There has been a lot of press lately on teenage suicide rates in Hong Kong. It’s heart breaking.
Anisha Abraham, associate professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong, attributes this sad state of affairs to parental pressure, no downtime, social media, an education system that doesn’t build resilience and a lack of outlet for emotions. All these factors are triggers for depression and anxiety that lead to suicide and it is time that they were addressed meaningfully.
However, high rates of teenage suicide are not exclusive to Hong Kong’s youth. Canada’s youth suicide rate is the third highest in the industrialised world and New Zealand tops the charts. The reasons attributed to the suicides are slightly different than those in Hong Kong. And so, the question I can’t help but ask is:
What can we do to make our children more resilient against any and all of the triggers for depression and anxiety?
Because if it’s not academic pressure, it’s cyberbullying – and if it’s not that, it’ll be something else. The answer to this question is not one dimensional, that is for sure. However, a programme to beat teen suicide needs to include nutrition.
LOW LEVELS OF SEROTONIN AND SUICIDE ARE LINKED. SEROTONIN IS MADE FROM PROTEIN.
I gave a talk to teenagers a few months ago and most of them were having a sugary cereal for breakfast or toast and a glass of orange juice. No protein in sight. Now, I’m not saying that all kids who eat this way are setting themselves up for mental disorders. The reasons for suicide, depression and anxiety – are multifactorial. HOWEVER, if we’ve got a kid who is having issues and we’re giving him toast and OJ for breakfast and he’s filling up on carbs for lunch and dinner with very little protein in sight, then we are not supporting his body’s efforts to boost serotonin creation and at least give him a fighting chance to combat the blues. Protein breaks down into amino acids and many studies have reported that the amino acids tryptophan, tyrosine, phenylalanine, and methionine are often helpful in treating many mood disorders including depression.
LOW LEVELS OF SEROTONIN ARE LINKED TO INSOMNIA AND SLEEP DISORDERS WHICH IN TURN ARE LINKED TO DEPRESSION, ANXIETY & SUICIDE.
This is because serotonin is the precursor for melatonin, which regulates our sleep cycle. So again, what does the diet of the “at-risk” teen look like? Is she getting enough protein throughout the day, be it from plants or animals to nourish the creation of serotonin and melatonin from the amino acid building blocks. The amino acid tryptophan is the precursor to serotonin and can thus induce sleep and tranquillity. How about her sugar intake? Is she eating in a way that regulates her blood sugar so that her cortisol levels don’t peak at night.
We can eat to sleep.
The problem is that currently, we are solving the teenage sleep crisis with sleeping pills and other depressant drugs. And guess what? Depressants, opioids and antidepressants are responsible for more overdose deaths (45%) than cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and amphetamines (39%) combined.
And when we try to solve a problem with state-sanctioned drugs, we create a market for the illegal ones too. According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, teens who abuse prescription drugs are twice as likely to use alcohol, five times more likely to use marijuana, and twelve to twenty times more likely to use illegal street drugs such as heroin, ecstasy and cocaine than teens who do not abuse prescription drugs. This pattern of abuse exists across social class and colour.
Money does not buy sleep or happiness, as it turns out.
95% OF OUR HAPPY HORMONE SEROTONIN IS MADE IN THE GUT
Can we eat ourselves happy? Absolutely!
Giulia Enders, doctor and author of the best-selling book “Gut” describes the gut as our biggest sensory organ. It has a hundred million nerve cells that are constantly sending messages to our brain. All these “gut feelings” and “butterflies in our stomach” – these are all expressions that we’ve come up with to describe the intimate connection between our gut and our emotions. Whilst the research is still nascent in this field, it is already very clear that the production of serotonin and other neurotransmitters is highly influenced by the billions of “good” bacteria in your gut. This good gut bacteria protects our intestines, limits inflammation and activates the neural pathways that travel directly between the gut and the brain via the vagus nerve.
Bottom line: If we want our teenagers to be resilient, we must stoke a fire in their belly with live food. How can we expect them to rise, think, compete and be happy on a diet of dead food? It’s biochemically impossible.
DEFICIENCIES IN KEY NUTRIENTS LIKE OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS, ZINC, IRON, MAGNESIUM, FOLATE & OTHER B-VITMAMINS ARE ALL LINKED TO DEPRESSION
Our brain is at least 60 percent fat, and it’s composed of fats (like omega-3s) that must be obtained from the diet. If we’re eating chips, fries, deep-fried garbage, packaged sweets, candy bars etc – these foods are crowding out our opportunity to eat healthy fats from sources like avocado, salmon, nuts, seeds and coconut oil. This kind of unbalance means that all we’re giving our brain to replenish itself is transfat garbage.
According to a published essay in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, randomized, controlled trials showed that patients treated with folate and B12 exhibited decreased depression symptoms. The same essay describes the results of several case studies where patients treated with magnesium glycinate with each meal and at bedtime had a recovery from major depression in less than seven days.
Doesn’t it then make sense to fill our teenager’s plates with spinach, asparagus, cucumber, peppers, salmon, chickpeas, beef, eggs, avocado, nuts, seeds, sweet potatoes & bananas?
Resilient kids have a fire in their belly.
That fire is nourished with life-giving foods.
I can’t say to what extent a broken education system, intense academic pressure or bullying is pushing kids to commit suicide. But I’ve seen the food served up in high school cafeterias, the food diaries of teens and the stats on teenage intake of processed food. The dead food they are eating is sabotaging their every effort to live a vibrant life full of promise and potential.
This isn’t just a Hong Kong problem. It’s a global problem. But the solution starts in the kitchen and in the school cafeteria. When it comes to teen suicide, the science is clear: we’ve got to stop valuing profit and convenience over life.
The truth hurts.
And sets us free.
If you suffer from depression or anxiety and would like to learn more about how nutrition can help you, please contact Cristina.
Thrive Nutrition Practice focuses on digestive healing, blood sugar regulation & post-natal recovery. You are also welcome to join the Facebook Group "Thrive Nutrition Practice: Post-natal depletion" or "Thrive Nutrition Practice" for weekly articles, recipes & promotions.
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