Global Resilience Solutions > 2015 > July

Nutrition and the Brain: Quick Tips

Nowhere is the body-mind relationship more important or more ignored than in the relationship between the brain and the food we eat. We often don’t realise how much our mental state has to do with the chemical state of our body, which in turn is affected heavily by the food we eat. We’ve already covered the all-important relationship between senility and poor diet. Patrick Holdford’s book Optimum Nutrition for the Mind looks at some other brain problems related to nutrition and what you can do about them.

 

Anxiety

There are a few important things to know about your diet if you suffer from anxiety. One is that your blood sugar balance is extremely important. A dip in blood sugar caused by an overactive insulin response can bring on hyperventilation and increase lactic acid in the body, which is a contributing factor to anxiety attacks. In general, balancing out your blood sugar is a very good idea for mood disorders. High copper levels, often the result of drinking water in buildings with new copper pipes, depress histamine levels, associated with extreme fears. You may need to increase your level of zinc if high copper levels are an issue.

On the other hand, dark green leafy vegetables and nuts provide magnesium, a mineral that helps both the mind and the muscles to relax. Other important micronutrients for anxiety sufferers include Vitamin B12 and folic acid.

The neurotransmitter we look to to govern anxiety, reduce adrenaline and promote a calm mood is known by the abbreviation GABA. Drugs like alcohol stimulate brief GABA releases, making us feel momentarily good, but the more we drink, the more our GABA levels fall. Tranquilisers work by making the body more receptive to GABA. Unfortunately, tranquiliser addiction is rampant throughout Western society. Benzodiazepine tranquilisers are more addictive than heroin and are associated with extreme withdrawal symptoms. There are natural alternatives with less risk, such as valerian root, which performs the same function, and hops (yes, the same hops found in beer) which act to calm the central nervous system.

Depression

There are a few major ways to improve your diet to address depression, the most important of which is to make sure you take in omega 3 fat and B-series vitamins. Together, these help the brain build up receptor sites for neurotransmitters and promote neurotransmitter production, especially serotonin. In clinical studies, major improvements in depression have been linked to omega 3 intake. Folic acid, a B vitamin, has an important effect on neurotransmitter levels.

Long-term depression, as opposed to a momentary low, is primarily a chemical state of a brain that either does not know how or does not have the materials to change that state. Antidepressant drugs are notorious for their side effects, but there is a natural alternative, St. John’s Wort, which has far fewer side effects at recommended doses (despite frequent attempts to scare people with any side-effect stories that come up). Its success rate is comparable, and more patients stick with it due to the reduced side effects.

Learning Disorders

Learning problems such as ADHD, dyslexia and so on are heavily linked to nutritional deficiencies. This has been heavily studied. Studies from MIT and California State University have shown that the fewer refined foods children ate, the better their learning, mainly due to the lack of micronutrients in processed food. Other studies have explored the effect of nutritional supplements and dietary changes on learning, with often dramatic results, including leaps of years in reading level and jumps in intelligence test scores. In one study by Dr. Michael Cogan, a group of children on vitamin and mineral supplements showed an average improvement of 1.1 years in reading level and 8.4 I.Q. points over 22 weeks, while a group which also had changes to their diet improved 1.8 years in reading level and gained 17.9 I.Q. points.

(As an aside, one of the most noxious elements of intelligence testing has been the role of its proponents in arguing that intelligence level is innate to the individual, and that because intelligence level is a predictor of success, people are somehow innately destined for their lot in life. The huge difference made by a change in nutrition calls this sharply into question, especially where impoverished populations are concerned.)

The important factors here are antioxidants, which help to reduce the detrimental effect of free radicals on the brain, and the building materials such as omega 3, B vitamins and amino acids that are essential building blocks of the brain and neurotransmitter system. The effects of increasing healthy fats in the diets of dyslexic children have been shown repeatedly. Increasing vitamin and mineral sources and healthy fats while decreasing high-carb processed foods is the essential formula for healthy learning, although heavy metal contamination and other issues may enter into it.

Hyperactivity, as we all know, can be partly attributed to sugars, but also to deficiency in the nutrients the body needs in order to calm down, such as magnesium and Vitamin B6. Studies by Dr. Bernard Rimland compared the effects of Ritalin against B6 and magnesium supplements, and found the latter to be ten times more effective.

(The same dramatic improvement has been shown in a California State University Study on the behaviour of young offenders. Correcting vitamin and mineral deficiency greatly improved behaviour.)

Bottom Line

The food we eat effects our brains, neurotransmitters, nervous systems and therefore our moods, our fears, our mental capabilities. The conditions discussed here are only the tip of the iceberg. Mental and psychiatric disorders that we often regard as chronic and irreversible are strongly linked to nutritional deficiencies. The complex interconnectivity of the body-mind organism is a major key to addressing what may seem to be mysterious or intractable problems. We need to optimise the whole organism, rather than just a part.

The general lessons we can draw from these particular conditions are straightforward:

1. Make sure that you eat a good amount of Omega 3 fats

2. Make sure you eat enough fresh produce and leafy greens

3. Supplement as necessary to compensate for the poor state of micronutrients in our food chain- the B and C Vitamins as well as magnesium are particularly important for brain health

 


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