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Nourish Your Noggin: Nutrition and Your Brain

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Tina M. Sullivan

Nourish Your Noggin: Nutrition and Your Brain
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Tina Sullivan is a certified integrative health and nutrition coach and speaker. Her 14-year-old son, Shane, sustained a brain injury in mid-2010 and has been recovering from Post Concussion Syndrome ever since. Sullivan came to understand that what a person eats can positively or negatively effect his or her brain's ability to heal. This is where her family's personal journey with mild TBI and her nutritional coaching experience came together. She wrote Nourish Your Noggin in an effort to be a helpful, upbeat resource for other people with TBI and their families as they navigate their path of healing from mild TBI.

Your body is absolutely amazing!  Nerve signals travel through your muscles at almost 200 miles per hour. Your brain can light a 20-watt light bulb with the electric energy it puts out when it is functioning well.  Your separate body systems work together synergistically, coordinating millions of tasks and functions every day. 

What you eat greatly influences your body’s ability to function well. The foods that you eat and drinks that you choose affect you on a cellular level and become your blood, muscles, organs (your brain being the biggest and most important one!), skin, hair, and even your moods. As you have probably heard before, food is “fuel.” This “fuel” contains nutrients. Nutrients come in the form of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, water, amino acids, carbohydrates, and lipids. Nutrients do everything from combating infection to repairing tissue to helping you to think. 

If you make food choices that are comprised of lots of processed food and drive-thru bargains, then your body’s nutritional needs are not being met. A deficiency in good nutrients will impair your body’s normal tasks and can cause body parts to malfunction and break down. How well your body is working can be seen in observing your brain function, memory, skin elasticity, eyesight, energy, the ratio of lean to fat tissue in the body, and an overall feeling of well-being.

Brain chemicals called neurotransmitters that regulate your behavior are controlled by the food and beverages that you choose to take in. Neurotransmitters are responsible for your moods. The most commonly known neurotransmitters are dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. When you eat foods that increase serotonin, you become less tense. When the brain creates more dopamine and norepinephrine, you act and think clearer and are more alert.

Why are these neurotransmitters so crucial? They are responsible for relaying impulses between your nerve cells. If you don’t have enough serotonin, it can lead to depression, anxiety, and disturbed sleep. When you eat a diet rich in complex carbohydrates (like whole grains, veggies, and fruits), it raises the amino acid, tryptophan. Consuming foods containing tryptophan elevates the level of serotonin in the brain, which in turn calms you down. When you eat good quality, high protein foods (like grass-fed meats, free-range eggs, quinoa, etc.), you increase the levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in your body keeping you alert and present.

Depression can be one of the unfortunate side effects after suffering a Mild Traumatic Brain Injury. One of the most common types of depression is a chronic underlying depression called dysthymia. It includes long-term and recurring depression symptoms that don’t necessary disable you, but they do keep you from functioning normally and can interfere with enjoying your life. Arming your food arsenal with healthy choices that combat depression may help keep these symptoms under control.

A brain-healthy diet consists of water, carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients. It may sound like a mouthful, but let me break it down into usable components for you. I’ll quickly highlight the major categories: water, carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Then I will show you the essential vitamins and minerals; how they support brain health; and how a deficiency in each compromises brain function. Note: When I discuss vitamins and minerals, I will refer only to how these relate to brain health and body healing, even though each vitamin and mineral mentioned may benefit other functions in the body.

Vitamins & Minerals

All of the vitamins and minerals that I mention here should be first taken in through a varied, whole-foods diet. The information contained here is not intended as a substitute for consulting with your physician. If you choose to add supplements to your diet, please discuss it first with your doctor. 

Vitamins

Vitamins are very important. They help to regulate the metabolism and the biochemical processes that release the energy from food that has been digested.  Enzymes are catalysts (activators) in the constant chemical reactions that are always happening in the body. Vitamins work with these enzymes to make sure all of the actions are carried out in the body according to plan.

  • Vitamin A: Vitamin A strengthens the immune system, and is needed for the maintenance and repair of epithelial tissue. It aids in fat storage, acts as an antioxidant, and is necessary for new cell growth.  Protein cannot be used in the body without Vitamin A. The carotenoids are a group of compounds related to Vitamin A. They are beta-carotene, alpha and gamma carotene, and lycopene. Beta-carotene is the best source through the diet, because the liver converts only the amount that the body actually needs — thus, preventing toxicity. Deficiencies in Vitamin A may be insomnia, fatigue, and night blindness. If you have diabetes or hypothyroidism, your body may not be able to convert beta-carotene into Vitamin A.
  • Vitamin B Complex: B vitamins maintain healthy nerves, proper brain function and healthy muscle tone. They assist enzymes in their chemical reactions and with energy production. Let’s break them down.
  • B1/Thiamine: B1 helps with blood formation and circulation.  It maximizes cognitive activity and brain function.  It affects energy, growth, appetite, and learning ability. Thiamine deficiency symptoms may be fatigue, forgetfulness, irritability, nervousness, numbness, pain and sensitivity, poor coordination, and tingling.  Antibiotics, Dilantin (a seizure drug), sulfa drugs, heavy alcohol or caffeine intake may decrease thiamine in the body. 
  • B2/Riboflavin: B2 is helpful with red blood cell creation, antibody production, and growth.  It assists with metabolizing carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Deficiencies may be seen as dizziness, insomnia, and slowed mental response.  B2 absorption is affected by antibiotics and alcohol.
  • B3/Niacin: B3 is used for optimal nervous system functioning and proper circulation.  It is helpful for memory enhancement.  Symptoms of B3 deficiency include dementia, depression, dizziness, fatigue, headaches, insomnia, muscular weakness, and inflammation. 
  • B5/Panothenic Acid: B5 is considered the “anti-stress vitamin.”  It is used for the production of adrenal hormones, the formation of antibodies, and to convert fats, carbohydrates, and proteins into energy.  It helps to produce neurotransmitters and is a stamina enhancer.  It may be helpful for treating depression and anxiety.  If you don’t have enough B5, you may suffer from fatigue, headaches, and tingling in the hands.
  • B6/Pyridoxine: B6 is involved in multiple bodily functions and affects both mental and physical health. It helps to absorb fats and proteins and maintains the appropriate sodium and potassium balance. It is crucial for a healthy nervous system, normal brain function, and cellular growth.  B6 deficiency may result in convulsions, headaches, depression, dizziness, fatigue, hyper-irritability, learning difficulties and impaired memory, numbness, and tingling.  Antidepressants, diuretics, and cortisone drugs can reduce absorption of B6.
  • B12/Cyanocobalamin: B12 helps folic acid form red blood cells and use iron properly.  It’s needed for the absorption of foods and the synthesizing of proteins.  It helps with forming cells and their longevity.  It promotes nerve growth and development because it maintains the fatty sheaths that cover and protect nerve endings.  It has been linked to the production of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that enables memory and learning.  It may also help you to sleep more soundly.  B12 deficiency may be seen as chronic fatigue, depression, dizziness, drowsiness, eye disorders, headaches (including migraines), irritability, memory loss, nervousness, neurological damage, ringing in the ears, and spinal cord degeneration. Anti-gout medications, anticoagulant drugs, and potassium supplements may affect absorption. You need “intrinsic factor” (which is a protein produced in the digestive tract) to properly absorb B12.
  • Choline: Choline is important for nerve impulses to be transmitted effectively from the brain through the central nervous system. Without it, brain function and memory can be impaired. It helps with fat and cholesterol metabolism. Choline deficiency may appear as cardiac symptoms, high blood pressure, and an inability to digest fats.
  • Vitamin C: Vitamin C is an antioxidant that is utilized by over 300 different functions in the body. It helps with tissue growth and repair and the production of anti-stress hormones, and it binds with and eliminates heavy metals from the body. It protects against abnormal blood clotting and bruising, promotes wound healing, and helps to form collagen. Vitamin C deficiency can result in a susceptibility to infection, lack of energy, and prolonged wound healing time.  Alcohol, analgesics, antidepressants, anticoagulants, steroids, and smoking may reduce levels of Vitamin C in the body.
  • Vitamin D3: Vitamin D3 is considered the most natural and most active form of Vitamin D. It is recognized as a vitamin and a hormone. It is important for proper growth and development, protecting the body against muscle weakness, and it is necessary for normal blood clotting. D2 is obtained through food sources, but it is not active until it is converted by the liver and the kidneys. Vitamin D deficiency may be seen as symptoms such as a lack of appetite, insomnia, and vision problems. Most people living in the upper third of the US are deficient due to lack of sun exposure in the winter. Some cholesterol-lowering drugs, antacids, and steroid hormones (like cortisone) interfere with Vitamin D absorption.
  • Vitamin E: Vitamin E improves circulation, helps repair tissue, promotes healing, and maintains healthy nerves and muscles. Deficiency may appear as damage to red blood cells and neuromuscular problems. Your body needs zinc to keep Vitamin E up to the correct levels. 
  • Folic Acid/Folate: Folate is referred to as a brain food. It is also used in the formation of red blood cells and the production of energy. As a coenzyme to DNA and RNA synthesis, it is crucial for cell division and replication.  It helps to metabolize protein and may help relieve anxiety and depression. Possible neurological signs of folate deficiency are fatigue, growth impairment, insomnia, memory problems, and weakness. Alcohol also can stand in the way of proper folate absorption.
  • Vitamin K: Vitamin K is used for proper blood clotting. It is also crucial for bone formation and repair and for converting glucose into glycogen for storage. If deficient, you may experience abnormal or internal bleeding. Antibiotics interfere with absorption.

Minerals

You need minerals for your body fluids to be in correct balance, for proper bone and blood formation, and to maintain healthy nerve function and muscle tone.  Minerals work as coenzymes, promoting healthy energy, growth, and healing.  Each mineral in the body works synergistically with other minerals, so if one is out of balance, the others are affected. 

  • Calcium: Among many other functions, calcium helps to maintain a regular heartbeat and properly transmit nerve impulses. It is used in the protein formation of RNA and DNA, and it aids in neuromuscular activity. Deficiency may be seen as insomnia, muscle cramps, nervousness, numbness, cognitive impairment, depression and hyperactivity. Antacids like Tums are not the best source of calcium, because in order to take in the amount of calcium necessary through this method, the stomach acid needed for the absorption of calcium would be neutralized. Phenobarbital and diuretics may cause a deficiency in calcium.
  • Iron: Iron produces hemoglobin and oxygenates red blood cells. It is important for growth, a healthy immune system, and energy production. Deficiency can be caused by excessive exercise, insufficient intake, poor digestion, or excessive coffee or tea consumption. Symptoms may appear as dizziness, fatigue, nervousness, and slowed mental reactions. You need sufficient amounts of hydrochloric acid in the stomach for proper absorption of iron.
  • Magnesium: Magnesium is a catalyst for energy production and helps with calcium and potassium uptake. Taking in magnesium through your diet helps to prevent depression, dizziness, and muscle twitching. It relaxes tight muscles, and it helps to maintain proper pH balance and normal body temperature.  A deficiency in magnesium leads to interference with muscle and nerve impulses that may cause irritability and nervousness. Magnesium deficiency may be responsible for confusion, insomnia, irritability, tantrums, and rapid heartbeat. It can also be seen as chronic fatigue, chronic pain syndromes, and depression.  It is at the root of many cardiovascular problems. To test for deficiency, a procedure called an intracellular magnesium screen should be performed.  Alcohol, diuretics, and high levels of zinc and Vitamin D increase the need for magnesium.
  • Manganese: Manganese is needed in small amounts for metabolizing proteins and fats, healthy nerves, a healthy immune system, and regulating levels of blood sugar. It is used in the formation of cartilage and the synovial fluid in the joints. It complements the B complex vitamins in creating a feeling of well-being. A deficiency in manganese is very rare. 
  • Potassium: Potassium is needed for a healthy nervous system as well as maintaining a regular heart rhythm. It assists sodium in creating a healthy water balance in the body. It aids in transmitting electrochemical impulses, helps to prevent stroke, and enables muscles to contract efficiently. It also manages the exchange of nutrients through the cell membranes. Deficiency symptoms may include cognitive impairment, depression, reduced reflex function, nervousness, glucose intolerance, growth impairment, insomnia, muscle fatigue, and occasional headaches. Stress, tobacco, and caffeine reduce potassium absorption in the body.
  • Zinc: Zinc is needed for protein synthesis and for the formation of cartilage. It also helps to maintain a healthy immune system and to heal wounds. It enhances the senses of taste and smell. An adequate intake and retention of zinc in the body is needed to maintain proper levels of Vitamin E. A zinc deficiency may contribute to the loss of taste and smell. It may also manifest as fatigue, diminished ability to see at night, memory loss, and the slow healing of wounds.

Water

Your body is two-thirds water. Water is utilized in every function of the body and transports nutrients and waste out of every single cell. It maintains proper body temperature and is needed for all digestive actions, circulatory functions and for proper absorption of nutrients.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates supply your body with the energy it needs to function. They are found in fruits, vegetables, peas, and beans. Milk is the only animal product where carbohydrates can be found. There are simple and complex carbohydrates — complex being the best for you.  Simple carbohydrates include fruits (fructose), table sugar (sucrose), milk sugar (lactose), and other simple sugars. Refined sugars — like the ones in soda, candy, and many desserts — are so processed that they contain no beneficial nutrients. Fruit is the only sugar of the “simple” group that your body should be taking in after a Mild Traumatic Brain Injury. (Why? This will be discussed in depth in later chapters.) Complex carbohydrates also include fiber and starches.

Carbohydrates are the main contributor to blood glucose, which is responsible for energizing all of your body’s cells. It is also the only source of energy for your brain and red blood cells.  his glucose provides energy immediately to the cells or is stored in the liver to be used later.

Proteins

Proteins are critical for growth and development, provide the body with energy, and help with the formation of hormones, antibodies, enzymes and tissues.  When you eat protein, your body breaks it down into amino acids. These are the building blocks of all proteins. Your body is able to manufacture “nonessential” amino acids from other amino acids. “Essential” amino acids must be brought into your body through the foods that you eat. Many amino acid combinations are needed to build muscle, for example. If you are deficient in “essential” amino acids for a period of time, your body will stop building protein, compromising your body’s ability to heal and function properly.

Complete proteins contain a large array of essential amino acids and are found in meat, fish, poultry, cheese, eggs and milk. Incomplete proteins, which contain only some essential amino acids, are found in grains, legumes, and leafy green vegetables. This doesn’t give you ticket to “pass” on these foods – it just means that you have eat a balance of foods from the two groups for the maximum benefit.

Fats

Your body needs fat; it’s important for normal brain development and is essential for providing energy. It is the most concentrated form of energy available to the body.  Understanding fats does not have to be overwhelming and confusing! There are five kinds of fatty acids: saturated, polyunsaturated monounsaturated, trans-fatty acids, and essential fatty acids. 

  1. Saturated Fatty Acids: These are found primarily in animal products, including meats, dairy products, and vegetable shortening. The marbling that is seen in a cut of meat is saturated fat.  Most people eat too much saturated fat, which contributes to high cholesterol in the body. However, there are some saturated fats that are good for you in moderation. (This will be discussed in detail in the “Healthy Fats” section.) 
  2.  Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids: These lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol. They are found in corn oil, soybean oil, safflower oil, sunflower oils, salad dressings, and mayonnaise.  They should be used only in moderation, and non-genetically modified and organic versions are the best choices. The healthiest polyunsaturated fats are found in walnuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and flaxseeds.
  3. Monounsaturated Fats: These lower LDL cholesterol and are good for you. They can be found in avocados, olive oil, peanut oil, sesame oils, natural peanut butter, olives, sesame seeds, and most nuts.
  4. Trans-fatty Acids: These are made when fats go through the chemical process of hydrogenation. This changes natural oils into semi-solid or solid fats.  These are unnatural and harmful to your body. They are not metabolized in your body like natural fats and can result in a deformed cellular structure.  You should carefully read labels and eliminate foods containing hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated oils. Be careful — food manufacturers are allowed to label a product “contains 0% trans-fat” or “not a significant source of trans-fat” even if it contains equal or less than .5g per individual serving. Trans-fats are contained in many processed foods and mixes, breads, and fried and snack foods. Many companies have removed trans-fats from their products since the original labeling was created in 2006, so alternatives are easy to find.
  5. Essential Fatty Acids: These are necessary fats that humans cannot make and must be obtained by diet. Some monounsaturated and polyunsaturated foods contain EFAs. There are two families: Omega-3 and Omega-6. Omega-9 is necessary yet “non-essential,” because the body can manufacture a small amount on its own if 3 and 6 are present. EFAs support the cardiovascular, reproductive, immune, and nervous systems. They are needed to make and repair cell membranes, allowing the cells to obtain optimal nutrition and expel harmful waste. EFAs make prostaglandins which help to regulate body functions, such as heart rate, blood pressure, and blood clotting. They also help you to fight off infection and assist the immune system in regulating inflammation. They are needed for neural development and maturation of sensory systems in children, especially males. Omega-3 deficiencies are linked to decreased mental abilities, tingling in the nerves, poor vision, a reduced immune system, learning disorders, and many other symptoms.  Even though most Americans eat too much Omega-6, it is not always converted correctly in the body because of diets containing too much sugar, alcohol, and processed foods. Smoking, stress, aging, and viral infections can also reduce effectiveness. (I will cover which foods contain these EFAs in greater detail in upcoming chapters.)

WOW! I know that this chapter contains a lot of information to process and take in!  I hope that it gave you a deeper understanding about how your body utilizes proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and water. I also hope that it increased your knowledge about how vitamins and minerals work synergistically to promote brain health and body healing. In the following chapters, I will show you what foods and substances hinder your ability to heal, what foods promote maximum energy and nutrition, where to find healthy options on the go, and wonderful, tasty recipes that are easy to make!

Excerpted from NOURISH YOUR NOGGIN: Brain-Building Foods and Easy-to-Make Recipes to Hasten Your Healing from Mild Traumatic Brain Injury by Tina M. Sullivan. Copyright © 2012 Tina M. Sullivan. Outskirts Press. For more information on the book, go here.

Comments [6]

Is this the same for someone that suffered a serve head injury 6 years ago?

Jun 12th, 2014 1:50pm

Thanks for raising the environmental topic of what is good nutrition, pure water, and clean air.  Regarding nutrition and the brain, a blender like the Vitamix can make smoothies from fresh, whole, organic, healthy foods.  For nutrition and cognitive challenges such as brain concussions, the many epilepsies, and the ADHDs, two good, educational books are:  Nerves in Collision by Walter C. Alvarez, M.D. and the How To Cure Hyperactivity book (1981) about Inattentive ADHD by C. Thomas Wild, introduction by Anita Uhl Brothers, M.D. (about coffee - caffeine compounds - organic foods, modern nutrition, etc.  Caffeine works for a few with ADHD;  food additives need better labels). 

Jan 13th, 2014 1:34pm

Thank you!This is great information for me.

Sep 3rd, 2013 8:51pm

You are very welcome! I hope that this information takes a complicated subject and simplifies it for TBI sufferers and their caregivers. Please check out the full book at Amazon - available on Kindle as well. http://www.amazon.com/Nourish-Your-Noggin-Easy---Make/dp/1432778951/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1349445017&sr=8-1&keywords=nourish+your+noggin

Oct 5th, 2012 9:59am

THANK YOU! THIS IS GREAT! EASY TO READ AND KNOWLEDGEABLE!

Sep 28th, 2012 11:49am

This article is valuable for all! I hope folks read and apply. Brain health is more than something to think about! Thank you!

Jul 19th, 2012 9:44am


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