Resources / Parenting

Good sleep + mood-boosting food = a more balanced teen brain

Teens eating pizza outside
Brightline Logo Mark Orange
Brightline team

Feb 26, 2024

If you parent a teen, you know that sometimes it seems like all they want to do is sleep and eat. After all, their growing bodies and brains need plenty of rest and mood-boosting nutrition, not only to support good physical health, but for their mental health, too. And given that March 2nd is Teen Mental Wellness Day, it’s a perfect month to talk about how all of these things are connected.

Sleeping Tight or Sleeping Right?

The quality of sleep that your teen gets makes all the difference. For example, if during the week they fall asleep after school and then stay up most of the night doing homework (or gaming/scrolling), they’re bumping their natural sleep rhythms off schedule. It’s not enough sleep (quantity), and it’s not deep enough sleep (quality). And then, when they try to “catch up” by being in bed all weekend, they’re getting too much sleep at once, which sets them up for another groggy week ahead. 

Sleeping on a regular schedule every night (yes, even Friday and Saturday if possible) can give your teen more restful nights and energetic days. It’s not easy — with sports, clubs, friends, homework, and the abundance of screen time, sleep during the week can be harder to come by. And a long, sleepy weekend is tempting (plus honestly, sometimes it’s just what they need). But if there’s a way to get the lights out and the alarm set at consistent times each week, that’s better for your teen in the long run. 

Pro tip: Plug in phones and screens outside the bedroom each night. Keeping devices out of arm’s reach reduces the temptation to scroll endlessly, giving their brains, eyes, and bodies a much needed break.

Want to know what else can affect the quality of your teen’s sleep? Food. It’s not only what they eat — but when they eat it. Of course, busy schedules can shift the family meal times on a daily basis, and sometimes making sure they’re fed is the only realistic goal. Just keep in mind that large, heavy meals eaten closer to bedtime make it harder for the body to settle in for sleep, because it has to stay up and work on getting that food processed. 

Going to bed full can also make the deep, restorative sleep a teenager’s body needs more elusive. So, whenever possible, make the last meal of the day a balanced, sleep-friendly one. If they can eat it at least a couple of hours before bed, your teen’s body will have the ability (and enough time) to move into relaxation mode when the lights go out. 

Pro tip: Just in case, keep healthy, satisfying “midnight snack” options around for hungry teens with fast metabolisms. Oatmeal is quick and full of fiber — they can stir in spices like cinnamon or add some honey to make it even tastier. And some apple slices with peanut butter is an easy, sweet, protein-packed snack. Low-sugar protein bars are great to have on hand, too.

Gut check

The brain and the stomach are closely connected — that’s why your teen might feel nauseous before a big test, date, or game. Nerves or worried thoughts can cause that stomach to ache, but it can also work the other way around, meaning gastrointestinal distress or inflammation in the gut can create feelings of sadness or stress. 

Knowing which particular foods might be triggers for your teen can help. Notice over time if they have any physical symptoms after eating certain foods. It’s also important to watch for any patterns between meals (for example, are they more tired than usual or is their energy level high). And whether your teen is a square-meal person or an all-day grazer, they need to get enough nutrition and a balance of protein, grains, healthy fats, and fruits/vegetables.

There could be a bunch of other things affecting their mood, but if food is a factor, encourage your teen to get curious about how what they eat (and when) makes them feel both physically and emotionally. For example, if they tend to eat less when they’re feeling anxious, because that anxiety is telling them they don’t feel good, that can actually fuel those anxious feelings. Instead — and especially if this is common for your teen — encourage them to eat a small snack a bit at a time even if they’re nauseous, and see how that makes them feel both emotionally and in their body. They might actually benefit from having more energy on board to reframe that anxious experience.

You can help them discover what works and what doesn’t by trying a variety of foods and introducing new versions of old favorites. Remind them that you are there to help them find ways to sleep soundly, eat well, and improve their mental health — and that it can all be done one small step at a time, together. 

It might be just the support they need to give it a try.

Still need help pinpointing the issue? Sign up today to talk to a Brightline coach, or reach out to your pediatrician about how to help your teen boost their mental health by eating the right foods for their body and getting the best sleep possible.