Nutrition and the “Brain’s Messengers”

Last week we began our look at how brain function is influenced by nutrition. One of the key points that were made was that the brain needs a sufficient amount of good quality chemicals, called neurotransmitters, in order to function properly. The primary function of neurotransmitters is to transmit, strengthen and control the transmission of signals (also known as impulses) between neurons (nerve cells). This week we will profile four main neurotransmitters (some other will also be discussed in subsquent artiles) by focusing on their role in keeping the brain ‘ticking over’ as it should. This will enable us to deepen our understanding of the kinds of foods that will be most beneficial in boosting brainpower. The value of this knowledge for someone attempting to conquer ADD-ADHD cannot be overstated as restoring proper brain function should be a key priority in this battle.
Four of the most important neurotransmitters are:

Acetylcholine (ACh): Acetylcholine (Ach) is involved with ‘action responses’ in neurons and may also play a role in memory. As such it plays a key role in the voluntary movement of muscles, inhibiting behaviour and memory formation. The critical role that Ach plays in normal brain function can be clearly seen in the fact that people with Alzheimer’s disease often suffer from the a lack of this very important neurotransmitter.
Dopamine: Dopamine is another very important neurotransmitter as it plays a series of critical roles in normal brain function. This includes roles in the following processes: behaviour management, inhibition, movement, memory, attention and cognition. Some scientists also believe that dopamine plays an absolutely critical role in learning new behaviour. Deficiencies in dopamine are often found in people with Parkinson’s disease while elevated levels of it are often found in people suffering from schizophrenia.
Serotonin: Serotonin (also known as 5-HT) is involved in the modulation and control of, among other things, anger, mood, sexual responses, appetite and aggression. People who are struggling with proper responses in these areas often suffer from a lack of sufficient serotonin. This is also often the case in those with clinical depression. This lack of serotonin is sometimes treated with so-called Selective Serotonin Re-Uptake Inhibitors (SSRI) of which the drug Prozac is a prime example.
Epinephrine (also known as Adrenaline): This is a hormonal neurotransmitter, secreted from the adrenal gland, that controls the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response. Its main function is to respond to a crisis by sending massive amounts of oxygen and glucose to the brain and muscles while temporarily withholding it from less critical body functions.
It does not take a genius to work out that between them these four neurotransmitters control some of the most critical brain functions and that any deficiency in them would have serious implications. It is also not difficult to see how a lack of these neurotransmitters can very easily lead to some of the symptoms and behaviours associated with ADD-ADHD coming to the fore. For example, if the neurotransmitters (e.g. dopamine) responsible for inhibiting inappropriate or harmful responses are not functioning properly you will quite likely start to see the impulsive behaviour often associated with ADD-ADHD. This is not to say that all instances of ADD-ADHD can be traced back directly to malfunctioning neurotransmitters, it should however be one of the possible solutions that we take a very serious look at.
So what is the importance of all this for our diets? The answer lies in the fact that all of the neurotransmitters are essentially chemicals and that certain ‘building block chemicals’ are constantly needed to ensure that we all have enough of the right kinds of neurotransmitters in our bodies. The big question is: Where we are supposed to get those chemicals from? Well, most of it comes (or are supposed to come) directly from what we eat. Your diet is therefore not simply a way to fill your tummy; it is also the source of the building blocks that you will need to properly function as a human being!


This is why it is so important that we pay careful attention to what we eat. Not just in terms of calorific values, but also in terms of what it can contribute to optimum brain function. We have already looked at how a Low GI diet can help us to ensure that the energy supply to our brains remain more or less constant. Going beyond that, we should realise that specific foods can also greatly increase the availability of critical neurotransmitters. Over the next few weeks we will investigate the role that different kinds of food can play in this regard. This will not be merely an academic exercise. In fact, the answers that you will get could very likely make a real difference in the way that you approach the management of ADD-ADHD.