Powering up the Nerve Centre: Nutrition and the Brain

In past articles we have been looking at the way in which a Low GI diet can counteract some of the effects of ADD-ADHD by releasing energy into the bloodstream in a controlled and consistent way. With this week’s article we are going to take a step back in order to emphasize why doing your best to ‘power up your brain’ in the most effective way is so vitally important. In a nutshell this comes down to the fact that nutrition has a direct effect on brain function. Simply put: What you eat plays a key role in how well you think!
There has always been anecdotal and pre-scientific evidence of the role that nutrition plays in keeping our thought processes up and running. People of all generations knew that you feel contented and ‘at peace’ after a good meal and frazzled and irritable when you are hungry. Exploration of the human brain over the past few decades meant that we can now begin to understand exactly why this is the case.
The first thing that is very important to note is that the brain is by far the most energy dependant part of the human body. It accounts for just 2% of average body mass but it is typically responsible for about 20% of all energy use. This means that the changes or deficiencies in nutrition are bound to affect the brain, as the prime energy user of the body, in some way. However the link between the brain and nutrition not only revolves around quantity (although getting enough energy to the brain is of vital importance) but also around quality. The energy and nutritional substances that eventually reach the brain should ideally correspond with the brain’s very specific needs. This is especially important when it comes to the role of neurotransmitters.
Neurotransmitters are chemicals whose primary function is to transmit, strengthen and control the transmission of signals (also known as impulses) between neurons (nerve cells). This means that neurotransmitters play their primary role within the brain itself, since they represent the core component of both the brain and the spinal cord. As such their proper functioning (or not) can influence things as diverse as mood, sleeping patterns and cognitive processes.
Since neurotransmitters are made up out of complex chemicals the body needs the right chemical ‘building blocks’ (e.g. vitamins and minerals) to construct them with. The amount of food we eat, and what it contains, is therefore of prime importance. Consider the following:

  • Deficiencies in certain basic nutritional building blocks (through an unbalanced diet or through not eating enough) can cause the body to make use of substandard neurotransmitters. Leading eventually to sub optimal brain function.
  • Excess amounts of certain chemicals (e.g. through the presence of toxins derived from pesticides) can severely interfere with the production and functioning of certain neurotransmitters.

The bottom line is that it is possible for our diets to have a significant impact on the way our nervous systems operate. This even to the point where deficiencies and/or excesses of certain chemical and vitamins can lead to nerve damage, loss of memory, limiting of cognitive function and problem solving capabilities, and impairment of the brain’s behavior control centers. When you consider this fact next to the obvious needs of the brain for a reliable and consistent energy supply it becomes clear why proper nutrition is of such vital importance in addressing the effects of ADD-ADHD.
Many of the symptoms of the ADD-ADHD can be traced back directly to impaired brain function. It makes perfect sense therefore to try to get to the bottom of why the brain is not functioning as it should in a person with ADD-ADHD. There could obviously be serious neurological reasons for this but this should perhaps not be the first place where we need to go looking. It would instead be prudent to first ask whether the impulsive behavior and lack of focus so often associated with ADD-ADHD cannot perhaps be traced back to the neurons inside the brain not getting everything they need to fire properly (both in terms of quantity and quality).

Over the next few weeks we will delve a little deeper into the link between nutrition and proper brain function. Attention will also continually be called to the implications of what is being discussed for dealing with ADD-ADHD. Some of the specific things that we will be looking at are: the effects of different food types on brain function, the sources of the best ‘brain foods’, and (returning to the overall Low GI theme) how understanding the Glycemic Index can help you to ‘do the best for your brain’!