Teen depression is a serious and potentially life-threatening problem: 500,000 teens in America attempt suicide every year. Five thousand of them succeed. If a depressed teen seems to be at risk of hurting himself or others, caregivers should seek medical help immediately. However, medical research indicates that there are nutritional strategies that you can use to reduce the severity of teen depression and the anger that often accompanies it.
Japanese researchers studied more than 6,000 school children and found that higher levels of vitamin B6, as measured by dietary questionnaires, were correlated with lower rates of depression among both boys and girls. This result confirms an earlier study of 140 people in Massachusetts, which found that higher levels of depression were correlated with lower plasma levels of this vitamin.
Although the link between higher levels of vitamin B6 and lower rates of depression is unclear, a likely explanation is that it is necessary for the synthesis of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Because serotonin is a precursor to melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone, vitamin B6 may improve sleep as well.
Other studies show that this vitamin can reduce the levels of the hormone prolactin, which is linked to higher levels of hostility and anger in young women. Because high levels of prolactin correlate with premenstrual syndrome, higher vitamin B6 intake may minimize mood changes during this phase of the reproductive cycle.
If your teen is deficient in vitamin B6, increasing her intake of this nutrient may improve her depression. However, if her levels of this vitamin are already adequate, supplementation will probably provide no benefit.
Folate, of which folic acid is one form, has also been implicated in depression. The same Japanese study that found a link between low vitamin B6 levels and depression also found a link between low folate levels and depression. Researchers in Poland found a similar correlation.
Folate plays a crucial role in regulating various molecules that affect the nervous system. It aids in the production of S-adenosylmethionine, which is necessary for the synthesis of serotonin and the formation of myelin sheaths around the nerves. Folate also decreases homocysteine, an amino acid that is often elevated in depressed patients and that impairs the function of neurotransmitters and their receptors.
One of the symptoms of vitamin C deficiency is depression. Studies in which this nutrient was administered to depressed patients showed that 30% improved. Although this is below the rate of improvement found in placebos, it does indicate that vitamin C can improve depression for some people,especially if they have low levels of it in their bodies.
Hugh D. Riordan, M.D., notes that giving vitamin C supplements to someone who is not deficient in the nutrient will have no effect, stating: "It is very important to look at the individual biochemistry to see what is missing and what needs to be improved. Then you can do a great deal."
Dr. Riordan, in the same article, discusses a woman with depression who was greatly helped by zinc supplementation. A rigorous scientific study conducted in Japan validates his impression. In this study, women were randomly divided into two groups. The first group received vitamins only, and the second group received vitamins containing 7 mg of zinc. The women in the zinc group showed statistically significant reductions in depression and hostility, but the women in the vitamins-only group did not.
The latest thinking on depression is that it is an inflammatory disorder and that the cytokines produced by inflammation alter neurotransmitter levels. A recent review of the medical literature found that omega-3s may be a good therapy for childhood and adolescent depression, perhaps because they reduce inflammation. Some studies have also found that they are effective in reducing hostility in young people.
If insomnia is a problem for teens, they may want to supplement with flax oil because it contains a mix of omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9 fatty acids that act as precursors for substances involved in the initiation and maintenance of sleep.
A few people with chronic depression have improved by eliminating gluten, which is found in wheat, barley, rye, triticale, spelt and kamut, from their diets. Others have improved by identifying and eliminating food allergens or mold in their environments.
The lesson from research on vitamins and depression, though, is that there is no "magic bullet" for depression that will be equally effective for everyone. The best nutritional strategy for combating depression is to eat a balanced diet rich in whole grains, vegetables and omega-3 fatty acids and to eliminate foods that the person, for whatever reason, doesn't tolerate well. A doctor can order blood work that will determine what nutrients your teen may be lacking, thus allowing you to supplement her diet in the most effective way. This process requires effort and discipline, but it can save your teen from years of unhappiness.