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Feeding the adolescent brain

Posted Aug 01 2011 12:00am

Adolescence can be a really challenging time, both physically and psychologically. The teenage body is changing rapidly: Frequent growth spurts almost guarantee you’re often going to buy a whole new wardrobe of clothes for them. In addition, the adolescent brain is changing dramatically. Their brains almost rebuild themselves, pruning old unwanted connections and setting up lots of new connections. This can create a whole range of psychological changes, quite apart from the challenges of gaining more responsibility and independence. In addition, there can be added academic pressure to perform.

A healthier brain means healthier psychology.  To help your adolescent reach adulthood with a healthy brain, it’s important to provide it with the right raw materials. There are two very important foods: omega-3 fats, and protein.

Brains are composed mostly of fat. Each nerve cell is coated with a layer of fat, made up primarily of DHA fatty acids (one of the omega-3 oils). A good fatty acid balance in your brain means that nerve cell membranes function more effectively in sending and receiving messages via neurotransmitters.

The neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers of your brain (nerve cells also send messages via electrical impulses). They’re built from protein, vitamins and minerals.

Thinking and growing uses energy: The fuel for all of this is a steady supply of glucose (i.e without too much sugar all at once).

Good fats for brain development are found in seafood, avocado, nuts and olive oil. Good proteins, vitamins and minerals can be found in seafood, meat and eggs. Unfortunately, the adolescent years can also be the time when some teenagers announce they’re going to embark on a restricted diet; or choose to eat too much junk food, with its abundance of saturated fat and sugar.

What can you feed the adolescent brain to help it grow and perform well?

-          Plenty of high quality protein. If you can, encourage your adolescent to eat a protein-based breakfast (eggs are ideal). This will help them avoid the mid-afternoon energy slump too. Breakfast cereal makes a great afternoon snack, but it isn’t sustaining enough to get a teenage brain through a day of school.

-          Seafood almost every day, especially oily fish like salmon, tuna and sardines.

-          Move more towards good oils (avocado, nuts, olives) and further away from saturated fats like butter. Use avocado as a spread; include nuts in snacks and as spreads.

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