The idea that certain foods can help or hinder our mental states is not unusual. Nor is the idea that exercise can help relieve stress and rewire sections of the brain that deal with difficult situations and emotions. But what may come as a surprise is the idea that there are specific times in our lives where diet and exercise is crucial to how well we develop and adapt emotionally.
During adolescence, regions of the brain that process emotions and foster neural plasticity are growing and setting up patterns that can affect reactions to stress later in life. Unfortunately, this is also a time when eating and exercise habits can be at their worst, creating more inflammation, oxidative stress, potential weight gain, and driving up stress hormone levels.
So establishing a love of healthy foods and avoiding sedentary activities early on is one of the major keys to being physiologically able to cope with shifting priorities, challenges, and being resilient later in life.
Hueston CM, Cryan JF, Nolan YM. Stress and adolescent hippocampal neurogenesis: diet and exercise as cognitive modulators. Transl Psychiatry. 2017;7(4):e1081.
Adolescence is a critical period for brain maturation. Deciphering how disturbances to the central nervous system at this time affect structure, function and behavioural outputs is important to better understand any long-lasting effects. Hippocampal neurogenesis occurs during development and continues throughout life. In adulthood, integration of these new cells into the hippocampus is important for emotional behaviour, cognitive function and neural plasticity. During the adolescent period, maturation of the hippocampus and heightened levels of hippocampal neurogenesis are observed, making alterations to neurogenesis at this time particularly consequential. As stress negatively affects hippocampal neurogenesis, and adolescence is a particularly stressful time of life, it is important to investigate the impact of stressor exposure at this time on hippocampal neurogenesis and cognitive function. Adolescence may represent not only a time for which stress can have long-lasting effects, but is also a critical period during which interventions, such as exercise and diet, could ameliorate stress-induced changes to hippocampal function. In addition, intervention at this time may also promote life-long behavioural changes that would aid in fostering increased hippocampal neurogenesis and cognitive function. This review addresses both the acute and long-term stress-induced alterations to hippocampal neurogenesis and cognition during the adolescent period, as well as changes to the stress response and pubertal hormones at this time which may result in differential effects than are observed in adulthood. We hypothesise that adolescence may represent an optimal time for healthy lifestyle changes to have a positive and long-lasting impact on hippocampal neurogenesis, and to protect against stress-induced deficits. We conclude that future research into the mechanisms underlying the susceptibility of the adolescent hippocampus to stress, exercise and diet and the consequent effect on cognition may provide insight into why adolescence may be a vital period for correct conditioning of future hippocampal function.
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