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What is the Biochemical Approach to Autism?

What is the Biochemical Approach to Autism?

Autism is a complex neurobiological disorder that is usually diagnosed in early childhood and typically persists into adulthood. Every child has a unique presentation. Core features include difficulties with social communication and interaction (which can vary significantly in severity), but children frequently have other (co-morbid) conditions, such as digestive and sleep issues, which are not core features of autism.

The mainstream approach to autism primarily involves specialist educational and behavioural programmes that focus on communication, social interaction, imaginative play, and academic skills.

A complementary approach is known as the biomedical approach. This typically refers to a group of interventions which are designed to stop, or at least reduce, the effect of biomedical problems (such as gastrointestinal abnormalities, immune dysfunctions, detoxification abnormalities, and/or nutritional deficiencies or imbalances). Core biomedical interventions include special diets and nutritional supplements, and many practitioners will use biochemical or functional tests to measure biomarkers in urine or blood.

There is a lot of scepticism about this approach from healthcare and other professionals. For example, they may say that there is no evidence that a special diet will help. The accounts of thousands of parents who have successfully used a biomedical approach does not count as evidence, because within mainstream medicine, the only type of evidence which actually counts as evidence are properly conducted scientific studies which pit one approach against another in a controlled setting (a randomised controlled trial or RCT). It would also be true to say that there is absolutely no evidence that (for example) a special diet doesn’t work – the trials have not been conducted. In autism research there are significant ethical hurdles and funding issues. Medical research is largely funded by commercial pharmaceutical interests with the aim of creating a patentable drug treatment which can be sold for profit (to fund the cost of the research and provide shareholder value). Drug treatments have not been found to be particularly successful in autism, probably due to the homogeneous nature of the condition (there are a multitude of probable causes and each individual is so unique), so there is no real value to the investor in drug research.

If you are considering taking a biomedical approach to autism, then a quick Google search will reveal an absolute mass of information, books, testimonials, videos and products for you to navigate which is quite frankly bewildering. Again, because of the heterogeneous nature of autism, there isn’t a clear pathway to follow. So, where do you start, and whom do you trust? You might read some apparently ‘miracle’ success stories where a parent has used a single intervention, but for the majority of cases, progress is typically slow and steady, halting at times and usually requires a multi-pronged approach. We would always recommend a biomedical approach alongside educational and behavioural programmes.

The first thing to really appreciate is that there is no one-size-fits-all diet that will be right for every child – and therein lies the complication. The most important consideration of course is that no harm comes to the child. And that is why working with an appropriately trained, qualified and experienced practitioner who can work with you and your child to develop an individualised programme is key.

However, there are some things that you can do yourself at home which can only be helpful. Children with ASD are usually very sensitive individuals, and often have food or sensory issues, so the most important piece of advice is to make changes very slowly and gradually, and one at a time.

Reduce or eliminate sugar: begin by cutting out the obvious sugar. Don’t be tempted by alternative sweeteners. Dilute juices gradually until they are water. Reduce the amount of carbohydrate (rice, pasta, bread, potato etc) to be about a quarter of the meal or snack. Reduce the sugar effect of the carbohydrate by increasing the amount of protein, fat and fibre that the meal or snack contains. For example, add olive oil, fish and vegetables to pasta.

Eat unprocessed food: try to move to real food so that you can control the ingredients. For example, make the switch from a store-bought smoothie, by gradually adding increasing amounts of a home-made version. Ice-cube trays of blended fruit, seeds, coconut milk can help with the practicalities of this gradual transition.

Pollution: avoid outdoor and indoor pollution as much as possible. Avoid heavy traffic and busy roads. Keep indoor pollution to a minimum – ditch the deodorisers, fragrant fabric softeners, air fresheners etc. If you need a fragrance in the home, use pure essential oils such as lavender and chamomile.

Support healthy immunity: don’t over-sanitise – some level of exposure to germs helps the normal functioning of the immune system. Many children will benefit from probiotic supplementation, especially if they have had antibiotics.

Gluten and casein-free diets are actively discouraged by the NHS and other authorities as being ineffective and potentially dangerous. However, the vast majority of parents report them to be incredibly effective. Making such dramatic changes to a child’s diet should be done only with the appropriate supervision.

At the Brain Bio Centre, we are passionate about helping parents and carers to support their children (and adults) with autism to have the best possible outcomes and quality of life. Please contact us to find out how we can help you.

Written by Deborah Colson, MSc DipION
Deborah has 13 years experience working as a nutritional therapist at Food for the Brain’s not for profit clinic, the Brain Bio Centre.

Glutathione: the Master Antioxidant and its Role in Brain Health

Glutathione: the Master Antioxidant and its Role in Brain Health

Glutathione has been labelled as the mother of all antioxidants and the ultimate free radical quencher and detoxifier. We produce this molecule endogenously, primarily in the liver, using the precursor amino acids cysteine, glutamine and glycine, which come from the food that we eat. Research shows that as we increase in age our levels of glutathione gradually go down and deficiency of this antioxidant has been associated with Alzheimer’s and depression, as well as other chronic illnesses such as cancer

Glutathione’s role in the body is multifactorial; it helps to regulate and regenerate immune cells, as well as playing a vital role in cellular respiration, detoxification and provides a defence against oxidative stress. It is a coenzyme that plays a role in various enzymatic reactions and is unique in that it contains sulfur chemical groups, which act like traps for harmful free radicals and toxins, essentially sticking to them and carrying them into bile and into the stool to be excreted from the body. When talking about glutathione in relation to the brain, it is important to address that the brain is especially sensitive to oxidative damage. One of the reasons for this is that it requires a large amount of oxygen to function normally, which as a consequence leads to a large production of free radicals, which is why our antioxidant status is vital in mental health and neurological conditions. 

There are many factors that can contribute to a deficiency in glutathione, which diminishes our defences against toxins and oxidative stress. Research shows that poor diets that are high in refined sugars, processed foods, refined vegetable oils, low in antioxidants and essential nutrients, as well as other factors like exposure to pollutants, stress, frequent infections and a high intake of medications, can all negatively impact our glutathione levels. Glutathione is normally recycled and continuously reused in the body, however, when our toxic load becomes heavier than we can manage, this process can become depleted. Some medical professionals suggest that this may be because we have not evolved to function optimally yet in the environment most of us live in today. Our diets, which are unfortunately made up of nutrient-depleted foods, as well as exposure to high levels of pollution and other sources of environmental toxins, prevent the glutathione antioxidant system from working.

In light of the recently published research showing how 5 fruit and veg portions a day may actually not be enough to keep us healthy, it might be worth trying to follow the recommendations of 10-a-day. At Food for the Brain, we endorse a diet that is richer in vegetables over fruit, as well as a healthy intake of essential fatty acids, lean proteins and wholegrains. This is due to research showing how a diet that is low in glycaemic load can help stabilise blood sugar levels and therefore help optimise brain function. Whilst fruit is indeed healthy and offers a wide range of key micronutrients, due its high levels of natural sugars, it is important that this is balanced with other foods such as those from the food groups listed above.

So what can we do to help optimise our glutathione levels? Aside from eating a healthy diet, there is a family of vegetables that have been indicated to be particularly helpful in encouraging optimal levels of glutathione. This is the cruciferous group of vegetables, which contain high levels of sulforaphane, a phytochemical that encourages the production of glutathione. For example, in a study at John Hopkins University, forty boys and young men, ages 13 to 27, with moderate to severe autism, were treated for 18 weeks with a daily dose of either a placebo or sulforaphane, a plant chemical derived from broccoli sprouts. The study found that many of those taking sulforaphane substantially improved in several aspects of their behavior during treatment. Apart from broccoli, other cruciferous vegetables include cabbage, artichoke, kale, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, kohlrabi, pak choy, turnips, watercress and rocket.Other studies have shown how sulforaphane can have antidepressant effects due to its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective activity. 

In addition, increasing your intake of the mineral selenium is also a key factor in improving glutathione status. It is a structural component of glutathione and a co-factor of the antioxidant enzyme glutathione peroxidase. This mineral is commonly low in the typical Western diet that is deficient in good quality organ meats, seafood and nuts such as Brazil nuts, which are the richest source of selenium. Selenium depletion in farmed soils where our vegetables are grown and animals pasture can also play a factor in this.  Another simple and accessible way of increasing glutathione production is by having a good night’s sleep. Studies have shown how sleep deprivation can increase oxidative stress in the brain and deplete glutathione levels. 

Taking these steps can help you optimise your brain function and optimal health. At Food for the Brain, we are committed to empowering people to take charge of their own mental health through positive dietary and lifestyle recommendations. Increasing research is showing just how important it is to consider nutrition as a key player in our mental wellbeing, which is why our message is so important. Help us continue our work, check out our fundraising challenge below.

November for Men’s Mental Health

November for Men’s Mental Health

In the past few years, November has been marked by a sudden rise in an unusual amount of men embracing their moustaches as they campaign for men’s health throughout the month. Since 2003, November has been coined ‘Movember’ by the Movember Foundation, originally a campaign that was launched to tackle issues related to prostate cancer and now raising awareness and funds for the biggest issues in men’s health, one of which is mental health and suicide prevention. The statistics related to men’s mental health are alarming and here at Food for the Brain, we feel that it is important to draw some attention to them. According to the latest figures, 3 out of 4 suicides are men and it is the leading cause of death in England and Wales for men aged between 20 and 34 years. This may be of no surprise considering that men are less likely to access psychological therapies than women; only 36% of referrals to IAPT (Increasing Access to Psychological Therapies) are men. In addition, men have measurably lower access to the social support of friends, relatives and community. This indicates that there may be a serious epidemic of men that have not been diagnosed, in comparison to women.

Mental health is tough to talk about. However, many people don’t realise that a diagnosis does not mean you have to live with it for the rest of your life. Recovery is possible. At Food for the Brain, it is our mission to generate awareness about how nutrition and lifestyle changes can make a big difference to mental health. Whilst there may not be obvious biochemical differences between mental health in women and men, statistics show how men are more at risk of suffering from mental health issues caused by addiction to alcohol or drugs, which is an area that diet and nutritional therapy can play a significant role in, supporting recovery and potentially reducing the risk of relapse. Recent figures show that men are nearly three times more likely than women to become alcohol dependent, are three times as likely to report frequent drug use than women and more than two thirds of drug-related deaths occur in men.

Nutritional therapy can be highly effective in supporting mental wellbeing by preventing cravings for substances such as alcohol and illicit drugs through optimising brain health. The brain uses up more energy than any other organ in our body. It consumes about 20% of the body’s energy requirements and therefore requires a consistent supply of fuel. Even when we may not appear to be using it, such as when we’re sleeping, there is still a high baseline consumption of glucose, which is our body’s main source of fuel. Two thirds of the brain’s energy are used to help neurons, our brain cells, send signals, but the remaining third is used for basic housekeeping, or in scientific terms cell-health maintenance. When our brains are healthy, the rest of our body is healthy, plus we also feel great. Those with mental health conditions and/or addictions often have issues with blood glucose dysregulation, meaning the brain is getting an inconsistent supply of energy. According to NICE, depression is the most common psychiatric disorder witnessed in the diabetes community and people with diabetes are 3 times more likely to have depression than those that don’t. This indicates that blood sugar control is important when treating depression and other mental health conditions.

A key way to prevent this is by eating foods that are low in glycemic load, meaning they have little impact on your blood sugar levels. Foods that are high in glycemic load include refined grains such as white bread, pastries, baked goods, white rice, desserts, sweets, chocolates, fizzy drinks, alcohol and fruit juices. These are important to avoid and replace with a diet that is rich in vegetables, whole grains such as wholemeal bread and brown rice, legumes, whole fruits, healthy fats like olive oil, nuts and seeds, and finally good quality protein from eggs, chicken, fish and some red meat, all of which have little impact on our blood sugar levels and provide sustainable sources of energy for the brain and body.

Another key area to look at is increasing intake of Omega 3. This important nutrient is an essential fatty acid that we need to include in our diets as we cannot make it in our body. Omega 3 plays an important role in supporting nerve conductivity in the brain and for regulating inflammation. Depression is now being considered by western medicine as a symptom of chronic and systemic inflammation, so much so that anti-inflammatory drugs commonly used for rheumatoid arthritis are now being used successfully in trials to treat depression. Oily fish such as sardines, mackerel, anchovies and herring are great sources of Omega 3, however, it can also be found in some nuts and seeds such as flaxseeds, walnuts and chia seeds.

Men have different nutritional requirements than women and have a higher metabolic demand.Therefore, it’s important that foods containing empty calories, i.e. those poor in nutritional value, are replaced with healthier alternatives. Making small changes such as swapping foods that are high in sugar, like those listed above, for a diet that gives you more nourishing sources of energy, can be highly effective in stabilising mood and supporting mental wellbeing.

The Effect of Mind-Body Practices on the Brain

The Effect of Mind-Body Practices on the Brain

We have long known and believed in the saying ‘you are what you eat’, however, emerging research is showing that we could also argue that ‘you are what you think’. Many of us know intuitively that thinking positively leads to better health just as thinking negatively on a consistent basis can lead to poor health, but have you ever wondered why this is the case? Stress has been labelled the 20th century disease and it’s no surprise seeing as it is one of the leading causes of work absence and is also a modifiable risk factor for some of the most serious health conditions such as heart disease and stroke. These are significant examples of how stress can cause a biological reaction in our body, which leads to ill-health and the worsening of pre-existing conditions.

Many of us suffer from extreme bouts of fatigue, have problems sleeping and are prone to frequent colds and infections. These are all signs of chronic stress, which has clearly taken its toll on our health. Our body has a sophisticated feedback mechanism, which helps us respond to stress efficiently. This is called the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis – a chemical feedback loop between glands located in the brain (hypothalamus and pituitary glands) and our adrenals, two thumb-sized glands that sit atop our kidneys, which are responsible for producing our ‘stress hormones’ – cortisol, DHEA and adrenaline (also a neurotransmitter). When we are under stress our brain perceives this, which then triggers a signal to the adrenal glands to produce cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones cause our blood pressure to increase, our heart rate to go up, blood sugar release gets stimulated and our circulation moves away from our digestive organs (as digesting food is not a priority in this moment) and shifts towards our peripheral body so that our muscles are getting the energy they need to react quickly and efficiently. This response was very useful for our paleolithic ancestors who were faced with life-threatening situations, as it gave them the means to escape and move rapidly. However, in our modern society sources of stress are no longer situations such as running away from predatory animals. Instead, our stress is linked mainly to things like meeting deadlines, being stuck in traffic, having an argument with our spouse etc. The problem is that our body does not differentiate between a seemingly minor stressor and a real life-threatening circumstance – it responds in exactly the same way, which means when we are chronically stressed, it is almost like we are continuously running away from a predatory animal all the time.

Depending on the source of stress, our body is actually capable of getting used to a consistent stressor over time, so that we respond better to it and our bodies don’t overwork themselves unnecessarily. However, studies are showing that the simple act of ruminating, the constant negative internal dialogue that many of us can get stuck in if we struggle with coming to terms with past experiences, can also trigger the stress response. So much so, that negative thinking can actually cause the same set of physiological functions as if it were a new, unique stressor, meaning that our body does not become used to it. This shows just how powerful our mind and its thoughts are in determining our health.

The practice of mind-body movements such as yoga and meditation have for many years been used as tools to help us relax and recalibrate from our day-to-day pressures. Science is now showing that these practices can actually cause positive changes at a cellular level, which can help to give us more resistance against stress and anxiety caused by our thought patterns. A recent systematic review published in Frontiers in Immunology on gene expression changes caused by meditation and other related practices, discusses how the stress response triggers the production of a molecule called nuclear factor kappa B (NF-kB), which activates genes to produce proteins called cytokines that cause inflammation at a cellular level. This is an effective reaction when we are faced with an acute form of stress as it can help to boost the immune system. However, when it is persistent it can lead to a higher risk of accelerated aging, psychiatric disorders and cancer. The review, which explores evidence for mind-body practices and their capacity to modulate gene expression, demonstrates how activities such as yoga and meditation are able to reverse the expression of genes that favour inflammatory pathways and instead are able to steer our genes to function in a way that supports our well being.

The practice of mindfulness is a simple form of meditation, which involves focusing your attention on internal experiences and sensations. A recent studyinvolving 60 participants with Generalised Anxiety Disorder, measured levels of anxiety and cognitive skills before and after having participated in a course of mindfulness meditation and cognitive skills training for a week. The results demonstrated how these techniques led to a significant reduction in worry and emotional vulnerability, highlighting how meditation can help people to disengage from emotional responses caused by rumination and therefore prevents triggering the stress response. Even more fascinating, is the area of research that is showing how mindfulness and other mind-body based practices, are also capable of having significant positive effects on the tissues and cells of our brain. It was believed for a long time that our brain was not capable of reproducing cells. However, in a study published in 2006 in Neuroreport,20 experienced practitioners of meditation and 15 participants that do not practice meditation undertook magnetic imaging resonances on their brain to assess thickness of the cerebral cortex, an area of the brain associated with attention, interoception and sensory processing. In comparison with the age and gender matched non-meditator group, the thickness of the cerebral cortex among the group of experienced meditators was significantly higher, demonstrating how meditation can lead to a higher density in gray matter within the brain.

These examples show just how effective lifestyle approaches are to improving health and wellbeing. It doesn’t necessarily have to be meditation or yoga, any activity that is relaxing and uplifts you can help to retrain the brain to disengage with the stress response, which consequently will have a beneficial effect on your health. Dancing, for example, has also been shown to be effective in increasing cognitive acuity in all ages by supporting our neural network and therefore preventing the loss of synapses, which are vital structures that are responsible for the communication between our brain cells.

There is also a significant amount of research showing how certain nutrients in our diet can enhance neurogenesis and prevent damage caused by accelerated ageing processes in the brain. For example, the DHA component of omega 3 fatty acids has been shown to play an important role in influencing the development of new brain cells in the hippocampus. Antioxidant compounds such as resveratrol, found in grapes, has been shown to prevent apoptosis in hippocampal brain cells and improve the expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor mRNA (which prompts the production of proteins associated with nerve cell survival and function) in mice with chronic fatigue. Other health-promoting compounds such as curucmin, which is found in turmeric, can play an important role in influencing genes related to growth and plasticity in the brain. Lastly, and not surprisingly, research shows thatprolonged consumption of sugar accelerated apoptosis of cells in the hippocampus, as well as increasing circulating levels of TNF-α.(Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha), which is involved in systemic inflammation and prevents neurogenesis from occurring.

It is clear that science is showing us that we have the power to take our health into our own hands by what lifestyle habits we integrate into our everyday lives, as well as what we eat. Small steps such as meditating 10 minutes a day, reducing your sugar intake and adding more vegetables to your diet can have significant effects on your health. If you’d like more information on mindfulness such as where you can find a teacher as well as learning online for those that do not live in the UK, the Mental Health Foundation offers a great resource here: https://bemindful.co.uk/. If you’re more interested in ways you can improve your diet to enhance your cognitive health, you can find a professional at BANT (British Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy) or alternatively please feel free to contact us at our clinic, the Brain Bio Centre, at info@brainbiocentre.com.

Addiction – Nutrition’s Role in Recovery

Addiction – Nutrition’s Role in Recovery

According to the charity Action on Addiction, one in three of us are addicted to something, whether it be a substance such as caffeine, cocaine or alcohol, or whether it is being in the grips of a particular habit that is preventing someone from living their lives in the way in which they’d like; addiction encompasses a wide range of behaviours and dependencies and can range from substance misuse to an addiction to gambling, shopping or food. In the US, research carried out over a 12 month period, demonstrated that it was quite plausible that 47% of the U.S. adult population suffers from maladaptive signs of an addictive disorder.Despite the variations of addictions and the behaviours that are entailed, it is increasingly recognised that common underlying chemical imbalances related to neurotransmitter balance can be found amongst all of them. 

The addicted brain has essentially become dependent on a substance or habit to produce feel-good chemicals; neurotransmitters that are associated to feelings of reward, pleasure, satisfaction and relief. When neurotransmitter balance in the brain is out of kilter due to either genetics, chronic stress or a poor diet, we are more susceptible to turning to substances such as alcohol or caffeine to bring us back to balance, as our brain instinctively craves what we are deficient in. In order to reach a more comfortable state, vulnerable individuals attempt to continuously manipulate their neurobiological circuitry by repeatedly using substances such as a drug or engaging in a behaviour such as gambling. The problem with this is that these are often substances or habits that can leave us in a vicious circle of needing more to produce the same effect. 

A simple way of describing this is with caffeine, for example. A large majority of us struggle to start our day without our first cup of coffee in the morning. This is often related to having a poor circadian rhythm, whereby cortisol (our stress hormone, that helps us wake up), which is normally supposed to peak in the morning, is abnormally low. Caffeine helps to stimulate the release of cortisol, adrenaline and the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. All together, the effect helps to enliven, motivate and stimulate us to get up and go. As our brain strives to seek balance after drinking a cup of coffee, or any other substance that’s mood-altering, the receptors to the neurotransmitters that have been stimulated consequently dampen, in order to avoid over-saturating our brain. This means that we begin to build tolerance and therefore need increasing amounts of the chosen substance to produce the same rewarding, elating effects. Eventually, this can lead us to being ‘reward deficient’, whereby our brain has become dependent on a substance or a habit to produce neurochemicals that lead to the ‘reward’ that it is seeking, which are in most cases feelings of pleasure, stimulation and satisfaction. 

Giving up an addiction can be incredibly difficult, as the dependency is hardwired into the limbic system, an area of the brain that predates the cortex and is largely concerned with meeting our basic needs and survival, whereas the cerebral cortex is associated with higher functions such as thinking, perceiving, producing and understanding language. In addiction, obtaining the substance or engaging in a behaviour is a matter of survival to the limbic part of the brain. The symptoms caused by abstinence, when the addictive substance or habit is removed, can be debilitating and can include anxiety, fatigue, hypersensitivity to stress or pain, problems sleeping and extreme mood swings. These symptoms can continue for long periods of time and can therefore be a negative influence in relapse. 

Nutrition, alongside lifestyle changes such as exercise, improved sleep patterns and relieving stress, can play an essential role in helping to support the brain back to health. Improving these areas can help to to attenuate cravings by addressing and supporting certain biochemical factors that can influence someone’s chances of relapsing. 

Blood Sugar Balance 

Eating a diet low in glycemic load can be an effective nutrition tool in reducing cravings and supporting brain and body health. This means eating foods that will have as little impact on blood sugar levels as possible, helping to keep them stabilised, which can have a positive impact on stress levels. This is due to the intimate relationship between blood sugar and cortisol and adrenaline, our stress hormones. When we eat foods high in glycemic load, sugar is released too quickly into our blood and insulin levels peak in order to rapidly remove the sugar from the blood into our cells. The problem with this we are then left with lower than necessary blood sugar levels, which can lead to symptoms such as fatigue, mood swings, irritability, headaches and dizziness. Cortisol and adrenaline release are also stimulated, as it helps to mobilise glucose from storage into the blood for use as quick energy. As you can see, these kinds of symptoms are not so different from abstinence symptoms, which can leave us vulnerable to relapse.

In order to eat a low glycemic load diet, it is important to eat foods that will release sugar slowly from food. Switching from refined grains to wholemeal is important, as well as avoiding processed foods such as biscuits, cakes, fizzy drinks, confectionary and even seemingly healthy foods such as fruit juices. These do not provide the body with sustainable sources of energy, as blood sugar levels rise and fall rapidly, leaving us to be susceptible to cravings.

In addition to this, eating good sources of protein, fat and fibre with every meal can also be very effective in stabilising our blood sugar levels and therefore helping to avoid the symptoms associated with blood sugar crashes. Lean meats, oily fish, pulses and nuts and seeds and avocados are all examples of healthy sources of protein and fat.

Gut Health

By increasing our fibre content through wholemeal sources of grains, as well as increasing our intake of vegetables, we will not only help support our blood sugar levels but we will also be providing our gut bacteria with the fuel they need to help them flourish. Latest research is showing just how important gut bacteria composition is for our mental health. It has been discovered that bacteria not only helps to support our immune system, but it also plays an essential role in protecting the nerve cells in our gut and produces short chain fatty acids, which all together help support communication to the brain and vice versa, having a direct impact on our neurotransmitters.

Essential Fats 

The essential fatty acid, Omega 3, can be incredibly therapeutic in helping to optimise the function of our brain cells. Omega 3 is composed of two elements, EPA and DHA, which play an important role in regulating inflammatory responses as well as nourishing the membrane of our cells. This is the part of our cells that is involved in receiving and transmitting neurotransmitter signals, as well as controlling nutrient intake and waste removal. The best sources of omega 3 are small oily fish such as sardines, anchovies, mackerel and herring. Vegetarian sources include walnuts, flaxseeds and hemp seeds. It may seem obvious, but eating a diet that is rich in these foods, as well as a high intake of vegetables, really can positively alter brain activity, to help take the edge off of abstinence symptoms and give someone a better chance of long-term recovery.

Nutritional Therapy/Supplements 

Nutrients provide the building blocks for neurotransmitters, as well as helping to support the cells in our brain and their energy-producing pathways. Depending on the substance or habit to which someone is addicted, supplementing with the right nutrients to address certain imbalances can be incredibly effective in improving abstinence symptoms, without causing side effects or dependency on medication.

For example, amino acid therapy, whereby specific amino acids are supplemented to help restore normal brain chemistry, has been shown to be an effective way of helping the brain to recover from its ‘reward deficiency’ and rebuild its own inbuilt mechanism for producing a natural high. Every cell in our body is dependent on amino acids, which are the components that make up proteins, to reproduce and grow. Amino acid therapy has shown to help increase receptor sensitivity to neurotransmitters such as GABA, serotonin and dopamine, as well as improve glucose metabolism, which also helps to support energy-production pathways in the cells. The process of figuring out the right combination of amino acids is a complicated one, however. This is why it is important to work with a specialist in this area that is able to assess the symptoms and undergo test analysis to build the right nutrition and supplement programme for an individual.

If you’re interested in working with a professional practitioner in this area that can guide you through a tailor-made nutritional programme to suit your needs, you can search online via BANT (British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy). Our not-for-profit nutrition clinic the Brain Bio Centre, specialises in mental health and has been supporting people with mental health, neurological and cognitive conditions for over 13 years. Get in touch here to speak to our team to discuss the best options for you.

Our Top Tips on Nutrition for Mental Health

Our Top Tips on Nutrition for Mental Health

We are coming towards the end of Mental Health Awareness Week (8th -14th May), which this year is about encouraging the nation to have a conversation about why so many of us aren’t thriving with good mental health. Rather than looking at good mental health as simply the absence of a mental health disorder, the theme aims to ignite discussions and share stories around what contributes to mental wellbeing, and what we can be doing in our everyday lives and as a nation to support our happiness, as well as others.

At Food for the Brain, our aim is to raise awareness about the importance of dietary and lifestyle factors in mental health. We believe that good nutrition and the activities we engage with in our everyday lives can have an enormously positive effect, not just on one’s mental health but also their overall physical health, which are both closely related. There are a few key, simple and very practical steps anyone can start taking now, which we believe can have a positive influence on anyone suffering with poor mental health or for anyone who simply wants to optimise their brain health.

Increase your intake of vegetables and fruit:

Vegetables and fruit contain high amounts of nutrients, as well as antioxidants, which are vital for helping us fight against free radical damage, caused by things like environmental pollution, smoking, stress and processed food. These highly reactive molecules wreak havoc in our system if we don’t have our own internal defense system in good shape, which is supported by antioxidants. Nutrients such as vitamin C, vitamin E, Zinc and Selenium are just a few of the incredibly important vitamins and minerals we need that perform antioxidant activities in our body. In order to prevent premature ageing and optimise cognitive health, it is therefore important to get these nutrients in your diet, through foods such as vegetables and fruit.

Healthy fats are key:

The brain is nearly 60% fat and the type of fat that we eat directly influences the health of the cells in our brain and the rest of our body. Our cell membranes, the outside lining of our cells, are made up of phospholipids, which are fats that hold the membrane structure together and support cell to cell communication, as well as the intake of vital nutrients and excretion of waste. When we eat fats from healthy sources such as nuts and seeds, oily fish and olive oil, we encourage the cell membrane to work optimally. However, when we eat fats that have been damaged, such as in processed foods due to hydrogenation or oils that have been heated at high temperatures, we risk the health of our cell membrane, which is vital for neurotransmitter signalling. Make sure you avoid cooking with refined vegetable oils, as well as avoiding processed food that inevitably contain unhealthy fats. Increase your intake of fats from healthy sources such as in oily fish such as sardines, mackerel and salmon, nuts and seeds, eggs, olive oil and avocado.

Optimise Gut Bacteria:

Latest exciting research is showing just how important our gut bacteria is for optimising brain function. The lining of our gut houses a complex network of neurons, more so than our spinal cord and peripheral nervous system. The bacteria that live in our gut protect this lining and help facilitate communication with neurons and even synthesise neurotransmitters, which are transmitted via nerve fibres to our brain. It is therefore crucial that we optimise our gut bacteria by eating foods rich in fibre, such as in vegetables and whole grains, to provide them with fuel to flourish, as well as eating fermented foods, which are rich in probiotics, or in other words friendly bacteria. These are traditional foods that we used to have a lot in our diet in the past and are now re-appearing in shops and supermarkets due to new food trends. Look out for foods such as sauerkraut, pickled vegetables and other products such as kefir. Make sure the vegetables are raw and there is no added sugar or salt in the jars.

Avoid processed and refined foods:

This may seem like an obvious one, but perhaps if you knew why these foods are so bad for your brain, you might be more inclined to say no next time you are tempted by burger and fries at a fast food restaurant. As mentioned previously, these foods often contain hydrogenated fats as well as being cooked in refined vegetable oils such as sunflower oil. These types of oils are highly sensitive to heat and light, meaning that they damage and become oxidised at exposure to high temperatures such as in cooking methods like frying. When we eat these fats they can cause free radical damage to our cells, causing premature ageing and potentially in the long term, can affect our brain function and mental health. Refined grains such as white flour, white rice and white bread are poor in nutrient content and can cause rapid spikes our blood sugar levels rapidly, instead of releasing energy from food gradually, which is what our brain needs to function properly. Switch refined grains to whole-grains such as brown bread, rice and pasta. These contain the outer husk as well as the germ in the middle of the grain, which not only provides fibre, but also essential vitamins and fatty acids that help release sugar slowly from food, offering more sustainable sources of energy.

Get enough sleep:

You may think that your brain is not active at night. However, there are certain parts of your brain that light up more at night than during the day. Researchers have discovered that our brain has its own filtering system, that clears the cells from toxic proteins throughout the night, helping to prevent diseases such as Alzheimer’s. This is called the glymphatic system, our brain’s very own version of the lymphatic system, which does the same but throughout the rest of our body. Our body quickly uses up stores of nutrients such as vitamin c, zinc and magnesium when we are lacking in sleep, that can lead to low levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and melatonin, which are vital for our mental health. Get at least 7 hours of uninterrupted sleep a night to help optimise your brain function and energy levels throughout the day.

Avoid too much caffeine and alcohol:

The jury is still out on the pro’s and con’s of caffeine. Some research suggests the antioxidant benefits of coffee are beneficial to our health, but other studies have also shown how too much caffeine-containing drinks such as coffee and others like energy drinks, can be detrimental to our brain and overall health. Drinking caffeine stimulates the production of our stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. These both lead to an increase in our blood sugar levels, as our body believes that we are getting ready for action-filled activities where our muscles need a quick supply of glucose, our primary energy source. However, this is often followed by a blood sugar crash, which leave us feeling fatigued and irritable, where we begin to crave sugary foods or more caffeine to wake us up and re-energise us. Our pancreas has the job of releasing insulin to transfer the glucose in our blood into our cells, however, when we are constantly spiking our blood sugar levels with caffeine, refined/processed foods and alcohol, our cells begin to lose our sensitivity to insulin, meaning that the glucose does not get transported properly into our cells. This means that our brain won’t be getting the energy it needs and we run the risk of developing insulin resistance, which can over time lead to Type Two Diabetes. Alcohol is a pure form of sugar, so drinking too much of it can also lead to problems with blood sugar regulation, as well as interfering with our sleep. Alcohol prevents us from entering REM sleep, which is necessary for helping our cells to regenerate and store memory efficiently. 

It can be easy to become dependent on alcohol and caffeine as they both have a significant effect on our brain chemistry by helping stimulate neurotransmitters such as dopamine and depressing other neurotransmitters such as glutamate. Over time, we can become more and more dependent on either caffeine to help wake us up or alcohol to help wind down after a stressful day at work. This is because our brain naturally wants to regain balance after having too many stimulants and depressants such as coffee and wine, and consequently slows down our own natural neurotransmitter reserves, meaning that you need increasing amount of these drinks to help you reach the same effect. In order to prevent this from happening, try to have these in moderation, such as coffee no more than twice a day and small amounts of alcohol on the weekend instead of throughout the week. 

Taking these steps are much easier than you think and you don’t need to do all of them all at once. For example, you could just start with increasing your intake of vegetables and fruit and then tackle the next step when you feel ready. It is important not to underestimate just how powerful integrating these rules into your everyday life can be. Have a go and keep us posted! Email us at info@brainbiocentre.com 

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