Early Diagnosis of Alzheimer’s; Amyloid Protein vs Homocysteine Testing

Early Diagnosis of Alzheimer’s; Amyloid Protein vs Homocysteine Testing

Worldwide 46.8 million people have dementia and in the UK, 1 in 14 people over 65 have Alzheimer’s, the most prevalent form of dementia; and increasingly dementia sufferers are also struggling with other chronic conditions, such as diabetes and depression. Research on new strategies for earlier diagnosis is among the most active areas in Alzheimer’s science, as the majority of cases are diagnosed when irreversible brain damage or mental decline has already occurred. 

The amyloid protein test used for earlier diagnosis

new study released in August 2019 found that a blood test to measure amyloid beta, a protein found in the brain that is involved in the pathophysiology of Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline, is 94% accurate in identifying the developments of Alzheimer’s disease earlier, when in combination with age and genetics (testing positive for the APOE4 gene) as risk factors. Whilst this is a positive development for future considerations in treating Alzheimer’s, there has been no successful amyloid-lowering drug trial to date. In addition, it is well-known that the damaging clumps of amyloid protein can begin to develop and lead to brain atrophy decades before an individual even begins to experience symptoms of memory loss and cognitive function, so unless testing is given earlier on in life as a preventative measure, an amyloid-lowering drug when the damage has already been caused may not be very effective. 

To date, the majority of research into the treatment of Alzheimer’s has been focused on the “amyloid hypothesis”. In 2018 alone, the US National Institutes of Health spent $1.9 billion on Alzheimer’s research. However, according to a study carried out last year, there has been a 99% failure rate in the development of drugs that target this disease. Questions about the reliability of the amyloid protein hypothesis are being posed by scientists, after various studies discovering how amyloid plaques actually function as a type of sticky defence against bacterial invasion, lead to a different hypothesis. In one significant study, where mice that were genetically engineered to make Alzheimer’s proteins had bacteria injected into their brains, researchers found that amyloid plaques engulfed bacterial cells overnight, suggesting a protective mechanism. 

Why we cannot ignore the link between high homocysteine levels and Alzheimer’s 

According to a Consensus Statement released by an international panel of experts on dementia, research has shown, time and time again, that having high homocysteine (Hcy) levels, and low folic acid and B12 levels in the blood correlate with an increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease. An earlier review written by Professor David Smith in 2008, highlighted that there are a total of ‘seventy-seven cross-sectional studies on more than 34,000 subjects and 33 prospective studies on more than 12,000 subjects’…that…‘have shown associations between cognitive deficit or dementia and homocysteine and/or B vitamins.’

In a meta-analysis published in 2014 by BMC Public Health, raised homocysteine was considered to be one of the three strongest risk factors, along with low education and decreased physical activity. In addition, two further trials have clearly shown that lowering homocysteine, through the supplementation of B vitamins, reduced age-related cognitive decline in normal ageing and also slowed down both brain atrophy and cognitive decline in people with Mild Cognitive Impairment. In one of the studies, 270 people over 70 with Mild Cognitive Impairment were recruited to trial the efficacy of B vitamins to prevent the progression of Alzheimer’s. MRI scans were done at recruitment and half the participants were given high doses of three B vitamins (B6, B9 and B12), half took a placebo tablet. After 2 years, participants were scanned again and scientists found that the rate of brain atrophy in those treated with the B vitamins was on average 30% slower than those taking placebo. In addition, in those that had the highest homocysteine levels at baseline, the effect of B vitamin treatment was even more potent, helping to slow down brain atrophy by 53%. This result fits all the criteria for a disease-modifying treatmentand so is especially important.

There is, therefore, ample evidence to propose that lowering homocysteine by giving appropriate supplemental levels of homocysteine lowering nutrients, including B6, B12 and folic acid, would reduce risk. However, last year, in a commission published by the Lancet, 9 modifiable risk factors were outlined, clearly excluding homocysteine: 

Mid-life hearing loss – responsible for 9% of the risk

Failing to complete secondary education – 8%

Smoking – 5%

Failing to seek early treatment for depression – 4%

Physical inactivity – 3%

Social isolation – 2%

High blood pressure – 2%

Obesity – 1%

Type 2 diabetes – 1%

Ignoring homocysteine is surprising, since a meta-analysis from the National Institute of Aging estimated that about 22% of Alzheimer’s disease may be caused by raised levels of homocysteine. It’s about time health authorities like the NHS took into account the evidence concerning the significance of homocysteine in the pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s. Integrating homocysteine testing and inexpensive B vitamin-based treatment into the heart of mainstream health strategies on Alzheimer’s could potentially play a vital role in the prevention of dementia, if caught early enough. Every 3 seconds, someone in the world develops dementia and the International Alzheimer’s Society estimates that by 2050 there will be 131.5 million people living with this disease. This is not something we can ignore.

Food Intolerance, the Gut – Brain Axis and Mental Health

Food Intolerance, the Gut – Brain Axis and Mental Health


We recently held an informative event in London with Dr Gill Hart, a biochemist and expert in the field of food intolerances and their global effect on health and we wanted to share some of the highlights of what Dr Hart covered. Based on some of her recent research (1), the talk offered some interesting insights into how food intolerances may have a role to play in our mental health. It honed in on the differences between food allergies and food intolerances within our immune system; some of the ways that our immune system, gut and brain are believed to influence each other, and how food intolerances, therefore, can play a role in mental health symptoms. She also spoke about how to go about testing and managing these intolerances through elimination diet strategies.

The ‘Brain-Gut Axis’ is a term used to describe the two-way communication system between our digestive tract and the brain. A growing body of research into this axis demonstrates how much influence the gut can have over the brain and vice versa (1). When we speak about reactions to foods, we most commonly understand them as immediate and often dangerous allergic responses, such as the constriction of the throat and trouble breathing, or dizziness and fainting. It is usually easy to pinpoint the food that causes these reactions because of the immediate immune system response, caused by a type of immune cell known as IgE antibodies. In contrast to this, food intolerances are mediated by IgG antibodies and these reactions can take up to 48 hours to have an effect. Symptoms related to IgG reactions can often be manifested as chronic issues like joint ache, IBS and depression or anxiety, which are often overlooked and not associated with what we eat.

Dr Hart explained how communication between the gut and the brain is controlled via our immune system, our endocrine system (hormones) and our central nervous system, which are all under the influence of the bacteria in our gut. The types and amount of these bacteria, known as our gut microbiome, can be directly impacted by factors such as diet, stress, pollution and medications (2) and the composition of the microbiome is also understood to affect one’s susceptibility to food sensitivities and intolerances (3).  

To understand further about how food intolerances can impact our mental health, it is important to explain the relationship between our gut microbiome, the immune system and our brain in a little more detail. The walls of our digestive tract provide a barrier between what we eat and the rest of our body and an unhealthy gut microbiome can lead to increased levels of inflammation, leaving the walls vulnerable to structural damage (4). Our intestinal wall is composed of cell junctions that prevent bacteria and large food molecules from entering the bloodstream, however, if these become damaged, proteins from foods that should not be circulating in our bloodstream can enter and an immune response is mounted as a reaction. This response is mediated by IgG, an antibody, that helps to protect against bacterial and viral infections as well as food antigens and is the most abundant immune cell in the body. Whilst food antigens are usually quickly cleared by an intelligent system called the reticuloendothelial system, with structural damage and a poor gut microbiome, this immune response can keep reoccurring. It is suggested that a chronic immune response such as this can have a negative impact on the brain, damaging its own structural barrier, called the Blood Brain Barrier (5). 

The Blood Brain Barrier (BBB) is similar in structure to the intestinal barrier (6) and is usually highly selective, allowing certain required metabolic products such as short chain fatty acids and amino acids to pass into the brain from our wider circulation but protecting the brain from potentially damaging components. When the BBB is compromised, unwanted translocation may occur such as allowing a bacterial invasion, which can alter the function of immune cells that are responsible for regulating inflammation. Chronic inflammation is associated with many mental and physical health problems, so it is therefore suggested that poor gut health can have a direct correlation to poor mental wellbeing, as a result of a compromised intestinal barrier and the negative impact this has on our brain’s own structural barrier (BBB) and resulting inflammation.

Large scale studies have shown the association between chronic low-grade inflammation and depression (8). For example, in a study that examined data from 14,275 people who were interviewed between 2007 and 2012, they found that people who had depression had 46% higher levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of inflammatory disease, in their blood samples (9). Studies like these are paving the way towards a new understanding of the pathology of mental health conditions and how diet and stress can alter bodily systems, such as digestive function and consequently impact mental wellbeing. Measuring IgG antibodies in food intolerance tests has been implicated as a popular strategy to tackle symptoms related to sensitivities such as IBS, joint pain, fatigue, migraines, anxiety and depression. A recent survey on 708 people commissioned by Allergy UK, demonstrated how 81% of those with elevated IgG levels, as well as psychological symptoms, reported an improvement in their condition after following a food-specific IgG elimination diet (9). Taking this all into account, health professionals and those with poor mental health may want to consider the potential role of food intolerances in mental well-being and in managing common mood-related disorders, such as depression and anxiety.

Dr Hart talked through food intolerance tests that are available through a number of well known companies, including York Test for whom she is Scientific Director. A possible strategy could be to use such testing to identify intolerances, follow an elimination protocol, temporarily removing on foods triggering an IgG response; and then work to improve your gut health to support longer term well-being. Foods that are rich in collagen and its amino acids, like glycine and proline, are great for healing connective tissue, which is what the intestines are made up of. A traditional food, rich in these amino acids, that has made its way into our kitchens again after rediscovering its therapeutic properties is bone broth. Another example of a group of traditional foods that can be used therapeutically in building digestive health, are fermented foods such as kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi. These are abundant in probiotics, which are the ‘good’ bacteria our digestive system needs to help keep a good balance and protect the intestinal barrier from pathogens, toxins and parasites. Once these foods have been introduced on an everyday basis along with eating a healthy nutrient-dense diet and the possible use of supplements to help restore balance, you may be able to reintroduce foods that were previously triggering an IgG response carefully, one at a time, whilst monitoring symptoms.

It is important that this type of approach is discussed with a qualified health professional, such as a registered nutritional therapist, to ensure it is an appropriate strategy for you, as well as to help you avoid missing out on vital nutrients, whilst eliminating certain foods. They can also provide advice on improving your longer term health, which over time may allow for foods to be reintroduced without negative symptoms occurring.

To look for a suitable therapist, please go to BANT (British Association of Nutrition and Applied Nutritional Therapy), or alternatively, our clinic the Brain Bio Centre, has a nutrition team that specialises in mental health. 

  1. https://www.yorktest.com/uploads/pdfs/mental-health-white-paper-2017.pdf
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5641835/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5222858/
  4. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/09/160907125125.htm
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4604320/
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29169241
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23818514
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29169241
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2680424/
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/articles/27337107/
  11. https://www.yorktest.com/uploads/pdfs/hardman-and-hart-5000-survey.pdf
The Building Blocks of Optimal Mental Wellbeing; How official dietary guidelines may not be enough to prevent poor mental health

The Building Blocks of Optimal Mental Wellbeing; How official dietary guidelines may not be enough to prevent poor mental health

As you are all well aware, our mission at Food for the Brain is to raise awareness about the importance of nutrition for mental health. Our monthly articles are normally geared at specific conditions, nutrients and topics under the umbrella subject of nutrition and mental health. However, this month we’d like to draw attention to the challenges we all face in ensuring we can adequately nourish our bodies and brains and the importance of us all thinking a little more about what we ‘fuel’ ourselves with. Modern food manufacturing and farming techniques are making it harder to get the nutrients we need from our food and current dietary guidelines can confuse our understanding of what we actually need to be eating. As a population that is increasingly suffering with poor mental health, many of us may need more nutritional support than we’re getting.1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year and it isn’t just an issue in this country; mental health problems constitute the largest single source of world economic burden and it is estimated that the global cost is £1.6 trillion greater than cancer, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease and heart disease on their own. In the UK, the NHS prescribed a record number of antidepressants in 2016, approximately 64.7 million, which is 108% increase from the 31 million that were dispensed in 2006. Despite the upward trend in prescribing medication for poor mental health, numbers of people suffering with anxiety and depression are continuing to increase. These statistics may also be showing how more people are accessing treatment such as antidepressants and it is clear that medication can play an important role in supporting people who are vulnerable. However, there is a growing body of research that is showing how nutrition can be a key modifiable risk factor in mental health. Currently there are big gaps in investment for research in prevention, in which nutrition would play a significant role. The majority of today’s research is focused on examining the underlying causes and treatment of mental health, however in March 2015 the independent Mental Health Taskforce brought together health and care leaders, people who use services and experts in the field to create a national strategy report to make prevention a priority for mental health titled the Five Year Forward View for Mental Health.Governments around the world have defined what are known as ‘Dietary Reference Values or Intakes’, which include figures known as either the RDA’s (Recommended Daily Allowances), for example in the US, or NRVs (Nutrient Reference Values) in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, that state the average daily level of intake sufficient to meet the nutrient requirements of nearly all (97-98%) healthy people. Many countries have also created labelling systems for packaged foods; in the UK for example we have a ‘Traffic Light System’ that gives shoppers a quick and clear reference of the nutritional value of foods. This was put in place in 2007 to help guide people in making more healthful choices to prevent the rising levels of obesity. However, whilst these guidelines have been useful to support people in understanding how processed foods can be extremely high in sugar, salt and unhealthy fats, they do not emphasise the importance of micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals. As an example, here are two traffic light representations of two different products found in a supermarket. Which one would you choose based on the colours shown?
The one with all green, right? However, despite being given ‘the green light’ for having a coke as a seemingly healthier choice, the drink has almost no nutritional value, whilst the mixed bag of nuts and raisins is packed full of micronutrients such as copper, manganese, vitamin E, B vitamins, fibre, antioxidants like resveratrol and monounsaturated fatty acids that help increase HDL, our ‘good cholesterol’.So why should we focus more on the micronutrient value of our foods rather than pay attention to the macronutrient (carbohydrates and fats) content that the traffic light system represents? Quite simply, micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, are what help our body create essential things for our health such as enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters and many other chemical processes that the body goes through to keep the body and brain healthy. For example, neurotransmitters such as serotonin depend on copper, iron and B6 to be produced and released in the brain and GABA, a neurotransmitter that helps to reduce anxiety, needs folate, B6, vitamin C and magnesium for its production. The brain is a very metabolically active organ; despite it only being 7% of the body’s weight, it can take up to 20% of the body’s metabolic needs, meaning that it is very energy hungry. This is why it is important to nourish the brain with foods that are rich in micronutrients that will provide the body with the building blocks it needs to produce neurotransmitters and keep us healthy. In addition, it is important to note that many people aren’t aware that NRV’s are given to help prevent serious illnesses like scurvy (caused by vitamin C deficiency) and rickets (caused by vitamin D deficiency), and are not necessarily representative of what you need for optimal health.It’s safe to say that the food we have access to in today’s supermarkets is significantly different to 50 years ago, with many of our food choices being driven by profit-driven food manufacturers and marketers encouraging convenience, for example, over nutrition. It wasn’t long ago that we were getting the majority of our food from natural sources such as fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, wholemeal grains and meat/fish, whereas nowadays the majority of the aisles in supermarkets are taken up with processed and pre-packaged foods. There are also serious concerns today that even our fruits and vegetables are becoming less nutrient rich, due to both a ‘dilution effect’ with modern crops being chosen for their carbohydrate yield without the proportional increases in micronutrient content. Scientists are warning how the impact of intensive farming that encourages the heavy use of fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, are having on the nutritional value of our food. In 2014, researchers at the University of Sheffield, highlighted their concerns over the lack of biodiversity and nutrient depletion in the UK’s soils, and warned that urgent action needed to be taken to reverse this depletion or else we will be facing an agricultural crisis. A landmark study, published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition in 2004, analysed nutrient content data in 43 different vegetables and fruits in 1950 to 1999. The study revealed how there has been markable declines in the protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C value in these foods over the past half century.Could the change in our dietary choices, which have been influenced by processed food markets, along with nutrient depletion in our fresh fruits and vegetables be related to the rise in in mental health problems? There are a multitude of influences in the pathology of poor mental health, however, knowing how certain nutrients play an essential role in maintaining our brain chemistry is important to take into consideration and reminds us that we need to pay more attention to the micronutrient content of food. By choosing food that is more likely to be rich in vitamins and minerals, we make sure that we are nourishing ourselves more, providing healthier amounts of these key building blocks and helping to prevent the development of poor mental health, as well as physical health.
Managing Stress and Anxiety with Nutrition

Managing Stress and Anxiety with Nutrition

 It’s safe to say that the lead up to Christmas can often be more stressful than joyful, what with the panic to buy the long list of presents, the cards we have to send before it gets too late, the turkey that should have been ordered two weeks before and the parties we are expected to attend. It’s no surprise we end up feeling frazzled at a time of the year when our body’s are more than anything craving rest. 

In 2016, stress accounted for 37% of all work related ill health cases and 45% of all working days lost due to ill health.  But how many of you are suffering in silence?  And to what level do you let your health deteriorate before you feel it’s justifiable to take time off?

Stress is part and parcel of life and in balance can actually be healthy.  It keeps us motivated, helps us get out of bed in the morning and can be a good warning sign that things aren’t working for us in our current everyday lives.  It can encourage us to make positive changes.  However, what happens when we simply can’t turn that switch off and stress turns into something chronic?

Our body has a very efficient way of dealing with stress.  We release hormones like cortisol and adrenalin, which raise our blood pressure and heart rate and shift glucose from the liver into our bloodstream ready for our muscles to use.  This is also known as the “flight or fight” response in our nervous system, the opposite to the “rest and digest”, which is associated with metabolising and assimilating the nutrients in the food we eat as well as regenerating and repairing cells.  Despite this intelligent response system, our prehistoric bodies are not used to being in a constant state of stress, which depletes our body of vital nutrients that are necessary for optimal health.  The constant elevation of cortisol, our body’s stress hormone, can lead to prolonged levels of inflammation as well as weakening of the immune system’s defences.

There are two key steps you can take right now to help manage and prevent symptoms of chronic stress:

Balance your blood sugar levels

The human brain weighs just 2% of an average body’s weight, however it is the organ that sucks up the most energy in the human body.  The brain’s preferred source of energy is glucose, a simple sugar that most of our food gets broken down into, to create a sort of energy currency in our body.  20% of the glucose travelling round our body gets directed to the brain and its functions.  Now you can imagine why our brain is so sensitive to fluctuations in our blood sugar levels.  When cortisol is released due to stress, our blood sugar levels are increased as our body prepares itself for “fight or flight”, which is why it is even more important to stabilise our blood sugar levels when we’re chronically stressed to avoid fatigue, anxiety and low mood.  Avoid refined foods like white bread, white pasta, white rice, pastries, cakes, biscuits, confectionery and fizzy drinks and replace with wholemeal bread and pasta, legumes such as lentils, chickpeas and red kidney beans and other whole grains such as quinoa, brown rice and oats.

Watch your caffeine intake

Coffee in the morning is sacred for a lot of people.  But when it feels like you can’t get up unless you have one and you begin to rely on it to get you through the day, you may have a problem.  To put it simply, caffeine exhausts the “fight or flight” response by encouraging the release of cortisol, which as mentioned previously, leads to heightened blood sugar levels.  Stick to one a day in the morning, or maybe go decaf for a while before you switch onto healthier choices such as green tea.

Increase your intake of Omega 3

Omega 3 is an essential fatty acid that is found mainly in oily fish, nuts and seeds and some green leafy veg.  It’s called an essential fatty acid because it is exactly that, essential.  Our body does not produce this type of fatty acid, which is why it is important we consume it in our diets.  Our brain is the fattiest of all the organs in the human body; nearly 60% of it is made up of fat.  Research has shown that our intake of these types of essential fatty acids can determine the integrity and performance of our brain due to the significant role they play in the health and synthesis of neurotransmitters, our brain’s messengers that determine how we feel.  Not only that, Omega 3 also has some unique and powerful anti-inflammatory properties.

When Is Raised Homocysteine Going to be Taken Seriously as a Significant Risk Factor in the Development of Alzheimer’s?

When Is Raised Homocysteine Going to be Taken Seriously as a Significant Risk Factor in the Development of Alzheimer’s?

In 2015, there were about 47 million people were living with dementia around the world. This number is projected to triple by 2050. With these kinds of figures, it’s safe to say that Dementia is the greatest global challenge for health and social care in the 21st century. In a recent commission published by the Lancet, a list of 9 modifiable risk factors were outlined:

Mid-life hearing loss – responsible for 9% of the risk
Failing to complete secondary education – 8%
Smoking – 5%
Failing to seek early treatment for depression – 4%
Physical inactivity – 3%
Social isolation – 2%
High blood pressure – 2%
Obesity – 1%
Type 2 diabetes – 1%


It’s great to see that lifestyle factors such as physical activity and social isolation are being highlighted in the report. At Food for the Brain, our Positive Action on Alzheimer’s campaign has for many years been generating awareness about the importance of keeping active and engaging in social activities to help keep the brain healthy. However, we were disappointed to see that despite the research that demonstrates raised homocysteine levels as a significant risk factor, it has not been listed and was not acknowledged in the Lancet commission. Professor David Smith, is the chair of our scientific advisory panel and a pioneer in researching the use of B vitamins to lower homocysteine and improve cognitive health. There are some key studies which he felt important to draw our readership’s attention to in support of this argument:
In a meta-analysis published in 2014 by BMC Public Health, raised homocysteine was considered to be one of the three strongest risk factors, along with low education and decreased physical activity. In addition, two further trials have clearly shown that lowering homocysteine, through the supplementation of B vitamins, reduced age-related cognitive decline in normal ageing and slowed down both brain atrophy and cognitive decline in people with Mild Cognitive Impairment

Furthermore, the Lancet Commission on Dementia, made an error in its reference to one of the key trials by VITACOG, a two-year randomised, placebo-controlled pilot trial that was developed as part of the Oxford Project to Investigate Memory and Ageing (OPTIMA) The Lancet stated that the use of B vitamins (specifically B6, folate and B12) ‘had no significant effect on global cognition’, which contradicts the findings of the paper that reported a highly significant slowing of global cognitive decline in the B vitamin treated group who has raised baseline plasma homocysteine. 

Our charity, Food for the Brain, aims to empower people to take their cognitive health into their own hands by generating awareness about the evidence that shows how a balanced diet and having healthy homocysteine levels can help arrest and prevent the development of Alzheimer’s.

References:
Dementia Prevention, Intervention and Care, The Lancet Commission, 19th July 2017

Epidemiologic studies of modifiable factors associated with cognition and dementia: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Public Health. 2014 Jun

Effect of 3-year folic acid supplementation on cognitive function in older adults in the FACIT trial: a randomised, double blind, controlled trial. Lancet 2007 Jan

Cognitive and clinical outcomes of homocysteine-lowering B-vitamin treatment in mild cognitive impairment: a randomized controlled trial. Int J Geriatr Psychiatry 2012

Homocysteine-lowering by B vitamins slows the rate of accelerated brain atrophy in mild cognitive impairment: a randomized controlled trial. PLoS One. 2010 Sep

Body Image, Food Choices and Nutritional Status; The Vicious Cycle

Body Image, Food Choices and Nutritional Status; The Vicious Cycle

This year’s theme for the Mental Health Foundation’s Mental Health Awareness Weekis Body Image, or how one thinks and feels about his or her body. Healthy body image begins with a healthy mind, and one of the key pillars of a healthy mind is through optimal nutrition for the brain. A lack of proper nutrition can propel the brain into poor function, which can then trigger negative eating habits related to an unhealthy relationship with your body.

People all around the world struggle with body image. The pressure from social media, celebrities, advertisements, magazines, and more can be intense and overwhelming. What these forms of propaganda fail to do is state the importance of true, sustainable health; they are often much more interested in selling a quick fix – the next low-fat, low-calorie gimmick to help women lose ten pounds quick or help men bulk up their muscles. No wonder that with all this information coming at us from all angles there is so much confusion around nutrition, health, and how we think and feel about our bodies. But why does this matter? What’s the big deal?

Well, most girls start experiencing body image shame at age six — a time of innocence, when their biggest concerns should be learning to read, write, make friends, and figure out the world; not thinking about what their bodies look like. During teenage years, one half of girls (one in every two) and one quarter of boys (one in every four) have tried dieting to change the shape of their body, including skipping meals and restricting foods. Body image and mental health is a vicious cycle. Unhealthy body image is a disaster for our mental health, and lack of mental health causes body image woes. The want to be slimmer, leaner, and smaller can cause eating disorders, addictions, and restrictive eating. People with these issues often are not getting enough of the essential nutrients they need to have healthy minds in the first place, which further fuels their inability to see their body as anything but a problem.

Having Optimal Nutrition Status Can Lead to Better Food Choices

Without proper nutrition as a result of restricting one’s diet to achieve a better body image, the problem is actually being further fueled. Optimal nutrition allows for a healthy self-esteem and self-image, improved decision-making process, better cognition, and ability to rationally deal with all of life’s stresses. For example, without optimal levels of vitamin B12, essential amino acids, Omega 3, and magnesium, many functions of the brain and the body would be negatively impacted, making way for all sorts of mental health issues, including a poor body image.

The Role of B12 in Brain Health

Vitamin B12 is crucial for having a healthy brain. This is because without enough B12, the body cannot make enough red blood cells to properly carry oxygen throughout the body, which is vital for creating energy. Despite the fact that the brain weighs a mere 1.5kg, which is around 2% of the body’s entire weight, it is the most energy-hungry organ in the body, so it is crucial that there is enough oxygen supply in the body through the production of healthy red blood cells.

B12 also plays an important role in protecting the nerves of the body, it does this by helping to form the myelin sheath – the outer protective layer of nerves. A lack of B12 can lead to damage to the myelin sheath, which consequently affects brain function. Symptoms of B12 deficiency include agitation, irritability, negativism, confusion, disorientation, impaired concentration and attention, as well as depression, panic disorder, psychosis, and phobias. Almost every single one of these symptoms can also be characteristics of someone with disordered eating and/or a poor body image.

Foods with high levels of B12 include organic free-range animal products, such as wild meats, sardines, trout, wild tuna, as well as organic dairy and eggs, but vegans will need to supplement as adequate levels of B12 cannot be found in non-animal sources.

How Amino Acids can Stabilise Mood

Amino acids are the building block of protein, and they are intricately involved in the production of neurotransmitters that allow brain cells to properly communicate with one another. For example, the body makes dopamine, the pleasure neurotransmitter that triggers a sense of reward and satisfaction, from the amino acid tyrosine; and it makes serotonin, the calming neurotransmitter that is in charge of generating feelings of happiness and contentment, from the amino acid tryptophan. Protein is especially important for maintaining a healthy body image because having optimal amounts of it helps to stabilise blood sugar. This not only helps to curb cravings for foods that are unhealthy, such as refined sugars and processed foods, but it also offers the body a steady stream of energy throughout the day.

Omega 3; the Building Blocks of the Brain

Omega 3 fatty acids are crucial for positive mental health. The two main components are DHA and EPA, or eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid, respectively. They are an integral part of building the cell membranes of brain cells, and an Omega-3 deficiency can result in cognitive health problems such as poor memory and slow learning. About sixty percent of your brain is made of fats;so without enough healthy fats, the brain literally starts to malfunction. Although things are slowly changing, there is still a fear of fat; there is a widely-accepted notion that eating fat makes you fat, which couldn’t be farther from the truth; to the contrary, healthy fats actually help you stay fuller longer, helping to prevent over-indulging, which can often lead to a poor body image. We need essential fatty acids to survive. By cutting out healthy, high-fat foods such as good oils (olive, coconut,) nuts (especially flax seeds, walnuts, and chia seeds,) and oily fish (mackerel, salmon, sardines, sea bass, trout,) you are depriving the brain of its building blocks.

Further support… 

Imagine a world where the right foods that are good for your brain are not only widely known and accepted but are easily accessible and are consumed widely. Where advertisements show real, unretouched people who love their imperfect bodies and inspire the masses to do the same. Where body shaming, and the idea that thin automatically equals healthy are things of the past. Where the notion that a body can be healthy at any size, as long as that body is nourished and well taken care of, is celebrated.
Are you concerned about your body image and mental health? Many people are, and it’s important to reach out for help. If you’d like some support in this area, charities such as BEATMINDand the Mental Health Foundation, offer support and advice on how to address lack of self-esteem and poor body image. Alternatively, if you’re interested in a personalised nutrition approach, please get in touch with our not-for-profit clinic, theBrain Bio Centreto find out how they can support you in improving your mental health through nutritional therapy. 

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