This time of year can be really stressful for teenagers studying for exams. Some students seem to breeze through it while others get extremely anxious, suffer with poor sleep, depression, and literally become sick with the pressure.
If your child is having a hard time, improving their diet and, if you are able to, their sleeping and exercise habits, can really give their brains, mood and immune systems a well needed boost.
If your child is very conscious of trying to maintain a low body weight or lose weight, their overall intake of food is likely to be low, or they may have erratic eating habits – this makes the quality or ‘nutrient density’ of the food they are consuming even more important.
Anxiety and low mood
Feelings of anxiety and low mood are often exaserbated by low levels of vitamins and minerals as well as poor sleeping and eating routines. Stress increases the body’s need for B vitamins and magnesium in particular.
Magnesium has numerous different functions within the body. It helps to reduce feelings of stress and tension and promotes restful sleep. It also helps to reduce symptoms of premenstrual syndrome such as tearfulness and extremes of emotion before monthly periods. It is involved in muscle contraction and helps to ease muscular tension and cramps. Magnesium works with calcium and vitamin D to ensure good bone density. Magnesium is also involved in numerous detoxification reactions and so has a role in helping to clear the body of toxins. Over 40% of the adult population in the UK do not consume the recommended 270-300mg magnesium per day, and teenagers have greater than average needs.
Magnesium rich foods include nuts and seeds, seafood, whole grains like brown rice and quinoa. Magnesium supplements are often taken in the evening to help with relaxation and sleep.
There are many different B vitamins and all of them are involved in converting food into usable energy within the body; many of them are also involved in maintaining the health of the brain and nervous system. B vitamins are mostly water soluble and not stored in the body so they need to be consumed every day. (The exception is B12 which is stored in the liver.)
B1 (Thiamine) – is needed to keep the brain working well in terms of mood, memory and concentration and to prevent depression. It is found in meat, whole grains and nuts. Alcohol depletes the body of thiamine and people who under eat or have digestive disorders may also be low.
B6 (Pyridoxine) – is involved in the manufacturing of serotonin and other neurotransmiters within the brain which help with mood. Good levels of B6 are thought to help with depression: there is mixed evidence on it’s helpfulness in pre-menstrual syndrome.
Salmon and tuna are particularly good sources of this vitamin; bananas are also a good source. It is found in a wide range of foods in lower amounts including meat, poultry, fish, fortified foods such as breakfast cereals, and other vegetables. In spite of B6 being found in a wide range of foods, low levels of B6 are thought to be quite common.
B9 (Folate) – Folic acid is the synthetic version of the vitamin Folate which is found in vitamin supplements. One in five people are not able to convert the synthetic version of folic acid into folate in the body, and so can only get B6 through their diet and not via supplements. Folate is important for brain health and some studies have shown it is helpful in depression. Higher levels are needed during periods of rapid growth such as pregnancy, infancy and the teenage years. Folate is found in dark leafy greens such as spinach and kale. It is also found in avocados, oranges and whole grains. Folate deficiencies are relatively common as lots of people do not eat enough vegetables.
Iron – Low levels of iron not only lower your energy levels, but they also cause low mood and increase your suseptibility to illness. Teenage girls with heavy periods, or vegetarians need to think carefully about whether they are eating enough iron rich foods. Good sources include red meat, the dark meat of poultry, pork; vegetarian sources include beans and pulses, dried apricots and dark, leafy greens.
Low energy levels
If your teenager is lethargic and has low energy levels talk to them about how well they are sleeping and whether they need to change their evening routine to improve their sleep patterns.
Are they low in iron? Girls with heavy periods or vegetarians are vulnerable to poor iron levels. Iron works with B12 (found in animal products) and B6 (see above) to manufacture red blood cells which deliver oxygen to the body, so all three nutrients are needed in good amounts.
All B vitamins are involved in converting food into usable energy by the body, so a deficiency in any of them will have a negative impact on energy levels.
Too many sugary foods and drinks and other refined carbohydrates will lead to blood sugar highs and lows which will lead to low energy levels and fatigue as well as increased feelings of anxiety and stress.
Ironically, lack of exercise actually makes us tired! It also makes us less likely to sleep well. Making sure students take a break from studying and get out to do some exercise will help them to feel more energised, sleep better and study more effectively.
To prevent coughs, colds and other infections the body needs good stores of iron and vitamin D as well as vitamin C, vitamin A and zinc.
Vitamin D is difficult to obtain in adequate quantities from the diet and a supplement during the winter months might be needed.
Zinc is essential for a strong immune system; it is also needed for growth and sexual maturation and so is particularly important for teenagers. Low zinc status is associated with reduced cognitive function; zinc is also a crucial mineral in the treatment of acne. It is involved in so many different processes in the body ensuring good levels of zinc is vital for optimum health.
Zinc is most readily available from meat, seafood and poultry. It is also found in beans and pulses, nuts, seeds and whole grains. The rates of absorption of zinc from pulses and grains is limited by phytates found in these foods; soaking whole grains for several hours before cooking is recommended to improve the availability of zinc from whole grains and pulses.
Vitamin A is essential for immune health, great skin and good respiratory function. It is found in egg yolks and oily fish. Most people make most of their vitamin A from beta-carotene which is found in orange fruits and vegetables such as canteloupe melon, carrots, peppers, mangos and squash. Beta-carotene is also in leafy greens. Try to get your kids eating a wide variety of different coloured fruits and vegetables every day to ensure they are getting as wide a variety of vitamins and other phytochemicals as possible.
Sometimes it is very helpful for your children to hear advice from someone apart from you! This article was inspired by a client I saw a couple of weeks ago. A mum bought her seventeen year old daughter to me because she was feeling very stressed about her ‘A’ levels and boyfriend troubles and was sleeping badly. Like many teenagers her diet was very poor, eating little breakfast, junk food for lunch and often missing family dinners. She didn’t like swallowing tablets so was unwilling to consider any supplements. I went through her diet and sleep/exercise habits with her in detail and then together we devised a diet plan of foods she liked to eat that would bring in the range of nutrients, vitamins and minerals that she needs to feel good.
The girl’s mum emailed me two weeks later to express her thanks because the consultation had such a positive impact on her daughter’s eating habits and her mood and sleeping had improved too. Sometimes a little outside help can go a long way!
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Call Ellie now on 07949463288 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange an appointment or to discuss how nutrition or herbal medicine may help your family
Please note, this article is meant for general dietary guidelines only. It is always wise to seek professional advice before taking supplements.
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