Nutrition for the Mind
by Angela Dixon-Paver
What you eat depends on how you think and feel, and our ability to perform depends upon a balance of mental, emotional and physical well-being. The making of intelligence involves the careful connecting up of billions of nerve cells and these cells depend completely on what you feed them.
The relationship between the body and the mind is of great importance, as the mind dominates our feelings and sense of well being and our personalities. The head is where we meet our world, through our eyes, ears, taste and smell, and the world meets us through our speech and expression and actions. The head is where we go to when we withdraw ourselves from the world, and it is where we develop our highest level of consciousness. Any imbalances here, not only affects the rest of the body, but also our relationship with the people around us and ourselves.
If these chemical imbalances are not recognised and are rather interpreted as just bad behaviours and not treated appropriately many relationships and people may be destroyed. We refer to these bad behaviours as road rage, a bad attitude, laziness, the school bully and the more destructive ones are suicide, murder, drug abuse, sexual offenders and the abusive parent or spouse. You needn’t look any further than the man next door, but does anyone stop to ask why?
Research groups have predicted that by the year 2020 mental ill health will be in the top three in the ranking of the worldwide burden of ill health. Like obesity, the rapid rise in mental ill health has been growing fast amongst the children. These illnesses range from fatigue, poor memory, aggressive behaviour, depression, dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, SAD (Winter Blues) and bipolar disorder. Depression is not something other people have, we are all at a different level of chemical imbalances, all it takes is a bad diet and a toxic environment to trigger the next level.
How the brain works
The brain is a network of neurons. These are special nerve cells that connect to other neurons, these connections are called dendrites. Where one dendrite meets another, there is a gap called a synapse. Messages are sent across this gap from one neuron to another, almost like a spark in a tazer. The message is sent from a sending station on the one neuron and received by a receptor on the other. The sending and receiving stations are made up of essential fats, phospholipids and amino acids. Enzymes in the brain turn the amino acids into neurotransmitters using vitamins and minerals and special amino acids.
The role of essential foods on the brain
The brain needs six essential foods: glucose, essential fats, phospholipids, amino acids, vitamins and minerals.
Glucose – Is the most important nutrient for the brain and nervous system. Your brain uses more glucose (converted from complex carbohydrates) than any other organ in your body, that is about 40% of your total carbohydrates you would eat in a day. A constant supply of complex carbohydrates all day can maximise your mental performance. The best nutritional sources are wholegrain, vegetables, beans, lentils or fruit.
Essential fats – are a group of fats that are vital for mental health. Our intelligence is affected by our intake of these fats and our brain and nervous system are dependent on them. These fats are made up of saturated and monounsaturated fats, cholesterol, omega-3 and omega–6 (Polyunsaturated fat). Saturated and monounsaturated fats and cholesterol can be manufactured in the body, but omega 3 and 6 need to be supplied by our diet. The best sources for omega-3 are flax seed, salmon, mackerel, sardines, tuna, eggs and the best sources for omega-6 are corn, safflower, sunflower, sesame, borage oil or primrose oil.
Phospholipids – are a group of fats that make up the myelin sheath – a membrane surrounding every neuron in the brain, which contain the receptor sites. Each phospholipid has a saturated and unsaturated fatty acid attached. The balance between these fats is critical for the brain’ s structure and function. Phospholipids enhance your mood, mind and mental performance, and protect us against age related memory problems. There are two types of phospholipids – phosphatidyl choline and serine, both of which have a very positive effect on the brain. The best sources of phospholipids are egg yolks and organ meats, Lecithin and sardines.
Amino Acids – are the building blocks the brain uses to make messages called neurotransmitters. There are eight main amino acids – Tryptophan, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, Valine, Leucine, Isoleucine and Lysine. These amino acids are converted into other amino acids and then into neurotransmitters. The best sources of amino Acids are animal protein, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds as well as green leafy vegetables.
Vitamins and minerals – help turn glucose into energy, amino acids into neurotransmitters, they turn essential fats into complex fats and prostaglandins, and convert choline and serine into phospholipids. They help build the brain and nervous system. The best sources of vitamins and minerals are found in our fruit and vegetables, whole grains and dairy and proteins.
Glucose: Fatigue, irritability, dizziness, insomnia, excessive sweating, poor attention, poor memory, aggressive behaviour, excessive thirst, depression and crying spells, digestive disturbances and blurred vision.
Essential fats: Depression, dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, fatigue, memory problems, Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia, pre-menstrual symptoms.
Phospholipids: Poor memory and concentration
Amino Acids: Depression, apathy and lack of motivation, an inability to relax, poor memory, poor concentration.
Vitamin & Min: Poor concentration, memory & attention, depression, psychosis, stress, irritability, insomnia, dizziness, convulsions, confusion, loss of appetite and motivation.
Cut out the brain drains
Trans Fats – are fats found in fried foods and hydrogenated fats. These fats alter the essential fats required by the brain by replacing them in the position of the good fats (DHA). The danger comes in when these fats become rancid and introduce destructive oxidants.
Heavy metals – are absorbed in a variety of ways, smoking is one of them. Smoking contains many oxidants and the heavy metal cadmium. Exhaust fumes contain a variety of heavy metals too. Lead and copper depletes zinc causing irreversible brain damage in children, and Mercury disturbs brain function.
Alcohol – damages your brain as the brain is incapable of getting rid of it. Alcohol disrupts the communication signals in the brain by destroying fatty acids that make up the brain cell.
Stress – increases the levels of the hormone cortisol which damages the dendrites causing them to shrink. Long periods of stress cripple your memory function and is a contributor to memory loss and Alzheimer’s as you grow old.
Refined carbohydrates – Sugar or refined carbohydrates unbalance blood sugar levels causing poor mental health. Sugar also uses up your vitamin B which is essential for brain function and damage nerve cells, and create inflammation which slows down the brain’ s communication. Sugar also stimulates the adrenal gland, exhausting the production of adrenalin resulting in fatigue and depression.
Caffeine – is addictive and disables your mental performance. Consumption of caffeine blocks the receptors called adenosine, whose function is to inhibit the release of dopamine and adrenaline. High levels of dopamine and adrenaline lead to aggressive behaviour and puts your body in a state of stress. The constant production of adrenaline can lead to adrenal exhaustion.
Food Additives – have long been known to affect our behaviour. Tartrazine has been linked to hyper-activity in children. Benzoic acid, artificial sweeteners, artificial food colourings are added to our foods in large quantities and should be avoided even if you are fit and healthy.
Food Allergies – As individuals we need to each identify what foods create side effects that alter our moods and avoid them. Gluten intolerance has been linked to ME, bipolar, autism and schizophrenia, and dairy has been linked to migraines. Other foods that people have shown reactions to are chocolate, oranges, eggs, peanuts and sugar.
Environmental Toxicity – the over use of pesticides, toxic chemicals and hazardous waste affect the quality of our water and food exposing us to endocrine disrupting compounds and toxic metals. We need to take responsibility for what we eat and drink by treating our drinking water, choosing fresh organic fruit and vegetables and building an awareness to what is going on around us.
Types of Chemical Imbalances
It’s all about keeping our brain chemistry in balance, too much of one neurotransmitter and not enough of another can create a monster. There are no tests to measure brain chemistry, but we can determine these levels by the types of depression and symptoms individuals experience.
Serotonin – is referred to as the well being neurotransmitter. The correct levels of serotonin create feelings of peace, security confidence and happiness. Low serotonin puts you in a state of depression, it also creates insomnia, migraines, premenstrual syndrome, anxiety, low self – esteem, addictions and suicidal thoughts. Serotonin is our responsible impulse , it enables us to say no to compulsive behaviours such as aggression, binge eating, promiscuity, excessive gambling and drug abuse. Serotonin also helps us cope with stressful situations, it enables us to bounce back and not stay low. People who experience long periods of stress or had prolonged unhappy childhoods deplete their serotonin levels, and unless change of diet and lifestyle take place they will not be able to cope with day to day issues. Other symptoms are low blood sugar, fearfulness, excessive sweating and an intolerance of pain.
Norepinephrine and dopamine – are referred to as the motivation neurotransmitters. They give us energy, create alertness, aggression and motivation. A shortage can create sluggishness, listlessness, and passivity. Stimulants like coffee and cocaine induce the release of these chemicals, and alcohol, sugar prohibit the production. Just like adrenaline these chemicals enable us to feel strong and have a great sense of personal achievement. An excess of Norepinephrine and dopamine as well as low serotonin can produce a very miserable person. This person is angry a lot of the time as well as irritable and resentful and feels nothing can go right for them. Other symptoms are insomnia, Indigestion problems, and high blood pressure. A depletion of norepinephrine and dopamine due to long periods of stress can lead to exhaustion. These neurotransmitters are required in situations that are challenging or threatening. Other symptoms are depression, low energy, muscle problems, weight gain, poor memory and suicidal thoughts.
Beta-endorphins – like serotonin create a sense of well-being and boost our self-esteem. They help us tolerate both physical and emotional pain and help us have a sense of emotional stability. Sugar as well as alcohol stimulate beta-endorphins temporarily, making a lot of people addicts. Other symptoms of low beta-endorphins are a low tolerance of pain, feeling sorrowful, and feelings of low self esteem. Physical exercise also produces endorphins giving us a sense of well being, but again too much can also deplete them as well as create adrenal fatigue.
Eating to balance neurotransmitter levels
Even though many people feel hopeless, nutrition can influence brain function in a variety of ways. For instance people can experience the positive effects diet can have on their lives just by adding healthy foods and by avoiding foods that interfere with our brain chemistry. The first step in the right direction is to eliminate all junk foods, this includes coffee, tea, sugar, take outs and the usual sweets and chips. These are loaded with all the ooh nasty’s that will undo any efforts people make to move in the right direction. If people want to eat their way to a better mood they need to avoid refined carbohydrates and switch to complex carbohydrates which keep your glycemic Index (GI) low . Keeping your GI low benefits your mood and energy. Complex carbohydrates include legumes, fruit, vegetables, brown rice and whole grains, eat at least three or more servings per day. Include in your diet lean protein consisting of cold water seafood, legumes and soy products, at least three servings per day. Include fresh fruit and green leafy vegetables preferably organic. Breakfast should not be missed and meals should be regular and throughout the day.
Serotonin deficiency requires a lot more complex carbohydrates during the day and should not include high volumes of protein. Even though tryptophan is an amino acid required to make serotonin, it is overpowered by other amino acids provided by protein. Complex carbohydrates slow digestion down allowing tryptophan enough time to be absorbed and converted into serotonin. Some foods that are high in tryptophan are Turkey, bananas. brown rice, soybeans, carrots, beets, potatoes, almonds, walnuts and flaxseeds.
If you have high dopamine levels, you should eat to increase your serotonin and cut out protein altogether. Eat plenty of complex carbohydrates, beans and whole grains.
Eating to boost your dopamine requires exactly the opposite of high dopamine levels by increasing your intake of high quality, low fat proteins throughout the day but not in the evening as this will keep you awake. Dopamine enhancing foods are mainly animal products, beef, seafood, dairy products, eggs and beans and legumes, nuts and seeds.
Supplements that boost and maintain serotonin levels are 5-Htp and vitamin B6, which helps the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin. Folic acid is also required for the manufacture of neurotransmitters, this can be obtained from green leafy vegetables, orange juice, wheat germ and strawberries. Folic acid is not recommended for people with high histamine levels. Vitamin B12 works together with folic acid, these should always be taken together as folic acid depletes vitamin B12. Supplement DL-Phenylalanine if you need to increase your dopamine. DL Phenylalanine is converted into tyrosine which is converted into adrenaline, norepinephrine and phenylethylamine. Phenylalanine is an amphetamine like compound found in chocolate, which is why some people may crave chocolate during depression. S-Adenosyl-L-Methionine helps increase serotonin and dopamine levels. This supplement is recommended by some for chronic fatigue and suicidal tendencies. Other vitamins required for optimal brain function are vitamin C, Vitamin E and beta carotene, these can be found in dark green, red, yellow or orange fruits and veggies. A Vitamin B complex is recommended as each vitamin B works hand in hand with each other, and all are required for nerve and brain development. They can be found in most proteins, wheat germ, rice, potatoes, spinach and broccoli. The following minerals play a role in brain and nerve function: Magnesium is found in whole grain, legumes, nuts and green vegetables; Potassium is found in apricots, avocados, bananas and prunes; Calcium is found in dairy products and broccoli; Zinc is found in oysters, eggs and shell sea food; Manganese can be found in almonds.
Did you know?
- The brain weighs about 1300-1400g – almost the weight of a packet of sugar.
- Your skin weighs twice as much as your brain.
- Your brain represents about 2% of your total body weight.
- The human brain is 60% fat.
- The brain is capable of having more ideas than the number of atoms in the universe.
- You could power a 10watt light bulb, if you could harness the power used by your brain.
- The brain is incapable of feeling pain.
- Your brain uses about 20% of oxygen supplied to the body.
- Your brain has about 100 billion neurons – that is 166 times the number of people on earth.
- You had almost all your brain cells when you were born.
- Unconsciousness will occur after 8-10 seconds after blood loss supply to the brain.
- All of your thinking is done by electricity and chemicals.
The thinking business.co.uk
Optimum Nutrition for the mind BY Patrick Holford
Institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition @ London Metropolitan University
Body mind work book BY Debby Shapiro
The Chemistry of Joy BY Henry Emmons
The Brain Center @ nutramed.com
Nutrition and the brain @ faculty.washington.edu