By Sherrie Miller
Mental health has become an increasing concern with today’s society and, even more concerning, the increase of mental health with our kids. Anxiety, depression, aggressive behaviour, learning disorders, ADHD and ASD the most common amongst our kids. There are many factors behind the causes of mental health issues which can include an unpleasant home life, stress, school pressure, bullying, excessive social media and gaming, impaired detoxification, and genetic influence. We are fortunate that there are many organisations available in helping kids manage and improve their mental health challenges through counselling services, Kids Help Line, The Resilience Project, Headspace, to name but a few. One area that appears not be addressed enough when it comes to managing and improving mental health, is nutrition.
The brain and central nervous system, like the rest of the body can suffer with nutrient deficiency and chronic inflammation and when it does, it will not perform optimally, and this can result in things like forgetfulness, foggy brain, moodiness, aggression and of course more debilitating mental health disorders. The brain and central nervous system require the right nutrients to perform at its best and this comes from a healthy diet.
But what causes chronic brain inflammation to begin with?
Inflammation occurs in your body when the cells of your immune system work together to fight an infection or foreign invader. We see inflammation on the outside of our body as heat, swelling and redness. On the inside, the same irritations occur, and the body has the innate ability to get to work and heal the site of the inflammation. However, when the body is in a constant state of inflammation due to certain contributing factors, this then becomes chronic inflammation. Your body over time, gets tired of fighting the chronic inflammation and ultimately appears with other more serious symptoms reflecting ill health and disease.
Inflammation in the body can be caused by the following:
- Bacterial or viral infection
- Poor gut health and an unhealthy balance of microbiome
- Long-term stress
- Trauma or injury
- Toxins from the environment, household or skin products
A highly processed diet
If a diet is high in processed grains, artificial ingredients, refined sugars and trans fats, and lacks plant foods, protein, good fats and fibre, the body will become malnourished and won’t have the ability to perform proper biochemical functions. This also affects the brain.
There are certain nutrients essential for brain health and function, and are outlined below:
Essential Fatty Acids
The brain is made up of 60% fat. In fact, the brain is the fattiest organ in our body, therefore it needs fat to function. Healthy fats which can include both saturated fats from butter, coconut and eggs, as well as omega 3’s from avocado, nuts and seeds, olive oil and fatty fish such as salmon and sardines, are crucial for brain health.
Fat reduces inflammation in the brain and is essential for developing and maintaining neurons (nerve cells). The myelin sheath which is the fatty insulating layer of the neurons, that controls the speed of transmission of neuron impulses along the pathways, also requires fat for proper function and transmission. Avoid trans fatty acids and high ratios of omega 6 fats, often found in processed seed oils and hydrogenated oils such as margarine and canola oil. These fats in high quantities contribute to inflammation.
Protein is an essential macronutrient for general health and wellbeing. Protein is broken down into amino acids when digested and there are 9 essential amino acids that the body needs and does not store in the body. Therefore, the essential amino acids need to be replenished through diet. Protein sources include meat, eggs, fish, dairy and plant-based options such as nuts and seeds, lentils, oats, quinoa, broccoli and peanuts.
Protein is required to make enzymes and hormones, to build and repair body tissue and is also essential in making antibodies that our immune system needs to protect us from illness and fight invaders in our system. When it comes to brain health and function, protein is needed for cell activity and multiplication. It is also required for the production and synthesis of our neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine and GABA. Low levels of these neurotransmitters are linked to depression, learning disorders and anxiety.
Zinc plays an important role in synaptic transmission (communications of the neurons), and a lack of zinc in the diet contributes to impaired DNA, RNA, and protein synthesis during brain development. When it comes to babies and children and their rapid brain growth, zinc is essential for healthy general activity, emotional behaviour, memory and the ability to learn. Zinc also is required for the storage and release of neurotransmitters. Zinc is found in shellfish, red meat, pumpkins seeds, cashews, quinoa, chickpeas and beans.
Magnesium is involved in over 300 biochemical actions within the body. Magnesium is critical in assisting detoxification and preventing inflammation. Magnesium is required for brain cognition and memory formation. This is particularly important for learning. Magnesium strengthens synapses function by strengthening the nerve endings of the synaptic nerve where transmission occurs. It is also needed for relaxing nerves, assisting digestion, relieving muscle tension, migraines and headaches and regulates moods and stress responses. All these helpful in minimising anxiety responses. Unhealthy nerve impulses can potentially be a catalyst in stimulating fear and anxiety. Magnesium also stimulates serotonin production – our happy neurotransmitter. Magnesium is found in foods such as pumpkin seeds, nuts, cacao (dark chocolate), green leafy vegetables, avocado, fatty fish and bananas.
An iron deficiency can affect cognition, language and motor development skills in babies and young children. Research has shown how a lack of iron in the diet can affect the white matter in the brain, as well as the production of myelin. Both important for neuron transmission. Iron is required for neurotransmitter development and functioning to assist in regulating moods. Iron deficiency can often present as anxiety, depression, irritability, poor concentration and general restlessness. One of irons’ main roles is to ensure that oxygen in the blood is carried around the body, which of course includes the brain for clarity of mind. Foods rich in iron include red meat and liver as well as chicken, turkey and shellfish. Plant-based iron sources include green leafy vegetables, lentils, quinoa, pumpkin seeds and marine algae such as spirulina and chlorella.
Vitamin D activates and deactivates enzymes in the brain and spinal fluid that are involved in nerve growth, synaptic processes and neurotransmitter synthesis. A lack of Vitamin D greatly affects cognition, memory and learning. Vitamin D boosts glutathione production protecting cells from oxidative stress damage. Vitamin D also helps to modulate the immune system and reduce inflammation throughout the body and the brain. The best source of Vitamin D is through the sun, but small amounts can be found in liver, fatty fish, butter, egg yolks and sun-drenched mushrooms.
B-Vitamins are crucial for energy production within our cells and being water soluble vitamins, the body doesn’t store it and so needs to be replenished daily. When it comes to brain function there are three stand out B-Vitamins – B6, Folate and B12.
Vitamin B6 is an important vitamin to help the body make serotonin – our mood regulator, norepinephrine – for coping with stress, and melatonin – regulates our sleep/wake cycle. Vitamin B6 also helps the body make haemoglobin, the part of your blood that carries oxygen to the brain and other organs. Foods rich in B6 include pork, chicken, fish, vegetables, eggs, and oats.
Folate is often referred to as Folic Acid. Folic Acid is a synthetic compound of B9, whereas folate is naturally derived from foods. Folate is necessary for making DNA, neurotransmitters, and the proper formation of the nervous system during development. A folate deficiency is linked to cognitive decline. Folate is required to reduce inflammation and homocysteine levels. Elevated homocysteine is linked to degenerative brain disorders. Folate is found in green leafy vegetables, broccoli, peas, chickpeas and liver.
Vitamin B12 is found only in animal foods such as meat, chicken, liver, seafood, dairy and eggs. B12 supplementation is essential if vegan. B12 is required for the manufacturing of our mood-boosting neurotransmitters whereby low levels of B12 are linked to depression. B12 is required for memory, focus and concentration. Brain fog and lack of concentration, as well as tingling in the arms and legs are signs of a B12 deficiency, and symptoms of B12 deficiency can often mimic that of ADHD symptoms. Vitamin B12 also plays a significant role in the synthesis and maintenance of myelin – the protective layer of brain neurons.
Antioxidant-rich foods include cacao, turmeric, berries, green tea, artichokes, green leafy vegetables such as kale and spinach, pecans, beetroot and red and orange fruits and vegetables. Basically, the more colourful the food, the more antioxidants. This does not include Skittles!
Antioxidant compounds in these foods such as flavonoids and carotenes and Vitamins A, C and E, helps protect the brain from oxidative stress that damage our cells. Antioxidants are a crucial element in preventing mental decline by preventing calcification of the brain and brain cell degeneration.
The Gut-Brain Axis
The Gut-Brain Axis is the link between the Enteric Nervous System (ENS) that surrounds the digestive tract and the Central Nervous System (CNS) which is the brain and nerves. These two systems are connected via the Vagus Nerve and communicate with each other. Evidence is showing how the gut can interact and influence brain function. The microbiome which is a colony of bacteria and pathogens that reside in our gut, play an important role in many biochemical functions and this includes digestion, nutrient absorption, immunity and brain function.
Serotonin, the mood regulator is mostly manufactured in the gut and sent up to the brain. The communication between the gut and brain is highly influenced by the microbiome. Therefore, mood disorders such as depression and anxiety can be impacted by poor gut function.
If the gut is chronically inflamed, it will not properly function, and this will have an impact on mental health. In fact, most people who suffer with a mental health disorder usually also suffer with digestive problems. Gut inflammation is generally caused by poor diet that lacks fibre. nutrients and a high sugar intake. Long-term stress, toxic overload from environmental sources and a lack of good bacteria in the gut can also cause gut inflammation. It’s important when addressing mental health issues, addressing gut health is also considered.
Mental health is a complex issue and there is not a one-size-fits-all approach in dealing with it. All the services available to us is in assisting our kids in combatting their mental health challenges must be accompanied with nutritional intervention. Diet plays an important role of the healthy function of the brain and nervous system, and if the brain is starved of essential nutrients, it simply will not function well.
Improve mood with food.
A BRAIN BOOSTING SMOOTHIE KIDS WILL LOVE!
In 1½ cups of milk of choice or coconut water, add:
- 1 banana
- Handful of blueberries
- 1 tblsp of raw cacao powder
- 1 tblsp hemp seeds
- 1 tblsp pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
- Half an avocado
- Handful of kale or spinach leaves
- 1 tblsp of collagen powder
- 1 tsp turmeric powder (optional)
- 2 deseeded medjool dates for sweetening (optional)
Add ice and blend until smooth. This chocolate smoothie is rich in brain boosting antioxidants, zinc, magnesium, iron, good fats, protein and B vitamins. Serves 2.
This smoothie could also be frozen into ice cream moulds for a summer, brain-boosting, icy cold treat!
Sherrie Miller is a qualified Nutritionist with a special interest in gut health. She is passionate about the way in which our digestive health can influence our mental health, skin health and immunity. Sherrie takes the concept of ‘Food is Medicine’ very seriously.
You can find out more on instagram @sherriemillernutrition