Five Scientific Secrets to Improve Teen Mental Health

Headlines everywhere reveal startling data about teen mental health. Teen suicide has tripled over the last 17 years. According to researchers, rates of depression and anxiety among American teens soared by over 50% in the decade between 2010 and 2019. Similar trends are seen in youth in other countries.

Most headline news reports on this topic blame social media and our smartphone addiction. That is too simplistic of an answer. The good news is, that there are simple, science-backed steps anyone can take to improve mental health.

So what’s the story and what are the five secrets?

1. Increase Social Connectedness – Humans are social creatures and many thousands of years of history and archeology tell this story. Humans love real conversation, touch, and of course sex. Millions of bookwriters over the generations talk about those important connections, so let’s pay attention to their words and reconnect with one another. Make time for relationships with friends, family, and extended family. Connect face-to-face and experience what makes humans unique. Social connectedness improves mental health (Weziak-Bialowolska et al., 2022).

2. Increase Dietary Fiber – Did you know that 95% of our serotonin (the natural mood booster) is created in our guts (Appleton, 2018)? A healthy gut and adequate serotonin production can only happen with a high-fiber diet. Eating prepackaged foods, mac-n-cheese, hamburgers, and pizza harms our gut health. Be mindful of eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains daily. Dietary tryptophan is also necessary for serotonin production so including tryptophan-rich plant foods is a good idea. Soy, Walnuts, Cucumber, Sesame Seeds, Mushrooms, Leafy Greens, Tomato, Potato, Quinoa, Oats, & Banana are all tryptophan-rich foods.

3. Get Outdoors – Believe it or not, aerosols from trees help increase our Natural Killer (NK) cells (Sundermann et al., 2023). NK cells help our immune system and mood, and lowered NK cell activity can cause major depression (Maes et al., 1994). At a minimum, we should take a walk among the trees several times per week. Some believe that earthing (grounding) therapy, or walking barefoot in the grass or sand can make a person feel remarkably better.

4. Embrace Gratefulness – It is easy to look at the world around us and feel a bit hopeless. Between a climate crisis, endless wars, and constant bullying, it is no wonder why we might feel hopeless and depressed. It is more important than ever to constantly remind ourselves what we have to be grateful for. From friends and family to food and shelter, to the littlest things we can find to be grateful for. Gratitude is so important that 64 clinical interventions have been done to use gratitude to improve mental health and lower the symptoms of anxiety and depression (Deniz et al., 2023)! There is a strong relationship between gratitude and overall mental and physical well-being. Writing down a list of the things to be grateful for can be a useful tool to combat the blues.

5. Get Enough Sleep – It is easy to stay up late texting a friend or playing a video game. However, getting enough quality sleep is linked to a range of positive health and emotional benefits for young people (Hosker et al., 2019). These benefits include improved focus, learning ability, academic achievement, memory, and thinking skills. Sleep also helps with better behavior and emotional regulation. Additionally, good sleep is associated with increased self-esteem, self-acceptance, optimism, and overall well-being. Prioritize sleep, and say NO to others who want to keep you up late. We are our own best advocate for our health, so put adequate sleep at the top of your list. (Note that suffering from insomnia may be a matter of nutrient deficiencies that can be remedied.)

It is important to note that all these scientific methods to improve mental health help lower stress. STRESS and the feelings of anxiety that come with stress affect your overall well-being. Finding other ways to help reduce stress is important. Mindfulness, meditation, going for a walk, talking to a friend, journaling, praying, or taking a nap can all be ways to reduce stress.

Beyond these five tips, know that sad feelings always pass with time. In the meantime, it is OK to ask for help coping with feelings and stress. We all get to feeling down or feeling overwhelmingly stressed and there is no shame in this. It is human nature. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to a friend or family member, write in a journal, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are resources available!

Teen crisis line: CALL 800-852-8336 

References

Appleton J. (2018). The Gut-Brain Axis: Influence of Microbiota on Mood and Mental Health. Integrative Medicine (Encinitas, Calif.), 17(4), 28–32. PMID: 31043907 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31043907/

Hosker, D. K., Elkins, R. M., & Potter, M. P. (2019). Promoting Mental Health and Wellness in Youth Through Physical Activity, Nutrition, and Sleep. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 28(2), 171–193. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chc.2018.11.010

Diniz, G., Korkes, L., Tristão, L. S., Pelegrini, R., Bellodi, P. L., & Bernardo, W. M. (2023). The effects of gratitude interventions: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Einstein (Sao Paulo, Brazil), 21, eRW0371. https://doi.org/10.31744/einstein_journal/2023RW0371

Maes, M., Meltzer, H. Y., Stevens, W., Calabrese, J., & Cosyns, P. (1994). Natural killer cell activity in major depression: relation to circulating natural killer cells, cellular indices of the immune response, and depressive phenomenology. Progress in neuro-psychopharmacology & biological psychiatry, 18(4), 717–730. https://doi.org/10.1016/0278-5846(94)90079-5

Sundermann, M., Chielli, D., & Spell, S. (2023). Nature As Medicine: The 7th (Unofficial) Pillar of Lifestyle Medicine. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 17(5), 717–729. https://doi.org/10.1177/15598276231174863

Weziak-Bialowolska, D., Bialowolski, P., Lee, M. T., Chen, Y., VanderWeele, T. J., & McNeely, E. (2022). Prospective Associations Between Social Connectedness and Mental Health. Evidence From a Longitudinal Survey and Health Insurance Claims Data. International Journal of Public Health, 67, 1604710. https://doi.org/10.3389/ijph.2022.1604710

Wilson, S., & Dumornay, N. M. (2022). Rising Rates of Adolescent Depression in the United States: Challenges and Opportunities in the 2020s. The Journal of Adolescent Health: Official Publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine, 70(3), 354–355. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2021.12.003