Mood disorders among young people, part 1: the causes

 Image: Pablo Varela via Unsplash

Image: Pablo Varela via Unsplash

As we grow older, many of us have the tendency to idealize our child- and young-adulthood as a carefree, exploratory time, with few responsibilities or consequences.

Whether that rosy view of our youth is true or not, North American statistics are showing a new trend towards the opposite: a study released by Statistics Canada on January 17 showed that over 11% of Canadians age 15-24 have experienced an MDE (major depressive episode) at some point in their lives. They are the demographic with the highest incidence of mental health disorders in North America.

The number appears to rising, as well: a study done in the US showed a 37% increase in mental health issues in young people between 2005 and 2014. Scarier still? Suicide is the second cause of death for kids in this age bracket.

So what’s causing poor mental health in our young adults? And, more importantly, what can we do to help?

The diet

If you’ve been on medication for depression or anxiety, you’ve probably heard the acronym SSRI - Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor. This class of antidepressant drug targets the way our bodies produce serotonin (a hormone that elevates our mood).

Interestingly, these drugs are also highly anti-inflammatory - and new research is making a strong connection between inflammation in the body and the rise of mood disorders like anxiety and depression. Researchers are starting to believe that SSRIs were actually effective for depressed patients because they reduce inflammation in the body.

So, how is this related to your diet?

The current SAD (standard American diet) is FULL of hidden sugars, allergens, and food stripped of its nutrients due to over-farming… all things that cause massive amounts of inflammation in the body!

Parents have less control over what their kids eat between the ages of 15-24, so there’s a good chance inflammatory foods are being consumed on a regular basis by this at-risk age group - much to their mental health’s detriment.

Healthy gut, healthy brain

On the subject of what we’re eating, our gut, or gastrointestinal (GI) system, is intimately connected to our brain. Just as emotional situations can cause feelings in our stomach (think about feeling butterflies, or feeling nauseous when we’re nervous), what’s going on in the gut can cause a emotional response.

In fact, did you know that 85% of our “happy hormones”, like serotonin and dopamine, are produced in our gut? Also, 80% of the immune system’s tissues are located in our gut.

The gut is as much of an epicentre in the body as the brain!

This is why it’s vitally important that we sustain a healthy gut flora. When we eat too many sugars, or allergens like wheat, dairy, corn and/or soy, our gut loses its ability to perform optimally.

Never mind just feeling sluggish or low-energy because we’re not digesting our food properly - if our GI system isn’t healthy, it won’t produce enough of the hormones we need to moderate our mood, either.

Screens & Social Media

If you’ve read my blog or visited me at my clinic, you’ll know that I advocate screen-free time strongly, particularly when mental health issues are involved.

Even for adults, who have (mostly) fully-formed opinions of themselves and the world, being exposed to a constant influx of information can have negative impacts on health, and self-worth.

For teens and young adults, too much screen time and exposure to social media can be like poison. As the brain develops it requires real-life social interaction and engagement, not 2D moderated interaction. Additionally, happiness studies have shown that a sense of community is crucial to living a happy, fulfilling life.

The isolation of staring at a screen all day, combined with the social pressure and downright bullying that happens on various social media platforms, make technology a bit of a lethal combo for a young person with a mood disorder - or on the verge of developing one.

If what I’ve written in this article alarms you, take heart: there are lots of ways to support a teen or young adult who may be dealing with mental health issues. I’ll dive into those in my next post.

Steph Bowen