How Important is the Health of Your Brain?
Can you imagine what it would be like if you couldn’t do all the things that you do – think, wonder, observe, and dream about? There isn’t one function in the body that isn’t dependent upon the health of the brain. Everything that we are and do is an astonishing testament to the vast complexity of our brain and nervous system. The level of neural integration needed to run our bodies makes even the greatest computers seem simplistic.
If we were to observe the brain, we would notice nerve fibers that branch out and connect one area to another. These vast networks of nerves and nerve fibers allow for communication from one nerve cell to another and from region to region in the body. The outer covering of the nerve cell, the nerve membrane, forms the basis of the nerve and all of its activities. Within each nerve cell are tiny factories that give out energy for the brain.
The brain is the most energy-hungry organ in the body!
Dr. Paul Schmidt, author of “Brain Building Nutrition” and an expert on the role of nutrition in the developing brain, says that “in order for your brain to achieve its optimum level of complexity, and therefore function at its peak, it must receive proper nutrition and proper stimulation at critical points in its development.” (1)
Since the brain is made mostly of fat, it is mostly dependent upon the essential fatty acids that are only gotten from food. It also depends upon vitamins and minerals to function optimally.
Essential Fatty Acids for the Brain: Fish oil, Evening Primrose oil, Borage oil, flaxseeds, nuts, seeds, seaweed, avocados, olive oil.
The Hardwiring of the Brain
The brain is composed of billions of cells. Some of these cells are called neurons. Neurons form the primary communication network of the brain. While others, which are even more numerous are called the glial cells. We often speak of glial cells in relation to their function as the immune system of the brain.
Some nerve cells are very long, reaching from the brain to the foot. Others are very short, measuring less than an inch. All of them, though, are surrounded by a covering made up of a fatty material called phospholipids. These specialized fatty acids are derived from our diet. This is why we need to eat certain types of fat.
Eating good, healthy essential fats derived from fish, nuts, seeds, natural oils such as olive oil, sesame oil, flaxseeds and flax oil, chia seeds, soy lecithin, and even saturated fats assist in stabilizing these phospholipid membranes. The so-called “bad fats” such as those that are derived from trans fatty acids found in margarine, hydrogenated oils, and deep fried foods are not able to form a proper nerve cell membrane and actually distort the membranes, so that nerve transmission is impeded.
Insulation of the Brain
From the time that we are born, there is a substance that forms around our nerve fibers called myelin. The basic function of myelin is to speed transmission of nerve impulses. Myelin formation is also critical to the development of the brain in children. Apparently, “there are certain critical windows of development during which nerve fibers must be myelinated. These connections allow the child’s brain complexity to unfold and set the stage for future intelligence.” (2)
During these developmental stages, the brain needs the right kind of stimulation to make these neural connections. Those connections that are not created, die. As you have probably guessed, good essential fats are critical to ensure that these brain connections are made.
Finetuning the Network
As we gather more information, more and more neurons form connections with other neurons. These connections are called synapses. In fact, the number of synapses has a greater impact on intelligence and brain performance than the number of nerve cells. The synapse has the highest concentration of the essential fatty acid DHA (found in fish and some sea plants) than any tissue in the body.
Mother’s milk is naturally rich in DHA. If a baby is fed a commercial formula, it is not likely to be receiving this essential nutrient. Across the world it is becoming more common to supplement with DHA. Medical practitioners are also encouraging mothers to breast feed their babies for at least 8 months, so that the child has a better chance of receiving better fatty acid nutrition. Although, when the mother is deficient in fatty acids, her baby is likely to be as well.
The areas of the brain need to communicate with each other as well. In order for this to occur, neurotransmitters are released. These are usually protein substances released by the nerves. We have all heard of the neurotransmitter serotonin which is crucial for mood and even digestion. When serotonin production is diminished, mood changes like depression and anxiety can occur. You may be interested to know that most of the serotonin is found in the gut. There is therefore a gut-brain connection. Gut health is crucial for brain health. This is another reason why it is important to address our diet when we speak of brain health.
Although the neurotransmitters are not made of fats, fats are needed so that they become active and transmit efficiently. The receptors for neurotransmitters are also dependent upon our intake of good fats, as the shape of the receptors is dependent upon them. If the neurotransmitter cannot land or fit on the proper receptor, the communication to the nerve is short circuited.
Other nutrients are also crucial for helping the neurotransmitters make the right connection. Vitamins such as Vitamin B3, B6 and inositol along with minerals such as magnesium, potassium and calcium are critical not only for healthy nerve function, but also serve as co-factors or enzymes that assist in the creation of these important brain messengers.
The Role of Stress
It is not difficult to understand that the brain is highly susceptible to physical and emotional stressors. The brain’s fatty acids, vitamins and anti-oxidants can be depleted and damaged during stress. Long-term stress can also wear away the hippocampus, a region of the brain that is responsible for controlling the stress response and also responsible for our short-term memory. It is also the emotional center of the brain. When the hippocampus wears down, we become overwhelmed by even the simplest of stressors.
Inflammation and the Brain
General lowering of mental ability or a deficiency of our life giving brain neurotransmitters is not always a consequence of aging. Much of this may be caused by stress, poor diet and lack of exercise. But, another factor that we must consider is an ongoing low level of inflammation that actually creates a fire in our brains. Health conditions such as arthritis, osteoporosis, heart disease and particularly diabetes cause ongoing systemic inflammation that can create this fire in the brain.
Blood sugar: Blood sugar imbalances create high levels of oxidative or free radical damage to our cells. This process is called glycation, which means sticky damaged cells. This is one of the reasons that plaque can build up in the arteries and even in the brain. Depression, anxiety, eating disorders, ADD, are all health conditions that can be directly helped by proper blood sugar balance, since most of these conditions are exacerbated by blood sugar imbalances – especially hypoglycemia. When the blood sugar gets low, the brain gets starved for energy. Many people experience anxiety or depression when their blood sugar gets too low. If a person is susceptible to a mood disorder, eating a diet of mostly starches, drinking caffeine or not eating at certain meal times can lead to an increase in symptoms – a roller coast of mood swings, energy drains and sugar cravings. It is imperative to eat a source of protein at every meal and eat often throughout the day to keep the brain supplied with the right fuel to keep it energized.
Leaky gut: Another important, but relatively unknown factor is gut inflammation caused by a leaky gut. When the gut is compromised by infection and allergenic foods it creates inflammation on the brain. Infections and food antigens can get through the gut lining into the bloodstream and cause an immune system response. This inflammation fires up the brain’s immune system as well. Headaches, migraines, low neurotransmitters and foggy thinking can all occur as a consequence of this “fire on the brain.” Gluten grains (wheat, oats, rye, barley, etc) can activate the brain’s immune system and increase brain inflammation as well (3) Addressing food allergies and getting rid of infections can go a long way towards restoring healthy brain function.
Toxins: Toxins and heavy metals can also cause brain inflammation. They not only create nutrient deficiencies but can cross the blood brain barrier.
Stress: A chronic stress response can also cause inflammation in the brain and deplete
High homocysteine and C-Reactive Protein: These are two blood markers that indicate levels of systemic inflammation. Homocysteine is particularly problematic in that it increases the likelihood of inflammation that destroys brain cells. It also promotes the formation of plaque on the brain.
Food Sensitivities and Allergies: Food reactions set up a cascade of inflammatory immune chemicals that fire up the glial cells of the brain. Once the glial cells are fired up, the inflammation doesn’t stop until the offending substances are removed. Certain foods such as gluten grains and dairy have a greater affinity for destroying brain tissue than most of the other foods. It is really important to test for these food sensitivities.
Exercise and the Brain
According to an article in Newsweek, March 26, 2007, “Exercise does more than build muscles and help prevent heart disease. New science shows that it also boosts brain power.” Researchers at the University of Illinois conducted a study on 259 third and fourth graders who were put through a series of classic exercise routines such as running, push ups and sit ups. Their physical abilities were checked against their math and reading scores on a standardized test. On the whole, the children with the “fittest bodies were the ones with the fittest brains” even accounting for socioeconomic differences.
Furthermore, these same researchers studied the effects of exercise on the frontal lobes of the brain which is responsible for higher thought and reasoning. They found that even as we age, if we engage in walking and other aerobic workouts there is improvement in this area of the brain as well as increased levels of dopamine, serotonin and adrenaline.
Resistance training, which includes targeting and strengthening muscle groups has been shown to increase IGF-1 (Insulin Growth Factor) which in turn increases another brain chemical called “brain derived neurotrophic factor” (BDNF). It is known as “Miracle-Gro for the brain.” (4) This is important to know because BDNF is responsible for the brain’s ability to develop new nerve cell connections and for the brain having a greater capacity for learning and memory.
The great news is that it doesn’t take weeks for these beneficial improvements to occur. These effects can take place immediately. They can also last only a few hours after exercising, so we will need to exercise consistently to continue these improvements. This allows time for the brain to make new nerve connections that are permanent. (5, 6)
One of the best ways to incorporate physical activity into your day is start with walking. You can also do “exercise snacks” throughout the day. Just walk around your office or home or have a stair stepper handy so that you can stair step for ten minutes. Also, spending ten minutes on a rebounder will help to exercise the brain.
1. Schmidt, M.A. & Bland, J. Brain Building Nutrition: How Dietary Fats and Oils Affect Mental, Physical and Emotional Intelligence, 2001:Frog Ltd. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, Ca.
2. Schmidt, M.A., op.cit.
3. Vojdani, A. & Pangborn, J. Binding of Infectious Agents, Toxic Chemicals, and Dietary
Peptides to Tissue Enzymes and Lymphocyte Receptors and Consequent Immune
Response in Autism, Research Presentation at Defeat Autism Now Conference, October
4. Carmichael, M. Stronger, Faster, Smarter, Newsweek, March 26, 2007.
5. Stanley, et.al. Aerobic Exercise Training Increases Brain Volume in Aging Humans,
The New Journal of Gerontology Series: A Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences,
6. Weuve, J. et.al. Physical activity, including walking, and cognitive function in older
Women, JAMA, September 22, 2004; 392(12):1454-1461.
1. Amen,D.G. Change Your Brain Change Your Life, 1998: Random House, N.Y.
2. Braverman, E.R. The Edge Effect, 2004: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. N.Y.
3. Lyon, M.R. Is Your Child’s Brain Starving, 2002, Mind Publishing, Inc. Toronto, Canada