Optimum Nutrition for the Mind
This was a very dense, but fascinating, two day conference organised by the Mental Health Project in affiliation with the Institute for Optimum Nutrition.
Dr Mary Megson of the American Academy of Pediatrics was the first to speak with a presentation which suggested that autism may be a disorder linked to a genetic defect in the G-alpha protein supply to the brain. Other disorders connected with this defect include night blindness and pituitary and thyroid conditions.
Her suggestion was that children with this genetic defect may be especially vulnerable to disruption of their calcium signalling mechanism, vital for neurostransmitter release. They may also be low in the natural cis form of Vitamin A (found in fish oils etc) which is essential for the activation of the T & B cells which in turn drive the immune system. When the pertussis toxin (part of the vaccination given at 18 months) is added it may further disrupt the metabolic pathways which control language, sensory and hormonal operations within these children.
Dr Alex Richardson from Oxford University examined the role of essential fatty acids in ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia and autistic spectrum disorders. For a more detailed review of her theses click here.
Lorraine Perretta of the Brain Bio Centre in London then looked at the link between food sensitivities and mental health.
A review of the literature suggests that reactions to food are implicated in the full range of mental health problems, even in cases where there are no apparent physical symptoms. Recent work in Sheffield shows that 57% of patients with neurological conditions had antibodies to Gliadin (the protein involved in Coeliac disease) even though only 1 in 3 of these were Coeliacs.
She suggested that the possibility of a food sensitivity should be considered in all patients with mental health problems.
Deborah Colson, also of the Brain Bio Centre gave a brief overview of the minerals most relevant to mental health.
Magnesium, which is frequently deficient in the general population, enables relaxation. So magnesium deficiency can cause tensions, muscle cramps, insomnia, constipation, PMS, frequent urination and blood sugar imbalance.
Zinc, which is necessary for over 200 operations within the body including growth, immunity, sperm and insulin production, is the most commonly and severely deficient mineral. A zinc deficiency is associated with depression, psychosis and autism.
Although copper is an essential mineral there are more symptoms connected with copper excess (paranoia and anxiety in particular) than with deficiency. Excess copper (usually absorbed from copper pipes, copper compounds in drinking water and swimming pools, copper cookware, birth control pills and copper IUD coils) can be passed to children in utero.
Dr Barry Durrant Peatfield, a specialist in thyroid and adrenal disorders and author of The Great Thyroid Scandal & How to Survive It, explained how the thyroid gland impacts on the whole body, including the brain, because it controls metabolism. He maintains that one out of every three patients with depression is hypo thyroid (underfunctioning thyroid).
The ‘fuel’ of the thyroid gland is iodine. Through complex chemical pathways this combines with tyrosine to becomes the hormone thyroxine (T4) which in turn is converted into its active form, T3. However, this conversion from T4 to T3 may be compromised by micronutrient deficiencies (especially selenium) or by environmental toxins: fluorides, cadmium, lead, phthalates, excessive cortisone or salicylates, or growth hormone injections.
The symptoms of this thyroid failure (hypo-thyroidism or underactive thryoid) are weight gain and tiredness, depression, memory and concentration failure, visual and menstrual disturbances and an impaired immune system.
Dr Durrant Peatfield pointed out that blood tests which measured the amount of T4 in the blood were unhelpful as failure to convert T4 to the active T3 would not register. He used a combination of urine tests and the Barnes Basal temperature (body temperature) readings. If the body temperature was below 36.6C he suspected a problem.
He also pointed out that any long lasting illness exhausted the body, especially the adrenal system, which was needed to complete the conversion of T4 to T3.
Peter Willatts, Senior Lecturer at the University of Dundee examined the role of the HUFAs (Highly Unsaturated Fatty Acids) DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and AA (arachidonic acid) in the development of the brain.
Although the mechanisms are not fully understood it would appear that infants require high concentrations of HUFAs in their first 4 months for optimum brain development. These HUFAs are present in high concentrations in breast milk and research suggests that breast fed babies, and those who had been supplemented with HUFAs either directly of via their mothers, had higher IQ scores in early tests. These differences continued to be noticeable up to 6 years of age when the IQ scores were no different, but the ‘supplemented’ children arrived at their answers 20% faster than the ‘unsupplemented’ children.
Nutritional therapist Jane Nodder explained how nutritional therapy could be useful as one of a selection of tools in the treatment of the complex eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia.
Patrick Holford, founder of the Institute for Optimum Nutrition and Director of the Brain Bio Centre, gave two presentations, one on depression, the second on Alzheimer’s and Dementia.
First he reviewed the evidence to support sub-optimal nutrition as a significant contributor to depression.
Poor control of blood sugar both through insulin resistence (see P. 6) and excessive consumption of refined sugar depletes vital B and other vitamins, and impacts on mood and behaviour.
It is generally recognised that the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, noradrenaline and adrenaline influence mood and motivation. However he suggested that supplementing with the amino acids from which these neurotransmitters derive could be more effective and have far fewer side effects than drug based alternatives.
He also pointed out that B Vitamins and folate are essential co-factors in the production and balance of neurotransmitters, yet these vitamins are frequently deficient in depressed patients.
A significant indicator that these processes are impaired is the blood levels of homocysteine, an amino acid which is formed temporarily during the methylation, or breakdown, of amino acids and which should disappear almost immediately. If high levels are found it suggests that the conversion of amino acids into the relevant neurotransmitters is faulty.
However, in one in ten people this methylation process is genetically impaired, so that they need far higher levels of folate and Vitamins B6 & 12 to achieve a successful conversion. While folate deficiency alone can cause depression, a combination of deficiency and this genetic impairment may tip a patient over into mental illness.
Omega 3 fatty acids also have a direct effect on serotonin levels and appear, in recent research, to have been effective both in mild and severe depression.
Turning to Alzheimer’s Disease Patrick Holford suggested that it was a complex disease with many, rather than a single cause.
The presence of the gene ‘apolipopritein E’ seems to double the risk of developing Alzheimers, but only, apparently, when it is activated by faulty nutrition or infection by the herpes simplex virus.
Diagnostic proof of AD is the presence of ‘beta-amyloid’, a toxic protein (the result of inflammation) which is also found in cardiovascular disease. This would suggest that it may be partially an inflammatory reaction. Inflammatory reactions are always accompanied by an increase in the production of oxidants. Supplementing AD patients with anti-oxidants, especially Vitamin E and Omega 3 fatty acids (fish oils) has proved very successful in recent trials.
Under prolonged stress the body produces the hormone cortisol. Although cortisol is a powerful anti-inflammatory, prolonged excess cortisol is known to damage brain, and especially memory, function.
High levels of homocysteine (see PH on depression) combined with low levels of folate and B vitamins also seem to correlate closely with the incidence of AD and dementia in recent studies. These low vitamin levels may be partially a result of a decrease in the elderly’s ability to absorb the vitamins that they do get.
Meanwhile, the high levels of aluminium and mercury found in the brains of AD patients, rather than being a cause of AD, may result from a decrease in the capacity of AD patients’ livers to detoxify and excrete these chemicals
An optimum nutrition approach to the condition includes maximising intake of fresh fruit and vegetables, wholefoods, seed and nuts rich in Vitamin E, cold water fish and filtered water while minimising one’s exposure to deep fried or burnt food, alcohol, smoking, stress, Mercury (amalgam fillings) and aluminium.
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First Published in 2009