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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 

Autism and the Gut Microbiome

Autism and the Gut Microbiome

The gut microbiome, defined as the bacteria that colonises our digestive tract, seems to be a buzz word at the moment within the health industry, as a growing body of research is showing just how important quantity and quality of protective gut bacteria are for our health. But the most interesting recent discoveries concerning gut bacteria are how they interact with our brain, in a system that has been labelled the gut-brain axis. This axis represents a two-way relationship between the gut and the brain, whereby our bacteria help communicate messages to our brain and neurochemicals communicate from our brain to our gut. Not only have researchers found that gut bacteria are important for gut motility and nutrient absorption, but they are also finding that these 100 trillion microorganisms, that represent around 1000 different species, can actually modulate brain development and activity, as well as playing a role in conditions such as autism.

In the UK, there are over 700,000 people who are on the autism spectrum, which is a lifelong condition that can greatly impact the lives of those living with autism and their relatives. Research has continuously shown that those on the spectrum commonly have comorbidities related to digestive function, such as IBS. In a study of 1513 children of 20-60 months of age, those on the autism spectrum, compared to those that weren’t, were found to be 6 to 8 times more susceptible to experiencing symptoms of digestive discomfort such as constipation, diarrhea, flatulence and bloating. It is not yet understood why this is the case, however the research on how our gut microbiome can influence brain activity is providing the grounds for new therapeutic measures for conditions like autism. 

The composition of our gut bacteria and its diversity is often dependent on the food that we eat. Insoluble fibre such as cellulose, xylans and inulin found in foods such as vegetables and whole grains, provide fuel for our gut bacteria to flourish and ferment to create short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). These fatty acids, produced by protective bacteria, can reduce the production of proinflammatory molecules called cytokines and can enhance anti-inflammatory processes. SCFAs produced by certain strains of bacteria have also been found to be capable of producing neurotransmitters such as GABA, which is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that helps to regulate anxiety. Bacteria can also produce a set of neurotransmitters called monoamines such as dopamine, which helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centres, serotonin, our mood stabilizer, and noradrenaline, a neurotransmitter that’s involved in our fight or flight stress response. The vagus nerve, which travels from the intestine to the brain, enables neurochemicals produced by the gut bacteria to be signalled to the brain.

SCFAs produced by pathogenic bacteria, such as the Clostridial species, have on the other hand, been shown to be elevated in those with autism. Disrupted gut bacteria has been frequently associated to autism in studies showing unfavourable amounts of pathogenic bacteria in stool samples and in biopsies of children on the autism spectrum. A variety of drivers such as early weaning from breast milk to infant formula, which was related to increased fecal concentrations of SCFAs produced by pathogenic bacteria, and genetic alterations that can negatively impact how food is digested, have been shown to play a role in symptoms associated to autism. 

Research has also shown how psychosocial stress can negatively impact our gut, by altering the composition of gut bacteria and thereby increasing inflammation. This is further evidence for the two-way relationship that exists between the brain and the gut, whereby externally-perceived stress can have a direct influence on the health of our digestive tract. A study measuring lactic acid bacteria (protective bacteria) in college students undergoing the stress of final examinations, found a significant decrease in this type of bacteria after the examination. In addition, studies observing the behaviour of bacteria-free mice, showed a wide range of deficits in brain and gut biochemistry, social behaviour and stress responses compared to mice inoculated with gut bacteria, again giving strong evidence for the role of gut bacteria in modulating brain activity. 

In children with autism, the presence of dysfunction in the gastrointestinal tract is commonly associated with aggressive behaviour, tantrums, anxiety, irritability and sleep disturbances. Research on probiotics (supplements containing protective bacteria) and their beneficial effect on gastrointestinal conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome and diarrhea, is well-established. Considering this, it is not surprising that the use of probiotics as an integrative therapeutic approach to autism, is now being extensively investigated. Although the exact mechanism of how probiotics can modulate behaviour and mood in those with autism is not yet fully understood, researchers have posited that this may be due to how protective bacteria target circulating neurotransmitters and neuroimmune responses within the gut-brain axis.Probiotics have been found to reduce certain metabolites that have been associated to autism and gastrointestinal symptoms that are strongly correlated with the disorder. 

Achieving optimal nutrient intake is additionally more difficult for those with autism. This is due to a higher rate of food allergies and/or intolerances to certain foods such as dairy, nuts and wheat, as well as a tendency to towards picky eating and food selectivity. There is no one-size-fits-all diet that is right for everyone, each person is biochemically unique, with a variety of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors that can influence health, which is why it is important to work with a trained professional. However, there are certain key dietary factors that have shown to be beneficial for those on the autism spectrum, which you can begin integrating into your child’s or your everyday life now. If you’d like to see these steps, click here to go through to our Nutrition Solutions page on Autism. 

The British Association of Applied Nutritional Therapists (BANT) has a register for qualified Nutritional Therapists in Britain. The Brain Bio Centre, our not for profit clinic, offers face to face in London and Skype appointments to enable consultations from across the UK and overseas.

Could the way in which we are eating be affecting our health?

Could the way in which we are eating be affecting our health?

When it comes to improving our health, nutrition is of course one of the first things we should look at. Having a balanced diet, which includes optimal amounts of all the essential micronutrients as well as avoiding refined and processed foods, is key to ensure we are getting what we need. However, what if not only what we eat but how we eat could make a significant difference to our health? The awareness we bring to each mouthful and the surroundings in which we sit down to have our meal can play a large role in how we digest and metabolise our food. Studies show how our digestive processes are especially sensitive to chronic stress, demonstrating changes in blood flow to intestinal tissues, gastric secretions and gut motility [1].The popular saying ‘you are what you eat’ may not ring so true after all… This should perhaps be swapped for ‘you are what you absorb’. After all, you could be eating a relatively good diet, but what if you weren’t actually assimilating the nutrients properly due to eating whilst in an anxious state?

For a lot of us, the luxury of being able to eat our lunch away from our desk or not rushed whilst traveling in between meetings is rare. How many of us who have a busy work schedule actually take time to sit down and fully enjoy our midday meal? There is increasing evidence to show how mindfulness-based practices can have a big impact on stress reduction, awareness of hunger and satiety levels in studies performed with people who suffer with disordered and emotional eating [2]. Mindfulness is becoming more and more popular in helping to address mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression and eating disorders, as an alternative to Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, as well as other popular medications. The ancient practice that dates back to 2500 years ago can be traced to Buddhist psychology, although it is also found in other eastern traditions. Its underlying purpose in its ancient context was to eliminate needless suffering by cultivating insights into the workings of the mind, and it was believed that by doing so one could remove deep rooted negative internal dialogues, which ultimately lead to unhappiness [3].

When we eat it is imperative that we are relaxed. In order to optimise our digestive function, our parasympathetic nervous system should be activated. In other words, we must be in a “rest and digest” state where our digestive system is ready to receive food as it has had the correct signals from our brain. These signals cue the lining in our stomach to secrete hydrochloric acid, our pancreas to release its digestive enzymes and the liver to secrete bile into the intestines. All these functions are essential to correctly metabolise our nutrients as well as kill off pathogenic bacteria and other toxins in the food we eat. When we are stressed or anxious, our sympathetic nervous system activates, this is our ‘‘fight or flight” mode, when all the blood travels away from our intestines to our peripheral muscles, glucose is released from tissues into the bloodstream to deliver energy and our heart rate increases. This gets us ready to engage in adrenalin-filled activity. Not exactly useful when we are eating.

Mindfulness based practices such as bringing our awareness to our breathing or sensations in our body have been proven to be successful relaxation methods as well as having the ability to improve markers of health. In a recently published study, these techniques were introduced to a community of adults who were stressed and unemployed. The study revealed how mindfulness exercises decreased a marker of inflammatory diseases called Interleukin (IL) – 6, which has been strongly associated to chronic conditions such as Major Depressive Disorder [4]. A review of 14 studies that investigated mindfulness meditation as the primary intervention for eating disorders, also demonstrated a significant reduction in binge eating and emotional eating in populations engaging in this behaviour [5]. Lastly, there are countless studies demonstrating mindfulness as a successful method to reduce IBS symptoms, in particular its ability to teach people ‘nonreactivity to gut-focused anxiety and catastrophic appraisals of the significance of abdominal sensations’. The therapy allowed them to refocus their attention into the interoceptive awareness of the body without allowing emotions to interfere, which ultimately prevented the symptoms from becoming worse [6].

It’s safe to say there is no shortage of evidence to show how this simple ancient technique and other relaxation techniques can help us manage stress and therefore improve digestion. It’s time to listen to our bodies, take an hour away from our computers and phones to really engage with what we are eating so we can optimise our chances of assimilating the nutrition in our food. Our digestive system is essentially an interface between the external world and our internal environment, so it is no surprise that many health problems, including mental health conditions, are significantly affected by the health of our gut.

The Benefits of Nutrition as an Adjunct Therapy for Schizophrenia

The Benefits of Nutrition as an Adjunct Therapy for Schizophrenia

Food for the Brain supports a better understanding of how nutritional protocols can be beneficial across a arrange of mental health conditions, one that is a less understood condition and therefore is often more difficult to raise awareness about, is nutritional therapy for Schizophrenia.  In 2014 we published a systematic review of nutritional approaches in Schizophrenia and we are currently working within our not-for-profit clinic, where we see a large number of clients suffering with psychosis, to introduce recognised measures to understand and share more widely how clients benefit from these nutritional protocols. 

Schizophrenia is a highly complex mental health condition that affects 21 million people worldwide and 1-3 in every 100 people within the UK . The condition encompasses a collection of different mental disorders causing two main groups of symptoms known as positive and negative. The positive group includes symptoms such as paranoia, hallucinations, changes in personality and delusions, and the negative group includes symptoms like lethargy, apathy, social withdrawal, impaired attention and anhedonia (inability to experience pleasure). The result of both is often a lifetime of suffering for not just the person experiencing schizophrenia but also family and friends, as well as engendering a high societal burden with the estimated total financial cost of £11.8 billion per annum in England alone. 

Due to the variety of presenting symptoms, schizophrenia has been considered a spectrum disorder that is a complex interplay between a range of altered physiological mechanisms. Since the 1990s, psychiatrists began to introduce medication called atypical antipsychotics, which all share the common ground of targeting serotonin and dopamine receptors, and whilst they have shown to be effective in reducing psychosis symptoms in most people, one-third of the patient group find that they are not effective. Moreover, the side effects of medication can be severe and debilitating causing symptoms such as movement disorders, cognitive impairment, weight gain, sedation and diabetes. These often require further pharmacological treatment and can lead to a discontinuation of medication, which can consequently lead to subsequent relapse. Some research has even concluded that long-term use of atypical antipsychotics can induce brain shrinkage over time and have also been shown, for many, to be ineffective for treating the negative symptoms. Negative symptoms of schizophrenia are not well known or spoken about as much as the positive symptoms. We often hear about the dramatic symptoms of hallucinations, delusions etc, but research has shown that the social exclusion, lethargy and depression that are associated with the negative symptoms can often be more disabling for the person’s quality of life, preventing them from having long-term relationships, employment and financial stability.

Nutrient therapy for schizophrenia, and other mental health disorders, is an area that is poorly understood. However, health practitioners adopting this strategy as a method to help improve symptoms associated to mental health disorders, as well as reducing side effects of medication, have had positive results. This type of strategy aims to target the underlying drivers of symptoms, such as poor methylation, severe oxidative stress and atypical immune-mediated responses. Due to the nature of schizophrenia’s heterogeneity and our fundamental nature as human beings of being unique biochemically-speaking, there is no one-size-fits-all approach in nutritional therapy. However, It is a low risk strategy which can complement pharmacological interventions without negatively interacting with medication.

Methylation is a biochemical system that each of our cells in our body undertakes to complete a range of complex reactions for processes such as synthesising DNA, regulating our genes, synthesising neurotransmitters, regulating our hormones and many more. In those with certain genetic variations of methylation, high levels of homocysteine, a metabolite protein that can be found in the blood, are often found in many patients with schizophrenia. Homocysteine is produced by the metabolism of an amino acid called methionine and is in normal circumstances recycled back into the methylation cycle to be converted back into methionine. At high levels, homocysteine has been shown to cause oxidant stress, fibrin deposition (leading to atherosclerosis), cytokine release, inflammation and other mechanisms. The recycling process of homocysteine is dependent on a variety of co-factor nutrients, which are in turn dependent on your dietary intake, lifestyle and genetic factors. Those with deficiencies in nutrients such as folate and B6 have been shown to benefit from supplementation, helping to reduce homocysteine and therefore decrease factors such as oxidative stress, which has shown to play a role in the symptoms of schizophrenia.

Oxidative stress, a process that occurs when the balance between cellular defense mechanisms and endogenous Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) and Reactive Nitrogen Species (RNS) becomes compromised, has been found to be present in high levels in those with this mental health condition as well as others. Oxidative damage to DNA, lipids and proteins can negatively impact the functioning of cells, specifically leading to membrane dysfunction, which can alter the structure, fluidity, permeability and capacity for optimal signal transduction. Antioxidants such as N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC), Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA) and vitamins C and E, have been researched as adjunct therapies for schizophrenia and shown positive results. Studies have demonstrated how these antioxidants can help support Glutathione production in the brain, another antioxidant that is a powerful free radical scavenger, found to be lower in patients with schizophrenia. Both NAC and ALA proved to help support attenuate side effects of medications as well as decrease the severity of negative symptoms. 

In a study carried out in 2006, it was revealed that patients with autoimmune diseases such as celiac disease and rheumatoid arthritis were 45% more at risk of having schizophrenia. A number of studies have found positive outcomes for patients on an exclusion diet where gluten has been eliminated. It is thought that by excluding gluten-containing foods, the health of the intestinal mucosa is restored, thereby reducing permeability in the digestive tract and preventing immune-mediated responses that lead to psychological symptoms. There is a subset of schizophrenic patients where a dramatic reduction, and in some even full remission of symptoms, has been recorded after removing gluten from the diet. 

Aside from these specific dietary strategies, there have been a number of others researched such as vitamin D, omega 3 fatty acids and L-Theanine, which have also shown to have positive results. It is clear that due to the multifactorial nature of schizophrenia’s underlying drivers, which can be different from one person to the next, there cannot be a no one-size-fits-all approach in treating this condition. A more integrative, holistic strategy whereby nutrition and supplementation are offered as adjunct therapies alongside pharmacological treatment, could be a very effective and inexpensive way of helping to improve not only the patient’s quality of life but also for those that are caring for them.

If you’re interested in hearing a real life story on how nutritional therapy can help reduce symptoms of schizophrenia, listen to Eddie’s experience below of our programme at our not-for-profit clinic, the Brain Bio Centre.


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