DOES WHAT YOU EAT AFFECT YOUR WELL-BEING?
15th October 2018
The adult human brain consists of about 100 billion neurons with around ten times as many supportive cells. The supportive cells keep the brain clean, healthy, and well-supplied with oxygen and nutrients. (1)
Neurons are the primary communication cell in the brain and come in various shapes and sizes. They specialize in jobs which involve movement, memory, and mood. Each type of neuron has a different role in the brain and body. Neurons form a synapse, or a communication bridge, with themselves and astrocytes one of the supportive cells.(2)
A dysfunction in communication between astrocytes and neurons is implicated in addiction, depression, dementia and other neurological disorders. (3)
The brain is 75% water when it’s in our body. But if it’s removed and drained, 60% of the remaining dry weight of brain solids is fat. It comprises 2-3% of our body weight and uses 20% of daily energy intake.(4)
Ever have those days when you cannot think of the right word, or the name of that old film just won’t come to mind? Days when memory is not so good, focus and concentration are impossible. We may even be a little tearful or irritable.
Most of the brain is derived from the food and specifically, the fats we consume. If you consider some of the fats we ingest it is not surprising that we experience moments of fogginess and irritability. (5)
Twenty per cent of the fat in our brain is made from the essential fatty acids (EFA) omega 3 and omega 6. They are essential as the body cannot make them and they must be obtained from our diet.
In the brain, they are found in equal parts, which in a perfect world is how we would like them to be consumed. Unfortunately, this is not the case as many enjoying a western diet consume up to 15 - 20 times more omega 6 than omega 3. Omega 6 is necessary for our health, however, in excess amounts, it is pro-inflammatory and contributes to many inflammatory conditions.
However, In the brain both of them are vital in the correct ratio to ensure communication is possible and without problems.(6)
A diet high in trans fats (aka partly hydrogenated oils) causes serious problems. Trans fats mimic EFA’s and block their receptor sites. The EFA is not able to be utilised as its path is blocked. Consequently, the brain no longer functions optimally.
Trans - fats are found in crisps, baked goods and are frequently used for deep fat frying in cafes and take away restaurants, as this type of oil does not have to be changed so frequently. (7)
Scarily, the World Health Organization warned that trans fats kill up to half a million people around the world every year. The UK government is being urged to completely eradicate the use of trans fats by 2023. Denmark was the first country to outlaw industrially-produced trans fats in 2003. Since then Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Iceland, Norway, New York City and California have followed suit. (8)
Why is this a problem?
Poorer mental health in children and adolescents is linked to a diet high in foods with trans-fats, refined carbohydrates and processed food. Many studies show how children benefit from a nutritiously rich diet. Starting the day with a healthy breakfast improves academic performance and attention while fighting and absence are reduced.(9)
Unfortunately, it is estimated that the average person in the UK and other developed countries will consume 4 kilograms of additives each year. Like all organs in the body, the brain is especially sensitive to the food and drink we consume. Many neurotransmitters are produced from amino acids. Amino acids are derived from the protein we eat.
In order for neurons to communicate they secrete neurotransmitters. Between each cell is a gap called the synapse across which the neurotransmitter has to cross to transmit its impulse. In certain types of depression for example, the flow of serotonin does not cross the gap and reach its target neuron.(10)
The four major neurotransmitters that regulate mood are serotonin, dopamine, GABA and norepinephrine. Serotonin and GABA are the primary calming (inhibitory) neurotransmitters while dopamine and norepinephrine or noradrenaline are 2 of several excitatory transmitters.
Both the inhibitory and the excitatory neurotransmitters play a huge role in feelings of anxiety, memory, cognitive function and contentment. These neurotransmitters need to be in harmony to help us maintain a well balanced and even-keel approach to life.
When we indulge in a craving, in the case of coffee for example we release adrenaline. When there is too much caffeine in our bloodstream, adrenaline receptors are down-regulated because we have become too sensitive to the effects of the caffeine. In down-regulation, the receptors close down in order to reduce the cells sensitivity. Consequently, to obtain the same rush from the caffeine, we need to drink more and more. (10)
Why do we want to maintain well balanced neurotransmitters? Obviously to maintain a well-balanced mind, level mood, concentration, focus,memory and cognitive function. A well-functioning brain dictates our reaction to stress, the choices we make, how we interact with others, and affects our emotional, psychological and social well-being.
If they're out of sync how may we be affected?
eating or sleeping too much or too little
keeping ourselves to ourselves
withdrawing from society
smoking, drinking or increasing our drug habit
edgy, fraught, irritable
severe mood swings
unable to perform normal daily activities
a feeling of hopelessness
How can we help ourselves?
There is now growing evidence implying that nutrition may play a very important role in preventing many mental health issues such as anxiety, stress, Alzheimers’ and ADHD. As many of the diets around the world introduce processed foods, levels of these conditions are rising where previously they were unkown.
An imbalance of omega 3 and omega 6 is implicated in many mental health problems, such as depression, lack of concentration and brain fog. Further studies have found low levels of omega 3 in those suffering dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. While an improvement in bipolar disorder has been seen following an increased consumption of both Omega 3 and 6. A study in 2015 showed how increasing omega 3 with a vitamin B complex reduced brain atrophy by 40% in those who were cognitively impaired.
Depression is associated with a deficiency in many nutrients, the specific type of depression often correlating with an individual micronutrient. If you experience any imbalances ensure you are getting enough foods containing the vitamins B, and C plus the mineral zinc in your diet.(11)
What should we include in our diet?
Omega 3 is vitally important to brain health and is found in oily fish. Those specifically named SMASH fish - Salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and herrings are a nutritiously rich form.
Add freshly ground flax or chia seed to your smoothies or oats. Alternatively, flaxseed oil is excellent on salads, but should never be heated.
Nuts are also a rich source of omega 3, but try not to overindulge as they are also rich in omega 6.
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid and must be included in our diet. It is in many protein foods including meat, eggs, dairy, cottage cheese, oats, chocolate, lentils, and turkey. Following synthesis, tryptophan becomes 5-HTP which in turn becomes the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin.
5-HTP is available as a supplement. However, if SSRI’s or any other mood improving drugs are taken, 5-HTP should be avoided as it results in serotonin syndrome which can prove fatal.
Although the B vitamins individually have roles, they also work in synergy to complete some very important actions in the body.The vitamins B6, B12 and folate help to balance the nervous system but should be taken as part of an overall vitamin B complex. Together they help to reduce levels of homeocysteine which when high is a marker for cardiovascular disease, strokes and Alzheimer's disease.
Vegetarians may need to supplement with B12 as it is mainly found in animal meats. Soy and rice milk are often fortified with B12, but if in doubt ask your GP to test your levels.(12)
Good sources of vitamin B6 include fortified cereals, beans, poultry, fish, and some vegetables and fruits, especially dark leafy greens, papayas, oranges, and cantaloupe.
Folate or B9 is found in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, breakfast cereals, and fortified grains and grain products. However, It’s best to avoid foods fortified with folic acid, as folic acid can block the folate receptors. If supplementing look for a B complex with methylfolate.
Other foods that help to maintain cognitive ability and well being are berries, green leafy vegetables, dark chocolate, turmeric, and coffee. A study in England in 2014 proved having a higher proportion of vegetables in the diet correlated with improved mental wellbeing. (12).
To ensure we can maintain or improve our state of well being good quality nutrition has an important role to play. Ensure you look after your brain.