Has your neurodivergent child been derailed by puberty? Six nutritional ways to help them find a better balance

The tween and teenage years can be full of big emotions, and these can be magnified when you are neurodivergent. Anxiety, mood swings and demand avoidance often come alongside autism, ADHD, sensory processing disorder and dyslexia and these can escalate when sex hormones are causing havoc and your child is going through puberty.

At NatureDoc we see many young people with neurodivergent brains whose mental health and energy levels are often derailed around the time of the onset of puberty, and this can make the adolescent years a real challenge for them, their parents and their teachers. But it does not need to be this way, and you can learn how important nutrition is to help keep them on an even keel.

Here are some food supplement ideas you can consider introducing if your teen is going through a rollercoaster of emotions and mental health challenges right now. Start with the one that you feel your child needs the most and see if that makes a difference. They come in capsules, drops and sprays and some you can open up the capsule and mix into a drink or food. If you are unsure where to start, then it is possible to find a blend that contain a few of these all in one or consult with one of our NatureDoc clinical team.

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1. Keep iron levels up

Iron is the most abundant mineral in the central nervous system and a teenager or menstruating tweenager needs to consume very high levels of iron on a daily basis to prevent low iron stores or anaemia. Low iron levels can manifest in very pale skin, low energy, anxiety, OCD and a low appetite as well as paradoxically very heavy periods.

It’s hard for this age group to consume enough iron at the best of times. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 9–13 year old boys need 8mg of iron per day and this steps up to 11mg per day once they are aged 14. For 14-18 year old girls it is more at 15mg per day as they are losing blood every month (and it would be prudent also to aim for 15mg daily if they start their period sooner than this). The upper tolerable limit is 40-45mg per day and a medical doctor might prescribe higher dosages than this if blood tests have shown iron deficiency. Since 100g of steak only contains 2.4mg and 100g of lentils has 3.3mg, it is hard to reach these levels with food alone even if they eat the best diet. And many at this age are avoiding red meat, so you really need to have a conversation with them if this is the case, to work out how they are going to get enough.

But when they do have enough iron in their system, they often feel less sensitve, have more resilience and find it easier to keep their mood on an even keel. Everything seems easier when iron levels are better.

2. Zinc is key

Zinc is the second most abundant mineral in the central nervous system and so goes hand in hand with iron. It is a key regulator of mood, executive function and hormones. When we go through puberty our body prioritises zinc to help create sex hormones such as testosterone, progesterone and oestrogen and this means that there is less going around to help synthesise neurotransmitters like dopamine, noradrenaline and GABA. The balance of these important brain hormones is often fragile amongst neurodivergent folk. Many neurodivergent boys are low in zinc, and this can mean delayed puberty and slow growth mainly in boys. For both girls and boys, acne can be more of a challenge if they are not consuming enough zinc rich foods.

Zinc is also super important for creating digestive juices which helps a youngster to get the most out of the food they eat and to grow well. Zinc supports a healthy sense of taste and smell, and since low zinc levels can affect the neurological system, we find that this can also affect perception of food texture and mouth feel.

Research has consistently found that many neurodivergent children are born with low zinc levels, and this may be one reason why they can have feeding challenges right from the outset and can fall into eating patterns of exclusively choosing beige crunchy ultra-processed foods.

A typical scenario for a struggling teenager who is low in zinc is no morning appetite, so they usually skip breakfast. Next low zinc might lead to a narrowing of the diet – this may start with avoiding red meat or going fully plant-based and then may progress to more marked disordered eating or existing solely on ultra-processed snacks and easy meals.

Zinc comes from eating plenty of shellfish, fish, red meat, dairy products, pulses and pumpkin seeds. 9–13 year olds need around 8mg of zinc daily and for 14–18 years it is 11mg for males and 9mg for females. The upper tolerable limit for zinc supplementation is 23mg for 9-13 year olds and 34mg for 14–18 year olds, and sometimes they benefit from more if a known deficiency has been established.

3. Calming magnesium

This mighty mineral works on several hundred pathways in the body and brain. A person who is low in magnesium may find it hard to sleep, often feel they are in a heightened fight or flight state leading to anxious feelings. They may experience growing pains, sports injuries, stiff muscles, tics or twitches or restless legs and may get easily constipated. Teen and tweens low in magnesium can experience blood sugar lows and hangry moments.

Magnesium is a very calming mineral and is abundant in green leafy salads, green vegetables, dark chocolate, nuts and seeds. You need to consume much more magnesium than iron and zinc each day as it is a key component of your muscular skeletal system. Individual needs vary but most benefit from between 260mg and 400mg daily via food, oral supplementation or topical magnesium lotions, sprays and bath flakes. If you consume too much magnesium, you will probably have a runny tummy which is quickly resolved when you cut back on the dose.

4. Balancing vitamin B6

Vitamin B6, also known as pyridoxine, works hand in hand with magnesium and zinc as an important trio to help regulate big emotions and mental health challenges. It is an important B vitamin that helps to regulate the nervous system and can help to keep a teen’s mood in balance. It is particularly helpful for sensitive souls who are bothered by noises.

Vitamin B6 rich foods include pork, chicken, fish, peanuts, soya beans, oats and bananas. It is important to monitor Vitamin B6 levels as this is one vitamin you can take too much of if you are not careful. Ideally choose the methylated version called pyridoxal-5-phosphate (P5P) which is the metabolically active form of vitamin B6 and less likely to lead to side effects. If you are taking a supplement containing Vitamin B6 and experience tingly toes or fingers, then stop straight away.

5. Consider inositol

Vitamin B8, also known as inositol or myoinositol is sweet tasting and is a great mood and hormone balancer when kids are going through prepubescent changes or struggling with their mood and mental health during puberty. It can aid blood sugar balancing and has been found to be particularly helpful in females with a polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) profile.

Inositol supports the serotonin pathways, so can be helpful when there are obsessions, compulsions, anxiety or a low mood. It can be taken as a capsule of the powder can be sprinkled and stirred into foods and drinks. Please note your child should not take inositol if they have been prescribed an antidepressant medication known as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI).

6. Try saffron

Saffron is the dark crimson spice used in paellas and curries and has been used as a traditional remedy to help with menstrual challenges such as premenstrual tension and menstrual cramps. There is also evidence that it can help premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) which can be more prevalent and heightened in neurodivergent females.

Studies have also been carried out trialling saffron with neurodivergent children and found that it can help with sleep, focus and irritability in both girls and boys. Our clients have consistently said that saffron helps with getting to sleep and can help to reduce a highly anxious and irritable dysregulated emotional state.

A note on gender fluidity and sexuality

Our clinical experience has found that neurodivergent teens and tweens who are exploring their gender and sexuality will experience the greatest mental health challenges during prepubescence and puberty. For instance there is often emotional turmoil when a biological female identifies as non-binary or male and also experiences challenging periods. Not only do they have to deal with the premenstrual tension or heavy and painful periods, but they also experience all the emotions that remind them that they are biologically female. This is where a dual approach is needed, and they will probably benefit from some therapy from a specialist psychologist, coach or counsellor alongside the nutrition support.

Round up

The teen and tween years can be a challenge mentally and physically, especially if you are neurodivergent. I hope that these six tips help to prevent your loved one from being blind-sided by their hormones, so that they can spend their teenage years being the best version of themselves. If you feel you need more help for your ‘neurospicy’ tween or teen to get their hormones and mood in better balance, then talk to our NatureDoc Neurodiversity Clinical Team to get some individual support.

Lucinda Recommends

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