Healthy Brains Make Happy People
As a holistic nutrition consultant, I see many who are suffering from headaches, migraines, forgetfulness and depression. Many times, these symptoms are a sign of inadequate nutrition negatively affecting brain health. It can be hard for us to make the connection between what and when we eat and how it affects our brain chemistry, but if you think of your brain as the control center for all of the neural connections in your body, you can see the importance of keeping the brain in robust condition with a healthy brain diet.
The brain needs a continuous supply of protein, complex carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants each day. Our IQ, personality and the way we perceive the world around us is directly affected by how our brain is nourished. Complex carbohydrates break down into glucose, which is energy for the brain. Protein, broken down into amino acids, is used to make neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers in the brain. Feeling blue? You may be lacking serotonin, a substance derived from protein and the amino acid tryptophan.
Fat makes up the physical structure of the brain. The brain is 60% fat and is saturated with water. We need healthy sources of fats, especially omega-3 fatty acids, to help keep the brain "oiled." Sources of omega-3 essential fats include cold water fish, nuts and seeds, and the oils derived from them. The brain's neural network is built of essential fats, insulated with fat-based phospholipids. Phospholipids, namely choline and serine, can be found in egg yolks and organ meats or supplemental lecithin. For optimal brain health, we need to drink about one half of our body weight in ounces of pure water every day. Denying your brain water can cause fatigue, nausea, headaches and, in the worse case, can be fatal. If you feel exhausted you may just need a glass of water!
Processed foods are not nutritious and contain additives that can harm your brain. In addition to their excesses of unhealthy fats, sugars and salt, frozen entrees and breakfasts are filled with flavor enhancing chemicals, artificial sweeteners and dyes that directly interfere with neurotransmitter function. When these manmade chemicals cross into the brain, our biology does not know what they are or how to handle them. Food additives have been linked to everything from hyperactivity and seizures in children to dementia in adults.
Today, excessive sugar consumption is especially troublesome for our brains. According to USDA statistics, sugar consumption was 131.9 pounds per person in 2010. Biochemically, humans are not designed to handle large amounts of sugar on a continual basis and research has shown that sugar is as addictive as heroin. Sugar sets up a dopamine reward system in the brain, creating a neural pathway to pleasure to be repeated over and over again, much like that of alcohol or drug addicts.
The brain needs a constant supply of energy (glucose), which comes from our food in the form of metabolized carbohydrates. But the brain has a very narrow tolerance for how much glucose it needs at any given time and it cannot store glucose. Too much glucose is toxic to the brain and that is why the body spends a lot of time figuring out how much sugar is in your blood moment to moment and adjusts those levels to be within tolerance via the pancreas and adrenal gland functioning.
A sugary snack with a sugary drink, like a donut and flavored milk, sends your body into overdrive trying to clear the sugar from your blood and get glucose levels back within range, in large part, to protect the brain. But the body, in many cases, overcompensates and then we find ourselves with low blood sugar. The brain reacts with mental confusion, aggression and violent behavior as it strives to keep you going without balanced resources. In children, this can manifest as hyperactivity and aggression as the young brain does its best to keep the child going in the face of this adversity. At a minimum, sugar excess makes us less able to think clearly; at a maximum, inflammation and brain damage can result. Vitamins A, B, C, E and selenium and zinc can help prevent tissue damage and help keep the brain clear.
Skipping meals also wreaks havoc with brain chemistry and mood. Like trying to drive a car running out of gas, your car may sputter and lurch forward a bit but you won't get too far. Eating at regular intervals throughout the day keeps blood sugar even and steadily fuels the brain. When we skip a meal, our blood sugar plummets and, as the brain calls for energy that is not available, our adrenal glands pump out cortisol to keep us primed for action. Then we may get a headache, become aggressive, irritable, exhausted, hyperactive or maybe even violent. Some researchers theorize the aggressive and violent behavior upon needing food is an innate survival mechanism. Early man had to be aggressively motivated to hunt and gather food or get it from a neighboring tribe!
A new science called neurogastroenterology is giving us new ways to think about brain-related issues. The gut and brain are connected via the vagus nerve, which runs from the cranium to the abdomen. All neurotransmitters found in the brain are also found in the gut. In fact, the greatest concentration of the calming neurotransmitter serotonin is found in your intestines, not your brain! Often referred to as the "second brain," the gut also has its own nervous system, which controls the gastrointestinal system, as well as over 70% of our immune system that is contained in our gut. Our intestines are lined with specialized tissue referred to as gut associated lymphatic tissue (GALT), and the toxins and pathogens that we ingest are neutralized there.
Japanese researcher Kazudo Nishi has made connections between at least ten psychological conditions resulting from toxicity originating in the bowel1, while Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride has found evidence that many conditions affecting the brain such as autism, ADD, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, schizophrenia and depression can be helped or alleviated by detoxifying the gut and filling it with healthful bacteria.2 To enhance gut health, try cultured or fermented foods, raw milk, and probiotic supplements, while also eating plenty of fresh, whole, unprocessed foods containing antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Eating good brain food while keeping the gut healthy is the best way to help turn your healthy brain "on." Skip the sugar, chemical additives and unhealthy fats wherever possible and don't forget the water! A healthy diet supports a healthy brain.
1. Dr. N. Campbell-McBride, "Gut and Psychology Syndrome," Medinformation Publishing U.K., 2007.
Beth Colon is a nutrition consultant and the owner of Holistic Nutrition Services LLC in Southborough, MA. Beth consults with clients and enjoys educating people about lifestyle and eating habits that can prevent disease and optimize health. Beth can be reached at beth@HolisticNutritionServices.com or 978-340-0448 or visit www.holisticnutritionservices.com.