There has been increasing concern about the rapidly rising levels of mental illness being experienced by adolescents. Depression is now the leading cause of disability in the workplace superceding bad backs and heart disease.
It is estimated that one in five Australians will experience an episode of metal illness in any given year. It is one in four for the younger age group.
What is it about our way of life that could be contributing to this? Is it simply that our super stressed, super connected lifestyle is to blame. I suspect that has a lot to do with it. But there may be other factors at play here as well.
And it comes down to diet. Yes, what you eat has an impact on your health, your mood and your wellbeing. No big surprises here, because the food we eat essentially provides the essential nutrients our body and brain requires to function normally.
But our diet has changed considerably in a relatively short time frame over the last couple of decades, where in fitting with our fast lifestyle, we are eating increased quantities of fast foods; more highly processed and packaged food designed and manufactured to make our taste buds respond in a way to persuade us to eat more of it.
And it's not just what we are eating today. Increasing scientific evidence has revealed how epigenetics plays a very important role in determining our health and outcomes. We have a set of genetic material, which is highly influenced by our epigenome, which determines which genes get switched on or off and how strongly or weakly they are expressed. Moreover it has been shown that what we eat or how we live as adults will determine the future health and wellbeing of our kids. This has already been reported in the areas of diabetes and obesity.
A recent study from the States has examined the role of diet in adolescents in determining behaviour and risk of psychiatric disorder, including stress, anxiety, depression and schizophrenia.
This was a study conducted on rodents, so the findings need to be examined in the light of the fact this is not human data. However their findings support the need for further study to examine how much our diet (and that of our parents) may play a role at a critical time of brain development.
Going back to the role of parents. Many of todays teenagers have parents who were born in the 1960's and 1970's. That was at a time when farming cattle moved from being predominantly grass fed to grain fed and when it became more common to use corn oil and soy oil in food manufacturing. These oils in particular are deficient in omega three. Grass contains omega three so yes, grain fed cattle have lower amounts of these. Consuming foods with less omega three has then led to subsequent generations who are slightly more omega three deficient.
The impact of this was demonstrated in the study where the researchers applied a set of behavioural tasks examining learning, memory, decision-making, anxiety and hyperactivity of both adults and adolescents. What they found was that the omega three deficient adolescents were more anxious and more hyperactive, learned at a slower rate and had impaired problem solving abilities despite being in overall good physical health.
What should we being taking away from this study?
1. Diet matters for nutritional and mental (behavioural) health.
2. What we eat as adults may have an epigenetic effect on our offspring.
3. The burgeoning levels of mental illness in society whilst multifactorial, may include nutritional deficiencies particularly of omega three fatty acids, which may play a role in creating a further inbalance of too much omega six, which is associated with an increased inflammatory response in our body.
4. Lifestyle matters in addressing all the different aspect of choices we have availbale to us including physical exercise, stress management and nutrition.
Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to the risk of schizophrenia and other mental illness. Addressing their nutritional status, may go some way to assist in finding a way to lower that risk.
Perhaps as adults we can help encourage our adolescent offspring to include more omega three into their diet. The message about the benefits of omega three for learning and memory is becoming more widely accepted in the population at large. It may be difficult to persuade a teenager to add more fish into their diet. They may not like fish or simply prefer burgers or pizza. But taking a supplement of omega three as a capsule, may prove a little easier along with discussion about how their behaviour and lifestyle choice may influence the outcomes of their own children in the next generations to come.
It's got to be worth a try.
Corina O. Bondi, Ameer Y. Taha, Jody L. Tock, Nelson K.B. Totah, Yewon Cheon, Gonzalo E. Torres, Stanley I. Rapoport, Bita Moghaddam Adolescent Behavior and Dopamine Availability Are Uniquely Sensitive to Dietary Omega-3 Fatty Acid Deficiency Biological Psychiatry - 29 July 2013 (10.1016/j.biopsych.2013.06.007)