, it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s a matter of education and dedication—and perhaps living in Hawaii.

It’s not impossible to create new habits, including more exercise, better sleep patterns, and healthier diets. Learn to cook. You can make a good argument that teens are more flexible than oldsters, who can get stuck in their ways.

Share this article with a teen so they can make better decisions. The choices they make today may have lifelong consequences.

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