Nutritional support for depression before, during and after pregnancy

Nutritional support for depression before, during and after pregnancy

According to Dr Vivette Glover, Director of the Foetal and Neonatal Stress and Research Centre, at any one time during pregnancy, one in every ten women will be depressed and around one in every thirty will be depressed both during pregnancy and the postnatal period (1). It is not yet understood exactly what causes the symptoms associated to depression during and after pregnancy. However, factors such as the large changes that the body undergoes due to the demands of the growing foetus, as well as breastfeeding and potential sleep deprivation, can all play a significant role in how the body deals with stress. It is during this period of time that our bodies require more nourishment from food than ever and it can also be at exactly this time when we perhaps struggle to prioritise nutrition due to lack of energy, loss of appetite or sickness.

Pre and Post-Natal Depression are both complex conditions that can have multifactorial underlying drivers, including genetic and environmental influences. These are currently poorly investigated and the gold standard of treatment is often medication to help stabilise mood. Whilst SSRIs and other types of antidepressants have proven to be helpful for many, they do not address potential causes or drivers of poor mental health and can often mask symptoms. Antidepressants are also not regularly recommended during pregnancy, which is why being more mindful of nutrition and lifestyle habits can be a safer option for you and your baby. There are some natural, evidence-based steps you can take to help support optimal mental wellbeing:

Eat Foods to Support Energy Depletion:

Common issues such as poor sleep during pregnancy and sleep deprivation following the birth can often heighten cravings for stimulants and sugary foods, which may seem like a good option for quick sources of energy, however, these foods can often cause further issues with energy and lead to fatigue and low mood. Eating foods that are high in refined sugar and refined grains such as commercial white bread, pastries, cakes and biscuits, give us an unsustainable source of energy. 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 (2), meaning that it is very energy hungry. This is why it is important to nourish the brain with foods that are nutrient rich, providing the body the building blocks to produce neurotransmitters, as well as a sustainable source of energy. The best options are fresh, unprocessed foods such as wholegrains (brown bread, brown rice, quinoa, rye and oats), pulses, vegetables, good quality sources of protein (meat, poultry and fish) and healthy fats such as those found in olive oil, coconut oil, avocados and oily fish.

Just like throughout pregnancy, nutritional needs after birth, especially if breastfeeding, are incredibly important. The healthier the diet, the easier it will be to sustain the energy needed to take care of a newborn. Research shows that a breastfeeding mother needs an extra 300-500 calories a day, from food that is rich in the right macro and micronutrients to nourish both mother and baby (3). For example, nutrients such as B vitamins have shown to be important in supporting the mother in ensuring she has enough energy to meet the demands of lactation (4). These nutrients can be found in green leafy vegetables, wholegrains and good sources of animal protein.

Protect yourself from Oxidative Stress:

Oxidative stress refers to a biochemical process that occurs as a result of an accumulative everyday exposure to toxic burdens such as chemicals in cosmetics, furniture, paints, cars, and pollution. Our body has its own way of armouring itself from the damage that exposure to toxins can create through its production of endogenous antioxidants, which is nature’s way of neutralising oxidative stress. Although we have our own production of these wonder molecules, when we are continuously overloaded with toxins in our environment and have problems detoxifying, the liver can become overwhelmed. Research shows that over time oxidative stress can lead to an increase in inflammatory molecules such as cytokines, which have been shown to correlate with depression (5).This is why it is important to have a high intake of nutrients that support the liver in metabolising and removing toxins from the body, as well as regulating the inflammatory response. There are a few things we can change in our diet to support this area, for example eating foods such as the cruciferous family of vegetables which includes kale, cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage. These are particularly effective at supporting the liver in ushering out toxins as they all share an antioxidant compound called indole-3 Carbinol, which plays an important role in liver health (6). In addition, bitter greens such as collard greens, rocket, chicory and swiss chard are also great for supporting the liver’s own antioxidant defence system.

Increase intake of Omega-3 Fatty Acids:

During pregnancy and after pregnancy there is often a concern for the potential depletion of the maternal nutrient reservoir due to the needs of the growing foetus. A nutrient that is particularly important for mental wellbeing and is also essential for the growth of the foetus’s brain, is DHA. This is an omega 3 fatty acid that is found in oily fish and is the primary structural component of brain tissue, as well as playing a crucial role in the maintenance of brain cells and neurotransmitter metabolism (our body can also convert plant sources of omegas 3’s into DHA, such as those found in flaxseeds or chia seeds into DHA, but the conversion can often very poor). Deficiency in this nutrient during pregnancy is common, namely because of lack of seafood intake (the most bioavailable source of DHA) due to poor eating habits and concerns of mercury levels in fish during pregnancy, as well as higher requirements during foetal growth, which can lead to depletion. Due to the role that DHA plays in neurotransmitter metabolism, deficiency in this nutrient has been correlated to symptoms of depression during pregnancy (7). In order, to support your intake of omega 3, aim to have 3 portions of oily fish a week from sources that are low in mercury. These are mainly small fish that have a short life-span such as sardines, mackerel and herring. If you are vegetarian or vegan, although omega 3 is less readily available, it is still possible to get this nutrient from your diet through flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts and seaweed. If you feel you may not be getting enough through your diet, you may want to consider using a good quality fish oil supplement (or algae based supplement if vegan) as an option. With fish oils, aim to choose a supplement that has been filtered for heavy metals and other pollutants to make sure you’re getting the full benefits of the omega 3 oils.

Exercise and Personalised Nutritional Therapy:

In addition to diet, there are many other things you can also do related to lifestyle, such as stress management through mindfulness (8) or gentle movement such as pre or post natal yoga (9), which have both shown to be incredibly helpful in encouraging mental wellbeing. If you feel you need extra support, personalised nutritional therapy can be very helpful as there can often be other drivers such as nutrient deficiencies and digestive complaints that can play a significant role in mental health and will need to be addressed in a way that is tailored to the individual.

At the Brain Bio Centre, our nutritional therapy clinic, our therapists specialise in mental health and biochemical testing that can provide in-depth information about your own specific needs, so we can create a personalised plan to support your health. For more information, please visit our website: Alternatively, BANT (British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy), have a large network of therapists you can use to find a therapist suitable for you.
For wider help and information, you might want to contact the PANDAS Foundation, a charity who offer pre and post natal advice and support. They also have a helpline, 0843 28 98 401, open 9am-8pm, 7 days a week.


(3) American Academy of Pediatrics. Policy Statement. Breastfeeding and the use of human milk. Pediatrics, March 2012 Sneed SM, Zane C, Thomas MR.
(4) The effects of ascorbic acid, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and folic acid supplementation on the breast milk and maternal nutritional status of low socioeconomic lactating women. Am J Clin Nutr. 1981 Jul;34(7):1338-46.

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: 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

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.

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