To paraphrase the great singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, if we’re not busy being born we’re busy dying. This sums up the remedy for optimal brain function throughout life. Unfortunately, too many people start dying at a very early age.
It’s estimated that one in four people in the United States suffers from some form of mental or emotional disorder. Many more have diminished brain function, which is often transient. Human error is a common result of diminished brain function, and the cause of the majority of automobile, airplane, rail, boating and other tragic accidents reported in the popular press every day. Medical mistakes, which kill and maim millions of people, are also usually due to human error. Whether it’s poor memory, such as not remembering that phone call you wanted to make, or getting lost in your own neighborhood due to a serious cognitive condition such as Alzheimer’s, most cases of these problems are preventable through proper food and nutrition, stress regulation and lifestyle. And, the problem isn’t just about avoiding cognitive problems — you want your brain to function at a high level until you die!
Do you remember where you were when President Kennedy was assassinated? Maybe you hadn’t been born yet. How about when the space shuttle Challenger exploded? Or when the World Trade Center collapsed? Most people have vivid memories of where they were when these intense events occurred. At the same time, many people can’t recall a simple five- or seven-digit phone number, for example, or the name of someone they just met. The memory of traumatic events is so clear because the powerful adrenal response provides optimal blood sugar levels. It’s also possible to harness this great and valuable function of the body and brain through proper diet and nutrition
Your Brain on Blood Sugar
There’s nothing magical about it, learning, memory, and all other cognitive functions have an undeniable relationship with stable blood sugar. Whether you’re healthy or not, blood-sugar irregularities can hit you at any time, adversely affecting brain function.
While the body utilizes both fat and sugar for energy, the brain is primarily dependent upon sugar. If the level of blood sugar rises too much, or falls too low, the brain has an immediate reduced capacity. This means you don’t remember as well, don’t respond as well to external stimuli, and can’t learn as easily. Reductions in overall mental performance can follow. From early in life a child’s poor learning can be a problem. As adults we joke about “brain damage.” In older adults cognitive dysfunction such as Alzheimer’s disease is on the rise. Creativity, in both children and adults, is another mental process that can be compromised when blood sugar is not balanced.
As I have discussed in detail throughout this book, blood sugar is controlled by a number of factors, especially food, nutrition, exercise and stress. Here’s a quick review:
- High-glycemic carbohydrates, especially sugar and processed flour products, can reduce and impair brain function due to the effects of insulin. The application of this fact is simple: Don’t go to work or send your kids to school after a breakfast of high-glycemic cereal or other sweets. Most adults know not to drink and drive, but many still go to work, operate vehicles or embark on other activities that require optimal brain function without the right fuel.
- Blood sugar can be controlled exceptionally well by snacking on healthy items. By eating five or six meals daily you can help stabilize blood sugar, allowing the brain to do its job properly.
- Stress can wreak havoc on blood sugar and reduce brain function (stress is discussed in more detail in Chapter 31).
- Physical activity can help improve brain function in many ways. Aerobic exercise can help improve blood
When we consider mental energy, it’s clear thinking and creativity we want, rather than that foggy feeling or depression. When you have a thought or feel a sensation from the outside world, it’s the result of major chemical reactions in your brain. Billions of messages are sent throughout the brain and the nerves on a regular basis by brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. Different neurotransmitters make you feel different ways: high, low, sleepy, awake, happy and sad. Sometimes the brain may have too many of one type of neurotransmitter or not enough of another. As a result, you may feel too high or low, or too sleepy. Acommon end-result symptom may be depression or anxiety. When these problems develop, antidepressant drugs are sometimes prescribed to manipulate brain chemistry in hopes of balancing neurotransmitters and relieving symptoms.
For most people, diet can have a profound effect on brain chemistry, often as much effect as drugs but easier to regulate and without side effects. What you eat, or don’t eat, for dinner can influence your sleep, your dreams, and how you feel upon waking. And what you eat, or don’t eat, for breakfast can determine your human performance for the day.
Most of the 40 or more types of neurotransmitters are made from amino acids derived from the protein in your diet. Certain vitamins and minerals are also required for their production, including vitamin B6, folic acid, niacin, iron and vitamin C. There are many important neurotransmitters related to mental function. They include serotonin and norepinephrine — the two most commonly discussed substances. Let’s look at how a traditional meal affects most brains, and why the confusion surrounding this issue continues.
Most people think getting sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner is due to the turkey — more specifically, the tryptophan content of the turkey that can sedate the brain. Tryptophan, an amino acid that can produce a sleepy feeling when consumed in high amounts, is relatively high in turkey. But while this notion is promoted year after year in the media, it’s completely false.
The reason so many people get sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner — like many other meals and snacks — is not caused by eating turkey, but rather by eating all the trimmings made from refined carbohydrate and sugar. In the case of a typical holiday meal, it’s the bread, potatoes (including sweetened sweet potatoes), gravy (made with flour), cranberries (sweetened with sugar), and of course those extra servings of pie (there’s always more than one type to taste). Throw in some alcohol and it’s no wonder you’re craving more than just one pot of coffee.
While turkey does have a high amount of tryptophan, it has many other amino acids that prevent tryptophan levels from elevating in the blood (thereby not affecting the brain). The foods that reduce brain function the most are the carbohydrates which cause a rise in a brain neurotransmitter, serotonin — this has a calming, relaxing, sedating effect on the brain, with the more carbohydrates you eat, the more sedating its action.
Sleepiness after any meal may be indicative of carbohydrate intolerance. So if you often feel this way, it’s time to evaluate, or re-evaluate your eating habits as I discussed in the chapters on carbohydrates. High-carbohydrate foods cause the brain to produce more serotonin. The individual who is easily agitated or mentally overactive may benefit from a meal with natural carbohydrates that are not highglycemic. Too many carbohydrates, however, can produce too much serotonin in many people, causing oversedation or even depression. If you’re a student, executive, or just want to use your brain better, you might find that eating sufficient carbohydrate to adversely affect brain chemistry is counterproductive.
While sweets are traditionally thought of as providing energy, they are in actuality mentally sedating. Sometimes sweets may give the feeling of a pick-up, but that is very short-lived, until insulin lowers the blood sugar, resulting in more fatigue.
If you need a mental pick-up, try eating some protein. Aproteinbased meal with little or no carbohydrates causes your body to produce less insulin, and provides a higher amount of tyrosine and increased norepinephrine levels. This neurotransmitter has a stimulating effect on the brain. The person who needs a mental pick-up or who gets sleepy after a meal could benefit from eating a high-protein meal with little or no carbohydrate.
Drugs are often prescribed to balance brain chemistry. Depressed patients are given medication to restore balance to the neurotransmitters. Prozac, Elavil, Buspar, Aventyl, Tofranil and Zoloft are antidepressants that affect the balance of serotonin and norepinephrine. (Tranquilizers, such as Valium and Ativan, have a different function and affect other neurotransmitters.) But these medications have side effects, including reductions in glutathione, the most powerful antioxidant that protects the brain from damage.
Brain Function and EPA
One of the most important brain nutrients is the omega-3 fat EPA (along with DHA). Most people won’t get enough from food, so supplementation is often necessary. The omega-3 fats are key ingredients for the development and repair of the brain, especially the eyes. Imbalances in essential fatty acids — particularly deficiencies in omega-3 fats — have been implicated in depressive disorders in adults and behavioral problems in children and adolescents, including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, difficulties with learning, impulsivity, hyperactivity, aggression and anger.
Researchers continue to identify the positive effects of EPAon the brain and also have established a direct link between an imbalance in fatty acids and depressive disorders. In fact, it appears that these fats regulate neurotransmitters in ways that mimic the effect of some antidepressant medications. These fats coat the brain-cell membrane, serving a protective function when neurotransmitters are fired in the synaptic phase.
EPAand DHAhave other benefits in brain function as well. They are most vital for the fetus and child during development of the brain. They may also help control the release of the stress hormone cortisol, resulting in improved brain function. And, they may help reduce the severity of degenerative brain diseases that lead to memory loss and dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.
It’s not necessary to know the musical key associated with particular areas of the body, as taught in Chinese medicine, because the particular music that is most therapeutic is the music you like. Most likely, the music you find most comforting includes tunes from yesterday — those associated with good memories, typically from when you were younger. This is the basis for using music in the treatment of brain disorders, from simple memory problems to more serious diseases. Stimulating auditory sense is just one way to trigger emotions with potentially therapeutic outcomes. Another way is visual — watching a music video, or being at a concert may even be more powerful. Applying the kinesthetic sense — the act of playing music, for example — can even be more potent. Add some dancing (you can even twist and shout) and now you’ve added more brain stimulation with an aerobic complement. Directed at consumers, music equals money: Studies show that background music can bring increased sales. This subliminal use of music has been used for centuries. And many of the successful radio and TV commercials use well-known music to sell products.
Just as we can use a healthy snack in place of junk food, so too can music rescue us from things like television, unpleasant gettogethers and other unhealthy activities. So pull those old records out of the attic, or buy some new CDs — think of it like you’re buying organic vegetables or grass-fed beef. Dig it. The End.