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Nourish Your Noggin: What Foods to Avoid and Why

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Tina M. Sullivan

Nourish Your Noggin: What Foods to Avoid and Why
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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.

The food industry has a big problem, because they not only have to produce food, but they also have to distribute it to millions of people daily. This food has to be attractive and tasty enough to eat. This presents a conflict. Food that is fresh, has nutritional value, and is free of preservatives, like fresh fruit and vegetables, are fragile and expensive to deliver. Processed foods are cheap to produce, have a long shelf life, and are easy to store and distribute. Most foods that have a long shelf life have to be colorized to keep them looking fresh. They also have to be combined with various preservatives to stop them from degrading. This does not mean that you can never buy foods that are processed or convenient, but rather, you have to be diligent in reading the ingredients labels to fully understand what you are purchasing. The ingredient label is just as important, if not more so, than the level of calories, fat grams, etc. that is displayed above it. (I will be sharing with you healthy alternatives without the additives in upcoming chapters so that you have additional choices.)

There are certain things that you ingest, willingly and unknowingly, that directly affect the brain. Taking in neurotoxic substances is a form of malnutrition. These foods, additives, and preservatives can be toxic to brain cells, even in small amounts. The following topics will highlight how each affects your body and your brain.

Gluten and the Brain

Gluten sensitivity is now described as “one of the most common human diseases.” There are about 3 million people currently in the US that are affected by this. Gluten sensitivity was originally seen to be only a gastrointestinal problem. However, recent research indicates that it can have a severe impact on the nervous system. Dr. Maios Hadjivassiliou of the United Kingdom, a recognized world authority on gluten sensitivity, indicates that people can have problems with brain function without any digestive issues at all.

Gluten is found in wheat, barley, kamut, rye, bulgur, and spelt. If you are gluten sensitive, your body produces elevated levels of antibodies against gliadin. These anti-gliadin antibodies turn on particular immune cells in your body. Then cytokines, which are inflammatory chemicals, are created. Cytokines are known to negatively affect brain function. In fact, elevated cytokines are seen in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and autism. Because of the inflammation that this chemical reaction creates, brain function and ultimate brain health are compromised.

There is a lesser known condition called gluten ataxia. Although it belongs to the same group of gluten sensitivity as celiac disease, it is a disorder of the immune system. With this disorder, the focus of the disease is in the cerebellum of the brain. The cerebellum controls coordination, walking, speaking, and swallowing. Sometimes, the peripheral nerves coming off of the spinal cord are involved. These symptoms can appear as numbness, tingling, and pain, and they may progress into peripheral neuropathy.

Ataxia means loss of coordination. Neurological symptoms may appear as slurred speech, loss of coordination in limbs, difficulty walking, ocular problems, and recurrent headaches. In children and young adults, it can cause developmental delay, diminished muscle tone, and learning disorders.

According to Heidi Schwarz, M.D., a neurologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center and assistant professor of Neurology at Strong Memorial Hospital, “Gluten ataxia is out there, but so few of us have seen it — or perhaps recognized it. If you see a patient who has malabsorption problems, they can’t tolerate this or can’t tolerate that, if they have gastrointestinal complaints along with neurologic symptoms, then you order the antibody tests.” Schwartz says, “Yet most patients I see with neurologic manifestations of gluten intolerance don’t have a lot of GI symptoms, if any.”

The blood test to screen for gluten ataxia is the same as the test to screen for gluten sensitivity. It measures the antigliadin antibodies (IgG and IgA) circulating in the blood.

Other neurological symptoms from sensitivity to gluten are the following:

  • Headaches, migraines, or brain “fog”
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Chronic fatigue and weakness
  • Behavioral issues, seizures, depression, and psychiatric problems

If you are recovering from a Mild Traumatic Brain Injury, it is in your best interest to avoid products containing gluten, due to the neurological side effects, to optimize your recovery — even if you do not have the markers for gluten sensitivity or gluten ataxia. We are fortunate to live in a time where it is easy to avoid gluten and have many tasty, good quality options to choose from. (I promise!) I will reveal these to you in detail in future chapters.

If you are concerned that you may have food allergies and want to pursue getting Food Allergy & Food Sensitivity Testing done, I recommend a company that our Naturopath used, named BioTek. They were excellent. Not only did they provide us with results from each general category (like dairy), but they also broke the specifics down by each food (like cheddar cheese, cow’s milk, mozzarella, etc.) There are many good Food Allergy & Food Sensitivity Labs in the US. We found that the blood testing done with this company through our Naturopath provided us with much more concrete information than a regular Allergist had done prior.

High Fructose Corn Syrup

High Fructose Corn Syrup was invented in Japan in 1966 and brought into the US in 1975. Food manufacturers started using it instead of sucrose (table sugar) because it costs three times less to make. High Fructose Corn Syrup began appearing in almost every pre-packaged and processed food on the market. In the past century, fructose consumption has increased by 5 times! The current intake of sugar per person is 141 pounds per year, 63 of which are from HFCS. Most adolescents are taking in 73 grams a day of fructose — 12% of their daily caloric intake!

How does fructose affect your body? It interferes with the body’s signals telling you that you are full. This happens because of a rise of leptin in your system, and it also does NOT stimulate ghrelin, which is the “hunger hormone.” Because fructose raises insulin levels, it interferes with the communication between leptin and your hypothalamus; your brain senses that you are not satisfied by what you are eating and prompts you to eat more.

Because HFCS is man-made, it is converted into triglycerides and fat tissue, not usable blood glucose. HFCS is consumed in liquid form, usually in soda or as a food additive, so it affects your metabolism even faster.

Fructose contributes to the following:

  • Insulin resistance and obesity
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Higher triglycerides and LDL
  • Cardiovascular disease, liver disease, arthritis, and gout

Fructose originates from fruits and vegetables. Past generations consumed about 15 grams a day compared to the 73 grams a day that the average adolescent consumes now. When you ingest fructose from foods, it’s mixed with beneficial fiber, vitamins, phytonutrients, and enzymes—all of which balance out any negative metabolic effects. Fructose is not bad; it’s the massive amount that the typical American consumes that has created the problems.

About ¼ of the calories consumed by the average American is in the form of added sugars. Believe it or not, the low-fat diet foods are the ones containing the most sugar. In most processed foods, all of the fiber has been removed, so there is barely any nutritional value left.

After ingesting fructose, 100% of the metabolic breakdown must happen in your liver. But with glucose, the liver only has to break down 20%. Every cell in your body, including your brain, uses glucose. So, much of it is used up very soon after it is ingested. However, fructose is turned into free fatty acids and gets stored as fat. These fatty acids accumulate in your liver and your skeletal muscle tissue, causing insulin resistance and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. This metabolism by your liver creates an over abundance of uric acid in the body, which elevates blood pressure and may cause gout.

So, this is the straight scoop about high fructose corn syrup. Due to concerns about high fructose corn syrup and the health of the consumer, many food and beverage manufacturers are doing away with it. Knowledge is power, and you can decide how to become an advocate for your own health. I will discuss the healthiest sweeteners in the next chapter. Now let’s take a look at those artificial sweeteners!

Artificial Sweeteners

People use artificial sweeteners because they are low in calories and are a sweet substitute for sugar. Aspartame is probably the most commonly one used, but how does it affect your brain? A study done by Humphries, Pretorius, and their colleagues from South Africa explains exactly that.

There are three components to aspartame: 50% phenylalanine, 40% aspartic acid, and 10% methanol. Phenylalanine is recognized as a neurotransmitter regulator. This study highlighted the possible negative effects on serotonin in the brain. Phenylalanine lowered the levels of serotonin, which then affected sleep, mood, appetite, and behavior. It also disrupted amino acid metabolism, hormone balance, and nerve functions. Aspartic acid works as an excitatory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system. Methanol is changed to formate, which is flushed out of the body or is accumulated in the body as formaldehyde.

Aspartame can also do the following:

  • Disrupt protein metabolism
  • Disrupt neuronal functions
  • Cause improper functioning of enzymes

Deplete the cells’ ATP stores, which then lower the glucose levels, inhibiting the synthesis of acetylcholine and glutamate

Aspartame can cause an imbalance in brain chemicals, such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. These imbalances may manifest as headaches, insomnia, and seizures. This review-based study concluded that excessive intake of aspartame can lead to mental and emotional disturbances and may affect learning ability.

Currently, the following five artificial sweeteners are approved by the FDA:

  • Aspartame,sold under the brand names NutraSweet® and Equal®
  • Saccharin,sold under the brand name Sweet’N Low®
  • Sucralose, sold under the brand name Splenda®
  • Acesulfame K(or acesulfame potassium), produced by Hoechst, a German chemical company, widely used in foods, beverages, and pharmaceutical products around the world
  • Neotame, produced by the NutraSweet Company; the most recent addition to FDA’s list of approved artificial sweeteners, used in diet soft drinks and low-calorie foods

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) cautions everyone to avoid aspartame, saccharin, and acesulfame K, because they are unsafe in amounts consumed or are very poorly tested and not worth the risk.

Additional symptoms that have been associated with the consumption of aspartame include the following:

  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Tinnitus
  • Blurred vision
  • Hallucinations
  • Personality Changes
  • Hyperactivity
  • Numbness and tingling
  • Mood changes
  • Muscle cramps
  • Heart arrhythmia
  • Hearing loss
  • Insomnia
  • Eye problems
  • Memory loss
  • Violent episodes
  • Joint pains
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety attacks
  • Skin lesions

Fortunately, most of the above symptoms are alleviated once aspartame use is discontinued. Most individuals wouldn’t even think to connect the above mentioned symptoms to artificial sweeteners.

Do you want to find out how sucralose (Splenda) negatively affects your health? A study done at Duke University determined that it reduces the healthy bacteria in your gut, which helps your immune system, by up to 50%. (Check out http://www.truthaboutsplenda.com.) Now you know!

Refined Sugar

Humans love sweet foods. We have been looking to satisfy our sweet tooth for centuries. Sugar is a simple carbohydrate that happens naturally in foods such as grains, beans, vegetables, and fruit. When it is left unprocessed, it is good for you.

Refined table sugar, which is sucrose, is very different. Derived from either sugar cane or beets, it lacks vitamins, minerals, and fiber, and it requires your body to work harder to digest it. Your body uses up its stored enzymes and minerals to absorb sucrose properly. What happens? Instead of your body receiving nutrition, it creates deficiency. It enters the blood stream rapidly affecting your body’s blood sugar levels. When it is high, it causes excitability, nervous tension, and hyperactivity. When it drops low, it causes fatigue, exhaustion, and depression. Most people are aware that blood sugar levels fluctuate, but they do not recognize the emotional rollercoaster that comes along with it!

One of sugar’s major drawbacks is that as it raises your insulin level, inhibiting the release of hormones, which then reduces your immune system’s ability to protect you against infection and disease. Back in 1970, Linus Pauling realized that white blood cells need a high dose of Vitamin C to fight the common cold. Because glucose and Vitamin C have similar chemical structures, they compete with each other to enter the cell. Too much sugar may reduce your white blood cells’ ability to combat disease by up to 75%!

Sugar is actually considered to be an addictive substance because:

  • Eating even a small amount creates a desire for more; and
  • If you quit eating it suddenly, you may experience headaches, mood swings, cravings, and fatigue.

Where is sugar hidden in what we eat? How about canned vegetables, cereals, peanut butter, breads, and tomato sauce! Other names for refined sugar are corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, and maltose. Even some “healthy foods” contain sugar. A lemon poppy seed Cliff Bar has 21 grams of sugar, or 5 teaspoons. A chocolate glazed donut only has 14 grams comparatively! A 16 oz. Starbucks Frappuccino has 44 grams of sugar, or 10 teaspoons. This heavy intake of sugar has led to an explosion of hypoglycemia (blood sugar fluctuation) and Type II Diabetes.

How Sugar Affects Brain Health

According to Malcolm Peet, a noted British psychiatric researcher, there is a strong link between high sugar consumption and the risk of depression as well as schizophrenia. There are two ways that sugar may exert a toxic effect on mental health. First, BDNF, a key growth hormone in the brain, is suppressed by sugar. This hormone promotes the health of neurons in the brain and assists with memory by creating new neuron connections. Second, there is a cascade of chemical reactions that occur in the body when ingesting sugar that create chronic inflammation. Over time, inflammation suppresses the immune system, which then negatively affects brain function. Dr. IIardi, PhD, Associate Profession of Psychology at the University of Kansas, had some of his patients with depression give up simple sugars contained in crackers, white bread, and other refined foods. The patients that complied reported significant improvement in mood, energy, and mental clarity.

Because alcohol turns to sugar in the body, it should also be avoided. Alcohol can be a neurotoxin. According to the American Society for Nutrition, the single worst thing that you can do to your brain is to consume distilled spirits. Distilled spirits, such as vodka and rum, affect carbohydrates, which your brain needs to thrive, and they also slow down metabolism. Drinks also drain the body of Vitamin B and affect liver function.

After abstaining from sugar for months, my son decided over the Christmas break to eat sugar about five times in one day. That night he was lightheaded, dizzy, felt like “he was in a dream,” and was anxious. He finally connected the two together, and he has decided not to repeat the experience!

As I mentioned earlier, I will share with you the healthiest sweeteners and also “sweet” foods that will enable you to transition to eating healthier and still be able to satisfy those sweet cravings. Want to check out a fun website to check how much sugar is contained in common foods? Go to http://sugarstacks.com/.

Partially Hydrogenated Oils

Partial hydrogenation is a chemical process that changes liquid oil into semi-solid or solid oil. Why? Because it provides a longer shelf-life for many processed foods, such as breads, mixes, stick margarine, icing, and fried and snack foods. They are also used as cooking oils for “frying” in restaurants.

Top nutritionists at Harvard have concluded that trans-fats may be responsible for as many as 30,000 premature coronary deaths a year. As mentioned in the “Nutrition and the Brain” chapter, they are not metabolized in your body like natural fats, and they can result in a deformed cellular structure. So what should you avoid?

Don’t eat products with the words “shortening” or “partially hydrogenated” on the ingredients list. NOTE: Fully hydrogenated oils (like beneficial coconut oil) do not contain trans-fats.

Even if the label says “no trans fat,” 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 serving. Let’s say that one serving contains .4g, but you eat 3 servings (which is totally possible). You’ve just taken in 1.2g of trans- fat, thinking that you are doing the right thing.

When dining out, don’t be afraid to ask if they use trans-fats in their salad dressings, for frying, baking, etc. When you ask, you are sending a message to the seller that you don’t want trans-fats in your body.

You may have to search harder than you are accustomed to in avoiding partially hydrogenated oils. Many manufacturers have removed it from their products in the last couple of years. Be diligent. Once you find new products that you like, you can just grab it, because you will be past the learning curve. We’ll get into healthier fat options in an upcoming chapter.

Artificial Food Dyes & Additives

Shopping was easy when all food came from farms. Now, factory-made foods have made chemical additives a significant part of our diet. Awareness is key, and knowledge allows you to make educated decisions for your own personal health. I am only going to highlight the worst dyes and additives to avoid, listed on the “Center for Science in the Public Interest” website. Don’t worry. You’ll be able to eat well without them!

Blue #2: an artificial coloring in pet foods, candy, and beverages (like Gatorade!). Animal studies found some evidence that it causes brain cancer in male rats, even though the FDA concludes that “there is reasonable certainty of no harm.”

Red #3: Artificial coloring in candy and baked goods. According to a 1983 review report requested by the FDA, the fact that this dye caused thyroid tumors in rats was “convincing.” However, it was never banned. It is still used in icing, gum, and fruit roll-ups.

Yellow #5: Artificial coloring used in candy, pet foods, gelatin desserts, and baked goods. It is the second most common coloring used and can cause allergy-like hypersensitivity, primarily in people who are sensitive to aspirin. It can also cause hyperactivity in some children.

Yellow #6: Artificial coloring in candy, baked goods, and beverages. Industry sponsored animal tests indicated that this dye, which is the third most commonly used, causes tumors of the adrenal glands and kidneys. It may cause hypersensitivity reactions in some individuals.

Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA):An antioxidant in cereals, chewing gum, potato chips, and vegetable oil. BHA retards rancidity in fats, oils, and oil containing foods. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services considers BHA to be “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” Nevertheless, the FDA still allows it to be used in our food.

Caramel Coloring: Used primarily in colas. It’s made by heating a variety of sugars with ammonium compounds or acids. By weight, it is the most widely used coloring added to foods and beverages. When caramel coloring is produced with ammonia, it produces a contaminant called 4-methylimidazole, which is also present in cigarette smoke. The amounts of this contaminant are so worrisome that the State of California has proposed that a warning notice be required on food and non-food products. It is worth avoiding colas and other beverages with this because the serving sizes are so large.

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG): Used as a flavor enhancer in soups, salad dressing, chips, frozen entrees, and restaurant foods. This amino acid boosts the flavor in many foods. While this sounds great, it allows food manufacturers to reduce the amount of real ingredients in their foods, like chicken in chicken soup. As early as the 1960’s, it was known that large amounts of MSG ingested by infant rats destroyed nerve cells in the brain. After this research was publicized, consumers forced baby food manufacturers to stop putting it in their products.

How can MSG affect the brain?MSG may cross the blood-brain barrier and damage brain cells by excitatory neurotoxicity. Certain cells called oligodendrocytes, which are found in the nervous system and make myelin, are destroyed by excess glutamate. It is the inability to make myelin which defines the disease multiple sclerosis.

Other symptoms reported include: headaches, nausea, weakness, and a burning sensation on the back of the neck and forearms. Some people complain of wheezing, changes in heart rate, and difficulty breathing. People that are sensitive should be aware of other products containing glutamate. If you think that you have this sensitivity, here is a website for you:http://msgtruth.org.

Sodium Nitrites & Sodium Nitrates: Used as a preservative and coloring in bacon, ham, deli meats, hot dogs, smoked fish, and corned beef. Meat processors love these additives, because they preserve the red coloring in meat (otherwise hot dogs and bacon would look grey). Several studies have linked consumption of cured meats and nitrite by children, pregnant women, and adults with various types of cancer. The meat industries justify using them by claiming it prevents the bacteria growth that cause botulism poisoning. This is true, but refrigeration and freezing prevent it as well. The use of nitrites and nitrates has been greatly reduced in the last decade. It is easy to find the above mentioned products without these ingredients at almost every market in the U.S.

Genetically Engineered & Genetically Modified Foods: I’m sure that you have heard of (GE) and (GMO) foods. Most corn and soy seeds grown in the US have been genetically engineered so that they will be resistant to the pesticides that are sprayed on the plants to kill the insects. Yes, the plants thrive, but then these plants are harvested with pesticides like Roundup and put into our foods to be consumed. Do not purchase any soy products unless the label reads “Non-GMO.”

Produce that is genetically modified will have a label marked by a 5 digit number beginning with an “8,” like this: 84011. Buy conventional produce and wash with a veggie wash or buy organic produce instead.

Okay! That’s it! I know that I have probably overwhelmed you with all of the seemingly negative information in this chapter! I did it for one reason only: so that you can be an informed advocate for your own health and to discover exactly what is in all of the above mentioned foods and additives that may hinder your state of well being and your recovery from Mild Traumatic Brain Injury.

I promise that the rest of this book will give you wonderful, tasty food options and recipes that are easy to find, easy to prepare and taste so good that you will forget all about what you cannot have! Be patient with yourself and take it one step at a time.

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 [5]

Thank you for the clear and concise presentation of these issues. I also have a teenager now in her third year of recovery following a mTBI. Nutrition and exercise are our current focus. I was not aware of the concerns with gluten, but will be addressing ASAP.

Nov 19th, 2013 4:10pm

There is no reason why anyone should consume caffeine, except to relieve caffeine withdrawl headache. And furthermore I do not use caffeine, and I would suggest that anyone who is a caffeine addict or who uses caffeine, and who gives advice to persons with brain injury about what they consume should reveal weather or not they themselves use caffeine. Caffeine is an addictive drug. Caffeine is certianly known as a drug which disrupts the normal chemical function of the brain and nervous system. And furthermore, caffeine also disrupts the normal function of the kidneys, the circulatory system, the endocrine system, and the gasterointestinal system. Caffeine is also a drug which causes tiredness, hunger and physical discomfort and leads the user to be psychologically compelled to then over eat and/or use more drugs in an attempt to relieve the "coming down" from the caffeine "buzz".

May 2nd, 2013 2:46pm

Thank you for sharing this outstanding article.

May 1st, 2013 7:15pm

I wish this information was at the forefront of the medical industry\'s paperwork to be sent home with all TBI patients and their families. After suffering a Severe TBI myself from a MVA in January of 2012, I have never been given this info. Not by my therapists, my physicians, my Neurologists, my Neuro psychologists, etc., and yet it seems to be of pretty significant importance for my healing. I am so glad to know this now.

May 1st, 2013 5:36pm

I cant believe this is the first comment for such a great article. I have recently became aware of the food model and what some of the effects could be. Two months ago, i made a move to start limiting or attempting to fully eliminate sugar from my diet. I could say that it made a huge difference in my life. After reading the article, i now understand more fully the reasons why one should not eat processed sugars and will work on fully eliminating that from my diet. I will be a regular visitor to this site now and just want to thank you for the information you are providing.

Apr 27th, 2013 11:11am


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