By Marika Berni, ND
Adolescence is one of the most stressful developmental stages that our bodies have to go through. Between the changes in their bodies – insane amounts of growth over a short period of time (my 15 year old son barely fits in his bed now), hormonal changes and significant brain development, the adolescent has a lot to process. What is amazing about this stage is how much potential there is to lay the foundations of future health. My intention with this article was to simply educate about a healthy diet, its benefits and how to support any stomach issues. In my research I came across some engrossing studies discussing the connection between a healthy adolescent gut microbiota (the bacteria that live in our digestive system) and its affect on adult health. What I was most struck with was that we have the potential to create a healthy microbiome, which will have a positive influence on our adolescent’s immunity, mood, weight and digestive health among other things.
The connection between the gut microbiota and obesity has been established through many studies (1). There is a relationship between the bacteria in our gut and our ability to maintain or lose weight. With a rise in obese teenagers, this may be a powerful tool to support healthy and safe weight loss in adolescents. What is also evident is that a change in diet, and lifestyle can also have an effect on the microbiome. This microbiome contains a diverse range of bacteria, which change in response to physical and environmental stressors throughout our life from infancy to adulthood. What we do in adolescence can affect the microbiome in our future.
Adolescents are exposed to a variety of stressors such as new schools and greater expectations, changing bodies, more independence resulting in changes in both sleep patterns and dietary choices. In adolescence the brain is still developing, and it is at this stage that many psychiatric disorders can emerge. Eating disorders, depression, anxiety and substance abuse can all appear at this stage. Studies have shown that the gut microbiota has an influence on mood. (2) Studies have looked at mice without gut microbiota, or those treated with antibiotics, which would affect the normal gut microbiota. They found that they had trouble dealing with stress, had anxiety, social behavioural deficits, and cognitive dysfunction. (3). But when given colonizing bacteria in the adolescent stage of their life these dysfunctions could be reversed. But if introduced in adulthood, they could not be reversed. So evidently there is window in which the microbiota can be supported which results in a positive effect on how an adult deals with stress. So taking antibiotics in childhood and adolescence can have long term effects on altering brain function.
It is really difficult to get a teenager to eat well. Check out the previously published article, Is Your Teen Living on Junk Food?, to learn more. These dietary changes whether they mean less fiber, or a lot more sugar, have an affect on their microbiota. A poor diet can cause an overgrowth of bad bacteria, which can lead to gas and bloating and stomach upset and irritable bowel like symptoms. Constipation is also common at this stage. (3) See my article, Care for Constipation, for causes and helpful tips. Establishing and maintaining a good microbiota is clearly linked with good digestive health.
What You Can Do
The factors that affect our gut microbiota are diet, stress, sleep… all the things that are disrupted in teenagers. Antibiotics also have a negative affect as they kill not only the bad bacteria, but also the good bacteria as well. Making sure that you take a good quality probiotic supplement with antibiotic use is very important throughout childhood and adolescence (when multiple ear infections, strep throat and bronchitis seem at their peak). This will help to re-establish good bacteria. Encouraging your child to eat a healthy diet low in sugar, and high in fiber is recommended. Try introducing prebiotic foods (foods which will encourage the growth of friendly bacteria) such as: under ripe bananas, oats, raw onions and garlic, jerusalem artichoke, asparagus, and leeks. Fermented foods are also prebiotic, so try introducing sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, kefir, pickles, miso, and tempeh. Recent studies have shown that eating fermented foods reduces social anxiety by releasing the neurotransmitter GABA, which reduces anxiety. Imagine the difference you can make in your child’s life just by encouraging them to eat different foods!
The impact that you can have on your child’s present and adult health is empowering. By encouraging healthy microbiota in your child you can have a significant effect on their mood, coping skills, weight, immunity and digestive health.
Book an appointment with Dr. Berni to see how she can help you support your family’s health.
- Ley RE, Turnbaugh PJ, Klein S, Gordon JI. Microbial ecology: human gut microbes associated with obesity.Nature 2006; 444: 1022–1023.
- Reframing the Teenage Wasteland: Adolescent Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis
- Karen-Anne McVey Neufeld, Pauline Luczynski, Timothy G. Dinan, John F. Cryan Can J Psychiatry. 2016 Apr; 61(4): 214–221.
- Neufeld KM, Kang N, Bienenstock J, Foster JA. Reduced anxiety-like behavior and central neurochemical change in germ-free mice. Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2011;23(3):255–264, e119.
- Intestinal microbiota and chronic constipation Ying Zhao, Yan-Bo Yu Springerplus. 2016; 5(1): 1130.
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