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Navigating nutrition as kids go through puberty can be a struggle! You know that what your teen eats has an impact on both their health and their mood, so you try your best to minimize the pizza parties, snack foods, soda/pop, and fast food stops. But at a certain point, what’s a mom to do?
Teens still need mom’s guidance and a listening ear. In this post, let’s talk about some of the ways we can support teens and help encourage healthy choices. Whether it’s diet, supplements, technology, acne, or mindfulness, there’s a host of ways to help support teenagers through these (sometimes tumultuous) years.
Teen Nutrition 101
Whenever we talk about nutrient needs, diet has to be at the forefront. Eating habits that are made in the teen years (and before) can determine health now and later in life. Research confirms this.
A 2017 study on junk foods and the adolescent brain found that junk foods could negatively impact brain development. Researchers found that a diet of junk foods messed with the neurotransmitter systems in the brain and set teens up for unhealthy eating patterns later on.
A 2016 study published in the British Medical Journal found that eating plenty of fruits and vegetables in adolescence was associated with a 25% lower risk of breast cancer in adulthood.
Again, a healthy diet is the most important place to start when it comes to having healthy and happy teens. However, there are certain issues or challenges where our kids might need some additional nutritional support. That’s where supplements come in.
We’ll take a look at both as we look at some of the issues that affect pre-teens and teenagers the most.
Diet and Supplements to Balance Teen Hormones
In this section, I’ll cover some basic dietary changes and supplements for promoting healthy hormones for today’s pre-teens and teens. One of the key nutrients to look at is vitamin D.
Vitamin D is actually known to be a “pre-hormone” rather than a true vitamin, so it makes sense that this nutrient would affect hormone development. And it does! About 70 percent of children in the United States have low levels of vitamin D according to a study of children between the ages of 1 and 21. It’s no wonder that many of our children struggle with hormones as they hit puberty.
Vitamin D is an important nutrient for the production of estrogen in the body, according to animal studies. It also seems to be beneficial in promoting fertility in both men and women, which shows that it’s helpful for healthy hormone balance.
Also, inflammation can cause all kinds of other imbalances in the body. Vitamin D levels also has what is called an “inverse relationship” with inflammation. As vitamin D levels go up, a blood marker called C-reactive protein (CRP) goes down. CRP is a measure of acute inflammation in the body. So, higher levels of vitamin D mean lower levels of inflammation.
Anemia is something that often affects girls after they’ve begun their periods. Here again, vitamin D may be able to help. According to an observational study of adults aged 17 and older, those who had chronically low vitamin D levels were more likely to be anemic.
Vitamin D is known as the “sunshine vitamin.” Our bodies made vitamin D when we expose our skin to the sun. While getting plenty of sunshine is ideal for helping our bodies make vitamin D, it’s difficult to get enough throughout the year. Especially if you live in the northern states. That’s where taking a supplement can be super helpful.
I use this supplement from Seeking Health.
Magnesium is an important mineral for so many functions of the body. It’s needed for over 300 different enzyme systems that are involved in growth and development as well as overall health maintenance. That’s especially important at adolescence, as kids are growing fast. Children between the ages of 9 and 13 need 240 mg per day. Teen boys (ages 14-18) need 410 mg per day, while teen girls (ages 14-18) need 360 mg per day.
I use this magnesium supplement because it’s clinically proven to have a high absorption rate (85%). If you’d like to try it, you can use the code wellness10 for a 10% discount.)
Zinc is another important mineral for supporting hormone health as it’s a key nutrient for growth and development. Adolescent boys need a bit more than girls at 11 mg per day for ages 14-18 versus 9 mg for girls of the same age.
Zinc helps with hormone development by promoting healthy levels of sex hormones. It’s also an important mineral for testosterone. Supplementation with zinc was shown to improve levels of male sex hormones in research.
Selenium is what’s called a “trace mineral,” which is only needed in small amounts — micrograms rather than milligrams. Still, it’s very important to get in the diet. It only takes 3 organic Brazil nuts to get in the recommended 200 to 300 micrograms of selenium per day.
Selenium is especially important for puberty in boys. In a 2019 study published in the journal Nutrients, the researchers found that an inadequate amount of selenium in the diet was associated with a later than normal development in boys.
It’s typically best to get selenium from food. You can learn more about selenium and its benefits (plus, how to get it in your diet) by reading this article.
Early Puberty a Concern?
In an earlier post, I talked about a phenomenon called “precocious puberty.”
Precocious puberty is something that’s become more and more common in the last few decades. It’s where puberty begins at an earlier age than it did in the past — before age 9 in boys and before age 7 to 8 or possibly 12 to 13 in girls.
You can learn the causes of precocious puberty as well as some natural solutions for avoiding it here. Also don’t miss my interview on precocious puberty (and how to slow it down) with Dr. Anne Marie Fine.
But beyond precocious puberty, there are other challenges that come up during those years of hormonal changes and stepping into the teenage years. One thing teens are always concerned about? Their appearance!
Let’s talk about some dietary and supplement approaches for acne next.
Diet and Supplements for Teen Acne
For teens, whether we’re talking girls or boys, acne can be the bane of their existence. Feeling too skinny, too chubby, or too… anything else… is bad enough. But add on acne, and the world is practically ending!
But, never fear! There are some natural solutions — even for acne.
Since acne has a connection with chronic inflammation, it’s wise to look at how to lower inflammation in general in your teen with diet and lifestyle changes. However, there may also be some underlying nutrient deficiencies that, when dealt with, could help lessen the appearance of acne.
Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid) is one supplement that may be helpful for teens dealing with chronic acne. Back in 1995, a researcher out of Hong Kong published a hypothesis that a vitamin B5 deficiency might be the cause of acne.
A study published in 2014 recorded the results of a B5-based dietary supplement in adults. Those who were in the study received either the real B5 supplement or a placebo.
After 12 weeks on the supplement (two 550 mg tablets, twice a day with meals), those who’d received the real thing had less acne than those that got the placebo.
Zinc is another deficiency that’s associated with acne. According to a review study published in 2020, study participants who had acne had significantly lower zinc than those who didn’t have acne.
In a 2018 review study, researchers concluded that zinc was a “promising alternative” to traditional acne treatments. The amount used in one of the studies was 600 mg of zinc sulfate over 6 weeks.
Probiotics & Prebiotics
Lactobacillus acidophilus has long been used for acne — since researchers made the connection between gut health and skin health back in 1930. In a 2008 study of over 13,000 adolescents, those who had acne were more likely to have gut symptoms, like bloating, constipation, acid reflux, or even bad breath.
I dealt with acne myself for many years and tried many probiotics to see if they would help. After much trial and error, the one that seemed to help my acne was one called Probiotics, a spore-based probiotic that has many other side benefits.
You can learn about the other benefits of Just Thrive here in my podcast with the founder, Tina Anderson.
Diet and Supplements for Growing Pains and Bone Health
Teens do a lot of growing (and sleeping!). Here are some strategies for supporting bone health:
Vitamin D, we know, is vitally important for the absorption of calcium and for building strong, healthy bones. A severe deficiency causes rickets.
Again, about 70 percent of children in the United States children between the ages of 1 and 21 have low levels of vitamin D. Those in the study with low vitamin D levels also had markers associated with poor bone health.
However, those who were taking vitamin D supplements at a dosage of 400 IUs per day were less likely to be vitamin D deficient. However, the Institute of Medicine recommends getting at least 600 IU per day total, through diet and supplements.
We now know that vitamin K is an important coworker for vitamin D.
According to the book, Vitamin K and The Calcium Paradox, Vitamin K helps the vitamin D direct where the calcium goes. It’s important that it’s delivered to the bones instead of being deposited into the arteries or soft tissues, for example. So, vitamin K has an important job.
There are two types of vitamin K supplements on the market: vitamin K1, vitamin K2. Vitamin K1 comes from plant foods kale, collard greens, and spinach. Vegetables are the main way we get vitamin K in our diets.
Vitamin K2 mostly comes from animal foods, like pork, cheeses, and egg yolks. However, the highest source of vitamin K2 is a fermented soybean product called natto. Based on the flavor, I wouldn’t recommend buying up natto as a snack food for your teen. It’s an acquired taste for sure.
To get enough vitamin K2, you might want to supplement. The MK-7 version of vitamin K2 is particularly good for adolescents. MK-7 helps slow bone calcification so kids can potentially grow a bit taller.
Magnesium is also important for strong healthy bones and muscles. Making sure your adolescents get plenty of this mineral can help them avoid leg pain known as “growing pains.” Even taking an Epsom salt bath (which is magnesium sulfate) every so often can help soothe or avoid discomfort.
Managing Technology & Maximizing Sleep
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of teens getting plenty of sleep. It’s important for physical health, mental health, and emotional health. If your teens aren’t getting enough sleep, they probably won’t be pleasant to be around.
Sleep is extremely important for healthy hormone development, including proper levels of growth hormone, testosterone, and insulin.
Along with getting enough (and quality) rest, is being mindful of circadian rhythm and the negative effects of blue light exposure in the evening. Do your best to minimize teens’ exposure to artificial light after dark. Disruption of the circadian rhythm has been shown to negatively affect fertility, a sign of hormone health and balance.
We’ve installed orange light bulbs in our home, so after the sun goes down, the orange lights get switched on, and the blue/white lights go off. If there’s still homework to be done after dark, the f.lux app gets used on the computer. If we watch a movie or if it’s necessary to look at a phone, we wear blue blocker glasses.
Learn more about this topic by reading the podcast transcript of my interview with Katey McPherson. We cover how to help kids & teens build a healthy relationship with technology.
Lifestyle Changes for Healthy Social Connection
While teens now seem to be more “connected” than ever before, thanks to social networking sites, there’s so substitute for real, face-to-face interaction. And I’m not talking Facetime or Zoom.
Teens need to spend time with their friends and family to develop good social skills and for their happiness. They need to go outside and build a treehouse or plant a garden and get their hands in the dirt.
Some things just can’t be experienced fully on a screen and loneliness is a recipe for illness. In fact, the lack of social connection has been shown to be more harmful to physical health than obesity.
As you focus on putting good things into your teens’ bodies, don’t forget to also focus outward, making sure they have good connections with friends and family.
Health is a combination of both a healthy inner environment and a healthy outer environment. Whole-body nutrition involves nourishing on all three levels: body, mind, and spirit.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Tim Jackson. He is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and Orthopedic Rehabilitation, and a Functional Medicine provider. He holds a B.S. Degree in Health Science and Chemistry from Wake Forest University. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
What are your secrets for raising healthy and happy teens? Share your best nutrition tips with us below!