A teen struggles with their gut health.

How the Brain-Gut Connection Impacts Teen Mental Health

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Research continues to show that quality gut health plays a critical role in mental health functioning.

Medically Reviewed By:
Dr. Jaime Ballard

Consider how often you hear the stomach or “gut” mentioned in everyday conversation. A difficult experience might be described as “gut-wrenching.” Someone may advise you to “go with your gut.” If you’re nervous or upset, you may feel nauseated, and if you’re excited and jittery, you have “butterflies” in your stomach. 

Aside from aiding with digestion, our gut serves as a second brain—one that’s connected to how we think and feel. Not only is that connection reflected in our language, but it’s also substantiated by science. Our brains affect our stomachs and intestines, while an upset stomach sends signals to our brains. Since the relationship goes both ways, stomach issues can be the cause or the product of mental health issues like anxiety, stress, and depression. 

When gastrointestinal health starts to take a toll on our mental state, gut microbiota (GM) are the likely culprit. Studies suggest that GM—all the different microorganisms (like bacteria) in our gastrointestinal tract—may have a significant impact on mental health and wellness, especially in teens and young adults. 

Based on what we know about brain-gut health, are we devoting enough time and research to the stomach’s role in mental health—specifically issues on the rise in young people? If we take a closer look at the brain-gut connection in teens, we may be able to offer more effective mental health solutions where they’re needed most. 

Breaking down the brain-gut relationship 

The “gut,” otherwise known as the enteric nervous system (ENS), is full of nerves. In fact, it lines our entire digestive system with more than 100 million nerve cells—the same kinds of neurons and neurotransmitters found in our central nervous system (located in the brain and spinal cord) where we process sensory information. 

The ENS manages and controls digestion, ensuring we absorb certain nutrients and eliminate others. It also communicates with our brain through our nervous system and hormones. When we experience anxiety, our bodies release chemicals and hormones that enter the digestive system and can affect microorganisms living in our gut. 

Those microorganisms make up what’s called the gut biome. Everything from genetics to diet, physical activity, and stress can alter the makeup and diversity of gut microbiota. An imbalance can lead to conditions like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Some research also suggests that an imbalanced gut may impact the emergence and severity of mental health issues. One study published in Nature Microbiology found a positive correlation between participants’ quality of life/symptoms of depression and their gut microbiota. 

The gut biome is particularly vulnerable in teens and “emerging adults” age 18-25. During this time, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis matures. Made up of the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands, this axis plays an important role in the body’s response to stress. It’s also involved in the neurobiology of mental health conditions, including bipolar disorder, anxiety, PTSD, borderline personality disorder, ADHD, and burnout.

The HPA axis is one of the most critical components of brain-gut health. Gut microbes can affect the regulation and development of the HPA axis, so it’s especially important for developing teens—and the adults in their lives—to prioritize gut health and, in turn, mental health and wellness. 

Teen girl experiencing gut issues

Brain food for teens 

Many factors contribute to the state of our microbiome, including physical exercise, substance use, sleep and of course, diet. Certain foods promote healthy gut bacteria and limit the number of “bad” bacteria. While parents can help educate their children about the benefits of a healthy diet, it’s also important to discuss personalized options with a healthcare provider before making any dietary changes. 

If you’re hoping to improve your gut health or the health of your child, look for foods rich in the following vitamins and nutrients: 

Fiber

Foods rich in fiber can help improve memory. Fiber also decreases inflammation by supporting microbiota. Examples include beans and legumes, nuts, dark chocolate, oats, fruits, and vegetables. 

Protein

Nitrogen in protein limits the amount of bad bacteria in the microbiome. Protein can also improve symptoms of depression through the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates everything from digestion to mood and sleep. 

While serotonin does not occur naturally in foods, it can be synthesized from tryptophan, an amino acid that’s most often found in high-protein foods. Combining carbs with protein allows tryptophan to pass the blood-brain barrier and eventually be converted into serotonin. 

Examples of protein-rich foods include eggs, lean beef, milk, yogurt (which is also a great source of probiotics, or “good” bacteria), chicken, turkey, broccoli, oats, nuts, and fish. 

Omega-3s

A diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids has been linked with mood regulation. Omega-3 fatty acids contribute to brain functioning, as well as serotonin neurotransmission. There’s also evidence that combining more omega-3 fatty acids with antidepressants may improve mood in major depression. Examples include flax and chia seeds, walnuts, salmon, sardines, oysters, and mackerel. 

Check your vitamin D 

More than one billion people worldwide have a vitamin D deficiency. A lack of vitamin D is connected with higher risks of depression in teens, along with other issues including IBS. This vitamin regulates the microbiome and helps reduce GI inflammation. 

For foods rich in vitamin D, try egg yolks, orange juice, salmon, tuna, and fortified milk. You can also increase vitamin D levels by spending more time outdoors. It’s a good rule of thumb to aim for 10-30 minutes of midday sunlight, several times per week. 

If you’re able to walk while outside, that can help your microbiome, too. Exercise naturally disrupts microbes in the gut biome, creating chemical reactions and more diverse stomach bacteria. Diversity in intestinal flora is crucial for brain-gut health. 

Again, make sure you consult a healthcare professional before making any significant lifestyle changes. 

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Gut health matters—especially for developing teens  

Adolescence is a critical time for growth, and the gut-brain connection plays a major role in physical, mental, and emotional development. This connection warrants further study, especially since mental health issues are on the rise for teens in the U.S.

It’s important for parents, educators, and healthcare professionals to prioritize gut health and inform teens about the brain-gut relationship. The more knowledge, support, and resources we can offer young people regarding mental health, the better. 

Wellbeing & Mental Health Support at Charlie Health

Adolescents struggling with mental health may also benefit from psychological treatment, including cognitive behavioral therapy. If you’re a teen or family member interested in personalized support for mental health issues, our team at Charlie Health can help. Contact us to get started today.

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