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Kids' Health

6 Secrets for Teen Health

From sleep issues to stress management, teens face a host of adult-level health challenges. Here are 6 ways to help them thrive.

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You thought it was hard raising a toddler? Wait until you have a teen. They’re more independent, less easily persuaded, and often just as likely to have massive meltdowns. And while you’ll avoid earaches and frequent stomach bugs, teens are more susceptible to serious health issues like stress and weight gain. Help your adolescents thrive with these tips that address six crucial teen health concerns.

1. Sleep

It’s one of the most critical aspects of teen health—and the most universally neglected. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 10–12 hours a night for teens, but studies show that most kids bag a fraction of that. In a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey of 12,000 high school students, only 900 said they got the recommended amount of shut-eye, and 39 percent slept for only 6 hours a night or less.

Kids miss sleep because of stress, busy schedules, or late-night screen time. Over time, lack of sleep impacts immunity, weight, learning, and emotional health. Simple changes such as going to bed at the same time every night, avoiding caffeine, and minimizing pre-bed stress can help. If your teen suffers from insomnia, try gentle herbs like chamomile, passionflower, or lemon balm, or homeopathic combination sleep remedies.

2. Weight

According to the CDC, obesity has more than tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years, and in 2010, more than one-third of adolescents surveyed were found to be overweight or obese. It’s a serious health issue. In one study, 70 percent of obese teens had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease and were more likely to be prediabetic.

If your teen is overweight, have a heart-to-heart about the health dangers to avoid triggering body image issues. Model healthy eating, don’t buy excessive amounts of candy or sugary snacks, and discourage quick-fix solutions like pills or starvation diets. And ban sodas from your house, period. In one study, teens who swapped sugary sodas for non-caloric beverages lost weight, even when they made no other changes.

3. Stress

It’s not just for adults. In fact, as many as 30 percent of high school students in a survey said they were stressed to “serious” levels. And stressful life events in childhood can impact teen health. In one study, experiencing negative life events was linked with a 50 percent higher risk of being overweight by age 15.

Help teens handle stress by encouraging them to exercise, eat regularly, get enough sleep, and avoid excess caffeine. Supplements such as lemon balm, B vitamins, omega-3 fats, and GABA can help soothe excess stress as well. Also, teach and model healthy stress-management techniques including muscle relaxation and time management. And encourage your kids to avoid perfectionism—good enough is often enough.

4. Breakfast

Hurried teens have a tendency to miss breakfast—in a Canadian study, 39 percent of students reported eating breakfast fewer than three days a week. But breakfast is critical for brain function, energy, concentration, academic performance, and healthy weight. Ideally, the morning meal should focus on protein, with enough fat to sustain energy. If your teen is in a hurry to get out the door, try quick, healthy options such as smoothies fortified with protein powder, egg burritos, breakfast pizzas, sausage omelet pitas, or well-formulated energy bars. Grab-and-go breakfasts are best.

5. Screen time

When it comes to sabotaging teen health, screen time may be the number-one culprit. One study found that teens spend an average of seven hours and 38 minutes per day, seven days a week, on cell phones or in front of computers, TVs, or video games. That means seven hours of inactivity, which can impact weight. Other studies have shown that excessive media use can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, eating disorders, and sleep issues.

Help your teen cut back by coming up with a list of household rules together to help limit screen time—say, no TV until homework is completed, no electronics after 8 p.m., or no texting during meals. Create a system of rewards and consequences if the rules are violated. And be prepared to follow them yourself to set a good example.

6. Supplements

Between busy schedules and social activities that revolve around food, few teens eat a truly balanced diet. A quality multivitamin can fill in substantial gaps in nutrition. Look for one that’s formulated specifically for teenagers. Other supplements to consider:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids. Teen diets are often lacking in omega-3s, and supplementation can improve behavior, mood, and attention span.
  • Calcium. Bones grow quickly during the teen years, so calcium is critical. Look for a comprehensive bone-building formula that also contains synergistic nutrients such as vitamin D.
  • Iron. Teenage girls in particular need adequate iron.
  • Probiotics. Inflammation in the gut can manifest as acne, but probiotic supplements can help by restoring healthy gut flora.
Photo: Getty Images

5 ways to teach kids healthy eating

Better food choices lead to healthier teens. It really is that simple. Here are five ways to help your kids develop a healthy relationship with food.

  1. Skip the clean-plate club. Teach kids to eat according to internal cues instead.
  2. Don’t make any food “bad.” When your kids eat pizza, bagels, or other “bad” food—which they will—you don’t want them to feel guilty about it. Instead, talk about “sometimes” versus “always” foods, and let junk food be an occasional treat.
  3. Reframe cultural messages. Talk to your kids about media messages that only certain body types are acceptable. Listen to their self-image issues and remind them that healthy bodies come in many different shapes and sizes and not to judge a body’s worth by how it looks.
  4. Don’t use the “D” word. Dieting, versus listening to the body’s impulses, sets kids up for problems. Explain that unnecessarily restricting calories can impact growth, brain development, and overall health. If your teen or tween is overweight, try a shift in eating that emphasizes whole foods instead.
  5. Cook with your kids. When teens and tweens have an active role in meal planning and preparation, they feel more empowered. Sit down with your child and plan out the week’s meals. Go shopping together and tell them about the benefits of different foods—for example, “yellow peppers are good for your skin,” or “blueberries help your memory.” Let them choose different things to try, such as white asparagus or cherimoya. And cook together—it’s a great way to bond.

Naturopathic Rx for Teen Immune Health

Immune health is at the top of every parent’s mind as kids head back to school. We sat down with Vermont-based doctor (and father himself) Sam Russo, ND, LAc, to get his advice on the best vitamins and other supplements for kids and teens.

What nutrients are most important for cold and flu prevention in kids?

In addition to a children’s multiple vitamin (which is essential), I recommend 500 mg daily of omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil, probiotics, and a protein-rich diet. For probiotics, look for a product that lists strain names after the bacteria names—this means that the strain has research behind it. Give probiotics with food (that’s how bacteria get through your stomach naturally).

A lot of children eat too many carb-rich foods, which can cause mucus accumulation and increase susceptibility to infections. The solution? Try feeding your kids a diet higher in protein. This will help build a strong immune system because the immune system uses protein to create antibodies.

Speaking of multivitamins, look for the following specific nutrients in a multi for kids: vitamin A or beta carotene, vitamin C, and zinc—these are necessary for healthy immune function. The requirements for these nutrients vary by age. The Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University has an excellent resource to find the amounts to look for in a multiple based on age.

What’s the first natural remedy to reach for if your child gets sick?

For flu-like symptoms, such as a fever with body aches and a cough, elderberry concentrate is one of my favorite early infection treatments. This tasty liquid can be taken three to four times a day. Elderberry has antiviral and anti-inflammatory effects and does not interact with any medications, so it’s a safe first-line therapy for colds and flu.

I also keep Esberitox Echinacea by Enzymatic Therapy in my home year-round. It’s a great general infection treatment that has been clinically shown to help shorten the duration of colds. I also give it to my kids if there are other sick children in the classroom during cold and flu season. Follow the package directions.

For sore throat, try slippery elm lozenges, which can be used multiple times per day. Gargling with salt water several times daily can also help soothe sore throats.

To calm a cough, I like honey. If chest congestion or a runny nose accompanies the cough, I add a little thyme tea, which helps clear out mucous membranes. Plus, the honey makes it taste better.

It’s also important to note that if your child is in a new school, they may come into contact with unfamiliar viral strains that they haven’t been exposed to previously. In this case, you and your child may both have to go through a few more colds for a season.

How can parents reduce kids’ stress?

Stress reduces the immune response, and chronic stress can alter our physical barriers to infection. Stress management, such as mindfulness exercises and Social Thinking strategies, are great tools to employ for raising a healthier, happier child. Visit socialthinking.com to learn more about this innovative language-based learning approach.

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