Rise of Anxiety in Teens: Is Gut Health to Blame?
Life is fast-paced and boy, it can be stressful. This pressure is a lot for an adult to handle. It’s no wonder anxiety in teens continues to rise over the years 1. Their mind isn’t fully developed yet. Unfortunately, their brains don’t get much of a fighting chance, much in thanks to the Standard American Diet (SAD).
The SAD is full of saturated fats that leave the body susceptible to inflammation. Instead of consuming healthy fats for mental health, their diets could be jeopardizing their disposition. Therefore, is poor gut health playing a big role in the uptick of anxiety in teens?
The gut brain connection is a theoretical notion that the health of your gut biome can affect other parts of your mental faculties. Thus resulting in mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. Is there any evidence for this? Would it explain the current rise of anxiety in teens? Let’s explore anxiety in teens through the gut brain connection.
Anxiety in Teens on the Rise
Anxiety as a whole seems to be on the rise lately, with more and more people coming out and seeking treatment.
Since mental health has been stigmatized throughout most of human history, it is hard to know how much anxiety is rising, or if people are just more comfortable to talk about it now.
A recent analysis looked at the rise of anxiety in teens from 2007 to 2012.
In just five years, the number of diagnoses of anxiety for children between ages six to seventeen jumped a whopping 20% 2.
What is Causing a Rise in Anxiety in Teens?
A 20% jump is a lot in just five years. Much of this increase is thanks to the stigma surrounding mental health being lifted. With that recognition, children are becoming more aware of how serious the problem can become.
70% of children ages 13-17 told Pew Research that they see anxiety as a major problem for teenagers 3. Here is a close look at what teens are saying causing them stress.
While gut health is not on that list, it doesn’t mean it’s not the culprit. Just like many children just a few decades weren’t aware anxiety in teens were an issue, they’re unaware gut health may be a culprit.
To a teen, social media, hanging out with friends, and school is their world. These are what they spend most of their time thinking about, so children think these elements are the top cause for anxiety in teens. However, research is starting to suggest the gut biome is playing a big role.
The Gut Biome and Anxiety in Teens
Just like there’s been a rise in teens with anxiety, we’re seeing that children are also experiencing gut health-related issues, including Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
A meta-analysis of 58 scientific journals found that approximately 14% of children suffer from some form of gastrointestinal distress throughout their gut biome.
Furthermore, around 8% of those kids show symptoms of IBS 4.
There is no denying that stress can irritate IBS symptoms. When you are teen with anxiety, these symptoms can become chronic. This snowball effect can create an ongoing cycle that may result in long-term mental health issues.
Gut Brain Connection and Teens
Ever feel nauseous before a test, or have butterflies in your stomach when you see someone you have a crush on? This is the gut brain connection, and it showcases that your gut and your brain are somehow connected, way more than we may have previously believed.
Evidence shows that people who have depression are often missing important bacteria in their guts. One study looked at the gut biome of 1,054 Belgians.
Their analysis found,
“Some in the group—173 in total—had been diagnosed with depression or had done poorly on a quality of life survey, and the team compared their microbiomes with those other participants. Two kinds of microbes, Coprococcus and Dialister, were missing from the microbiomes of the depressed subjects, but not from those with a high quality of life 5.”– Science
As you may have noticed with the Pew study, depression and anxiety in teens are lumped together. That’s because they have many of the same overlapping symptoms. This laundry list includes a gut biome lacking a diverse number of stomach bacteria in the system.
How Anxiety Affects the Gut Biome
Now, you must be wondering. Did the missing stomach bacteria cause the anxiety, or did the anxiety cause the intestinal flora to die off? We do not know for sure. What we do know, is that getting treatment for your depression or for stress can help reduce the severity of symptoms.
As Harvard says:
“Psychosocial factors influence the actual physiology of the gut, as well as symptoms. In other words, stress (or depression or other psychological factors) can affect movement and contractions of the GI tract, make inflammation worse, or perhaps make you more susceptible to infection 6.”– Harvard
In addition, research suggests that some people with functional GI disorders perceive pain more acutely than other people do because their brains are more responsive to pain signals from the GI tract.
Vagus Nerve and Anxiety in TeensThe gut brain connection is regulated by the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve hands from the end of the brainstem. It keeps a close eye on what’s going on in the gut biome. Based on what’s going on down there, the vagus nerve will send pulses up the stem and to the brain. This complex communication system is known as the gut-brain-axis.The gut brain connection plays a crucial role in regulating anxiety in teens. One scratches the other. When you get your gut health in the check, the brain will follow, and vice versa. That’s why the gut is known as the second brain.
A review of 13 studies showed that patients who improved their mental health saw their GI problems lessen, compared to those who just received conventional mental health treatment 6. This analysis further lends credence to the gut brain connection and its role in regulating anxiety in teens.
Ways to Reduce Anxiety in Teens
As the evidence has stated, reducing anxiety and depression can help to alleviate the symptoms of gastrointestinal disorders. Knowing that, what are some self-help ways in which we can reduce these GI problems?
Stay Away from Technology
Since we use technology for pretty much everything nowadays, finding ways to stay away from it may seem like something that is impossible. But constantly being connected to a screen can allow you to not be able to relax, This information overload and bouts of FOMO can add to your stress.
Even if you are using technology to look up cats on social media, limit your use. You might think you’re being interactive, but you’re really cutting yourself off from the world around you. This sort of isolation will only add to your mental health issues.
Take a Walk Outside
Lack of Vitamin D is connected with higher risks of depression and other issues, including IBS. With the rise of social media, television, and food delivery services, no one goes outside anymore. Therefore, they are missing out on Vitamin D.
Since teens spend a significant amount of time indoors at school, work, and playing video games, many lack this crucial vitamin. That’s why over one billion people worldwide have a Vitamin D deficiency 7.Going outside, in general, will help improve your microbiome because walking is exercise.
Exercise naturally disrupts the microbes in the gut biome, causing them to chemically react. Naturally, this causes more diversity of stomach bacteria.
As we discussed earlier, diversity in intestinal flora is essential for optimal mental health.
Also, exercise itself can help boost your mood. In turn, it can give you a better body image, and may even help you to lose weight. All of which is connected with better symptom management for anxiety in teens.
You can expect a better quality of life the more you go outside and get a little bit of walking in. If you do not want to walk, maybe try jogging, cycling, or even playing a sport outside! Bring a friend and lower your anxiety together.
Skip the Caffeine
We know. PSL FTW. However, coffee, tea, and soda are full of caffeine. While a little bit of this stimulant can help you to wake up, for many, it triggers anxiety. This notion is especially true the more cups of coffee you get.
Instead of getting caffeine-filled drinks, opt for water. Enhance your water with lemon. Citrus fruits are full of electrolytes that will help you power through the day without the jitters and anxiety of caffeine.
Change Your Diet
The Western Diet sets up many of our teens for anxiety. That’s because the typical SAD meal is rich in animal fats and allergens such as dairy and wheat.
Learn More: Ultimate Guide to Gut-Weight Axis
Make sure you are getting a wide range of vitamins and minerals by eating fruits and vegetables of different colors. Also, consume many healthy unsaturated fats.
A study looked at plant-based proteins rich in omega-3 fatty acids. They compared the mental disposition of those with a balanced omega-3 to omega-6 to those who follow an omega-6 heavy diet.
Speaking of serotonin, also cut down on sugar use. Refined sugars are stripped of any nutritional value. What’s left are sticky compounds that clog up your arteries and gut lining. That’s why there is a strong link between sugar and brain damage.
“A healthy pattern rich in omega-3 fatty acids intakes has been linked with mood regulation. Omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties and contribute to brain functioning and serotonin neurotransmission (e.g. providing fluidity to neurons cell membrane). Furthermore, there is evidence that adding omega-3 fatty acids to antidepressants may improve mood in major depression 8.”– PLoS One
Microbiome Testing and Probiotics for Kids
GI problems should be a red flag for mental health issues in the future. Long-term GI issues can lead to chronic inflammation. Not only will this set your child up for anxiety in their teen years, but maybe even autoimmune disease in their adulthood.
If your teen experiences reoccurring bouts of IBS, diarrhea, bloating, and constipation, get them a microbiome testing kit. Thryve Inside sends you everything your teen needs to discreetly take a gut health test at home.
They just simply mail in their sample with the tools provided. Our specialists will analyze the stomach bacteria in the gut biome. That way, they can determine which intestinal flora are triggering these mental health issues.
Based on those results, we will formulate personalized probiotics supplements for your teen. That way, their GI problems can get under control. Due to the gut brain connection, the anxiety levels should naturally decrease. If you or your child has anxiety, please talk to a specialist. Also, talk to your physician about microbiome testing and personalized probiotics for kids.
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- 1 Nutt, Amy Ellis. “Why Kids and Teens May Face Far More Anxiety These Days.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 10 May 2018, www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2018/05/10/why-kids-and-teens-may-face-far-more-anxiety-these-days/.
- 2 “The National Survey of Children’s Health.” National Survey of Children’s Health – Data Resource Center for Child and Adolescent Health, 2017, www.childhealthdata.org/learn-about-the-nsch/NSCH.
- 3 Horowitz, Juliana Menasce, and Nikki Graf. “Most U.S. Teens See Anxiety, Depression as Major Problems.” Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project, 21 Feb. 2019, www.pewsocialtrends.org/2019/02/20/most-u-s-teens-see-anxiety-and-depression-as-a-major-problem-among-their-peers/.
- 4 “The Role of Avoidance Behavior in the Treatment of Adolescents with Irritable Bowel Syndrome: A Mediation Analysis.” Behaviour Research and Therapy, Pergamon, 28 Mar. 2018, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0005796718300421#bib26.
- 5 PennisiFeb, Elizabeth, et al. “Evidence Mounts That Gut Bacteria Can Influence Mood, Prevent Depression.” Science, 4 Feb. 2019, www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/02/evidence-mounts-gut-bacteria-can-influence-mood-prevent-depression.
- 6 Harvard Health Publishing. (2019). The gut-brain connection – Harvard Health. Retrieved May 3, 2019, from Harvard Health website: https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/the-gut-brain-connection.
- 7 Sizar, Omeed. “Vitamin D Deficiency.” StatPearls Internet., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 4 June 2019, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK532266/.
- 8 Le Port, A., Gueguen, A., Kesse-Guyot, E., Melchior, M., Lemogne, C., Nabi, H., … Czernichow, S. (2012). Association between dietary patterns and depressive symptoms over time: a 10-year follow-up study of the GAZEL cohort. PloS one, 7(12), e51593. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0051593.