Does Your Teenager’s Gut Hold the Key to Their Moods?

Have you been wondering who stole that sweet child you once knew...and replaced him with this moody look-alike glaring at you from across the room? If your teenage son or daughter has developed a volatile disposition that swings from sullen to snippy—and then to giddy and reckless faster than a Maserati can go from zero to 60 mph—you’re not alone.

Teens tend to be a moody bunch, but for very legitimate biological and social reasons. Thankfully, understanding the complex factors that affect your teenagers’ emotional states, and taking steps to bolster their microbial wellness, may be the ticket to taming that teen tempest once and for all.

The Teenage Brain: Still Under Construction

Teens may look a lot like adults, and you may even wear the same size jeans as your teenage daughter, but the resemblance is in many ways just skin deep. Inside their skulls, teen brains are still developing and maturing in ways that make them respond very differently to the world around them than mature adults do.

The prefrontal regions of the brain, which don’t fully mature until the mid to late 20s, control abstract thinking, impulse control, judgement, planning, goal-directed behavior, and emotional understanding. And the neuronal myelin sheaths that speed communication between these important brain areas mature at different rates—those located in areas associated with emotions reach maturity many years before the ones in the rational thinking prefrontal cortex do.

Because of the way their brains and neural networks develop, teens effectively use less of their overall anterior brain regions than adults do. However, the particular sections related to emotional responses actually react more strongly during the teen years. This may be why teens tend to be less accurate in identifying the emotions of other people than adults whose mature brains have better communication between reasoning and emotional centers.1,2

Meanwhile, the pleasure and reward brain centers are among the first to mature in teens, which means teenagers are naturally driven to seek what feels good—at a time when their reasoning, judgement, and impulse control gatekeepers may not have developed enough to weigh in. Because of this, teens may show poor judgement, risk-taking behavior, and difficulties with time management, and misinterpreted communication cues often lead to oversensitivity, arguments, and misunderstandings. The bottom line? Teens are moody! And it isn’t their fault.

It’s Tough to Be a Teen

In addition to navigating all kinds of new experiences with their brains not yet running on all cylinders, teen life comes with other challenges that also impact mood. Changing body chemistry may lead to less than perfect complexions and issues with weight, making teens feel especially self-conscious and unsure of themselves. Add to that the stresses of high school, dating, peer pressure, and just trying to figure out who they are and how they fit in this world, and it becomes clear that being a teen is far from easy. In fact, given the choice, most of us would never want to go back and repeat those tumultuous years again, even for a winning lottery ticket!

The Surprising Gut-Mood Connection

Just because teens are naturally prone to moodiness doesn’t mean the only option is to wait things out. The brain and gut are in constant two-way communication along the brain-gut axis—a complex neural network connecting the brain with the enteric (gut) nervous system—and that means much more immediate mood relief may be as close as the digestive tract!

Because of this gut-brain connection, the microbial composition of the digestive tract has a significant effect on our emotional states at any age (and visa versa!). When the gut microbiome contains enough beneficial probiotics, it’s able to help balance the raging hormones of adolescence, as well as regulate important neurotransmitters that influence emotional states. The result is improved mood and reduced emotional reactivity, as well as lower stress levels.3

Some of the latest scientific research reveals that:

• Participants in an fMRI study who ate a probiotic snack twice daily for four weeks became less emotionally reactive to angry and frightened facial images than subjects who received a placebo or no snack at all.4
• Introducing probiotics to the gut increases levels of “feel good” neurotransmitters including GABA, while lowering the stress hormone cortisol.5
• Compared to participants who received a placebo, healthy young adults taking a multi-strain probiotic supplement for four weeks experienced fewer negative, aggressive, and hopeless thoughts—and were less inclined to ruminate on unpleasant ideas after being in a “sad mood.”6
• Achieving proper gut balance during the teen years may help improve teenagers’ overall mental health, and may even prevent certain psychological/emotional issues that might have otherwise surfaced during this important formative period.7

This is all great news for teens, and it gets even better! Vibrant digestive health can also help teens reach and maintain a healthy weight, improve their complexion, and even sweeten their breath—all of which should boost their self-confidence and emotional outlook.8,9,10,11

Gut-Healthy Lifestyle Hacks for Teens

Just a little microbial TLC can really calm the signature storminess of teenhood. And encouraging a gut-healthy diet rich in whole plant foods, cultured and fermented dishes, and prebiotic fiber should begin to improve gut composition almost immediately—as long as damaging artificial additives, GMOs, refined sugar, pesticides, and processed foods are avoided. You might want to replace the sugary candy bars in your cabinets with delicious, gut-healthy dark chocolate, and swap out those gut-busting sodas in the fridge for a pitcher of gut-boosting kombucha or fresh fruit smoothies.

Realistically though, teens don’t always make the best food choices, and you can’t control everything they eat. Supplementing with a high quality, time-released probiotic like PRO-15, and an organic prebiotic powder to promote the growth of all those good bacteria helps ensure that their digestive tracts stay populated with a wide variety of beneficial, mood-boosting strains.

Regular exercise, proper sleep, and stress reduction also positively impact microbial health. So just getting to bed on time, playing a fun team or individual sport, and taking periodic mindfulness breaks can lift your teen’s mood considerably. And research shows that teen good moods are actually contagious—when your kids are in a happy mood, it’s likely to rub off on their friends!12

Even with the best efforts though, the teenage years will probably never be all sunshine and giggles. But optimizing microbial health should help soften the peaks and valleys ahead, so your teen feels more emotionally grounded and resilient moving forward. And when things occasionally get hairy (as they inevitably will), just remember: this too shall pass.

References:

1. Yurgelun-Todd, D. (2007). Emotional and cognitive changes during adolescence. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 17(2), 251-257. doi:10.1016/j.conb.2007.03.009

2. NIMH » The Teen Brain: 6 Things to Know. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/the-teen-brain-6-things-to-know/index.shtml

3. Akkasheh, G., Kashani-Poor, Z., Tajabadi-Ebrahimi, M., Jafari, P., Akbari, H., Taghizadeh, M., . . . Esmaillzadeh, A. (2016). Clinical and metabolic response to probiotic administration in patients with major depressive disorder: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Nutrition, 32(3), 315-320.

4. Tillisch, K., Labus, J., Kilpatrick, L., Jiang, Z., Stains, J., Ebrat, B., … Mayer, E. A. (2013). Consumption of Fermented Milk Product With Probiotic Modulates Brain Activity. Gastroenterology, 144(7), 1394-1401.e4. doi:10.1053/j.gastro.2013.02.043

5. Bravo, J. A., Forsythe, P., Chew, M. V., Escaravage, E., Savignac, H. M., Dinan, T. G., … Cryan, J. F. (2011). Ingestion of Lactobacillus strain regulates emotional behavior and central GABA receptor expression in a mouse via the vagus nerve. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(38), 16050-16055. doi:10.1073/pnas.1102999108

6. Steenbergen, L., Sellaro, R., Van Hemert, S., Bosch, J. A., & Colzato, L. S. (2015). A randomized controlled trial to test the effect of multispecies probiotics on cognitive reactivity to sad mood. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 48, 258-264. doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2015.04.003

7. McVey Neufeld, K., Luczynski, P., Dinan, T. G., & Cryan, J. F. (2016). Reframing the Teenage Wasteland: Adolescent Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 61(4), 214-221. doi:10.1177/0706743716635536

8. Bowe, W. P., & Logan, A. C. (2011). Acne vulgaris, probiotics and the gut-brain-skin axis - back to the future? Gut Pathogens, 3(1).

9. Kober, M., & Bowe, W. P. (2015). The effect of probiotics on immune regulation, acne, and photoaging. International Journal of Women's Dermatology, 1(2), 85-89. doi:10.1016/j.ijwd.2015.02.001

10. Zhang, Q., Wu, Y., & Fei, X. (2016). Effect of probiotics on body weight and body-mass index: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized, controlled trials. International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, 67(5), 571-580.

11. Burton, J., Chilcott, C., Moore, C., & Tagg, J. (2005). O17 Effect of Probiotic Streptococcus salivarius K12 on oral malodour parameters. Oral Diseases, 11(s1), 103-103. doi:10.1111/j.1601-0825.2005.01105_17.x

12. Hill, E. M., Griffiths, F. E., & House, T. (2015). Spreading of healthy mood in adolescent social networks. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 282(1813), 20151180. doi:10.1098/rspb.2015.1180

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Roberta Pescow is a writer at Hyperbiotics and proud mom of two amazing and unique young men. Natural wellness is a subject she’s passionate about, so she loves sharing information that helps others discover all the ways probiotics support glowing health and well-being. To learn more about how a healthy microbiome can enrich your life, subscribe to our newsletter.

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