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Comfort Food for Your Brain

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Essential Fats
Do you gather wild plants to eat? Do you hunt wild game for your meat? If not, you are likely one of the 99 percent of people who are deficient in the most important ingredient bodies need for normal cell and brain function- omega-3 fatty acids.

Your brain is built from fat. And omega-3 fats are the most important building blocks for a healthy brain and cells. Yet, in the last 150 years, we have seen an unprecedented change in our fat intake. Refined omega-6 inflammatory oils, including corn, soy and safflower oils, have replaced omega-3 fats from fish, wild game and wild plants. Specifically, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats in our diets has increased from 1-to-1 to 10-to-1 or 20-to-1, and the effects have been disastrous.

All of the major diseases of aging, as well as the epidemic of brain disorders, including mood problems, are directly associated with this change in our diet. Specifically, low levels of omega-3 fats have been linked to everything from depression and anxiety to bipolar disease and dementia.

Our brains don’t work without omega-3 fats. Period. Why? Because omega-3 fats, together with phospholipids, form the basic structure of all our cell membranes. In the brain, specifically, each brain cell is connected to every other brain cell by about 40,000 synapses, and they are all sending messages constantly. Each of those connections meets at the cell membrane.

Healthy cell membranes- those formed with an ample supply of omega-3 and other healthy fats are fluid and flexible and allow for easy communication from cell to cell. This supports not just happier, more balanced moods, but clearer thoughts and a sharper memory.

Conversely, if a cell’s membranes have been formed from unhealthy substances that lack flexibility and fluidity (such as trans fats, rancid fats or industrial oils), the cell’s membranes become rigid. Effectiveness and speed of communication slows down. That leads to poorer mental function, memory problems and mood disorders.

Feed Your Brain: Fats

  • Cold-water fish, such as wild salmon, sardines, herring, small halibut and sable (black cod)
  • Omega-3 eggs, a rich source of choline (a type of phospholipid) for your brain
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Unrefined or expeller-pressed sesame oil (for high-temperature cooking)
  • Flax, hemp and nuts such as walnuts, pecans, almonds and macadamia nuts

Proteins and Amino Acids
The trillions of cell membranes in your brain are the ears that listen for messages that tell your brain to be happy or sad, to focus or be inattentive, to relax or be stressed. Protein or more specifically, the amino-acid building blocks of protein are the messengers, or neurotransmitters, that do the talking in your brain and throughout your body. If your cells are going to get the message, they need protein.

All protein is made from only eight amino acids we must get from our diet. These essential amino acids are the raw materials we use to make all our neurotransmitters and the receptors or docking stations on our cells on which they land to transmit their messages. If you don’t eat adequate protein at every meal, your brain can’t work properly. You will be sluggish, foggy, anxious, unfocused, tired and depressed.

To illustrate how what you eat affects your mood, take the neurotransmitter serotonin. A severe lack of serotonin is what makes people feel depressed and turn to drugs like Prozac and Zoloft. Interestingly, one of the reasons many people crave refined carbohydrates and sugars is that eating them results in a serotonin surge. But the effect is only temporary: Serotonin levels then crash, causing renewed cravings for something starchy or sugary. Unfortunately, this same dynamic ultimately makes us feel more depressed.

Serotonin is necessary for maintaining a happy mood, reducing anxiety and irritability, and helping us sleep. But in the daily activity of this or any neurotransmitter, there are several things that can go wrong and cause it to malfunction. Here are just a few examples of how serotonin levels go south:

A tryptophan-deficient or low-protein diet. Tryptophan (present in many protein sources, like eggs, fish, poultry, milk and spirulina) is the primary amino acid from which serotonin is created. No tryptophan equals no serotonin equals a very unhappy mood.

Blood-sugar imbalances (insulin resistance or prediabetes). This condition comes from eating a processed-food, high-sugar diet. The imbalance briefly spikes and then depletes your serotonin, leading to mood swings.

Magnesium deficiency. This is an incredibly common deficiency in our society because stress, caffeine, sugar and alcohol all deplete magnesium. The deficiency, in turn, prevents the body from making serotonin.

These are just a few of the ways that production of one neurotransmitter can be inhibited. And every one of these neurotransmitters including GABA, which helps you relax, and acetylcholine, which helps you learn and remember things is similarly influenced by our diet and lifestyle.

Drugs like Prozac generally help to improve only half the symptoms half the time and typically involve a variety of side effects, some of them serious. If you can get equal or better results plus positive side benefits from simply optimizing your nutrition through good, whole-food sources of protein and other natural nutrients, isn’t that worth a try?

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12:13PM PDT on Aug 27, 2014

Many thanks!!

6:08PM PDT on Jun 9, 2013

thank you

10:25PM PDT on Apr 24, 2013

yep low thyroid can wreck havoc and cause depression go get yours tested symptoms include very dry skin hair loss and cold body temp

10:07PM PDT on Apr 24, 2013

good advise :)

6:04AM PDT on Oct 24, 2012

A year ago, I found out I have type 2 diabetes. We ate pretty heallthy before, but more so now!!

I went to my doctor yesterday, and he told me my A1C test came back great and to keep doing whatever I am doing because it is working!!

I take some of the vitamins listed above, but now I will look for a few others and try to eat a little more fish!!

8:22AM PDT on Jul 31, 2012

For many depression is not just down days but a disorder and not to be painted over by some of the commentators here.

So many of the refined foods we eat do not help and with so many chemicals and additives in our foods these days it is often better to cook from scratch and beware of some of the sources, especially if one mainly eats canned and frozen microwaved dinners.

Many people with low incomes cannot afford a lot of healthy foods especially if living far from rural areas where one can buy from a small family farm.

With gas prices soaring finding food within a good price range gets even more difficult.

10:31PM PST on Jan 4, 2011

I'm thrilled to see one more medical doctor who advocates addressing the source of so many of these problems -- so few even see the connection. Every one counts! Sadly, Dr Hyman says "all [these factors] create a minefield of obstacles for anyone trying to find the right supplement, vitamin or herb" yet fails to mention even one resource for navigating this minefield. I found "The United States Pharmacopeia (USP) is a non–governmental, official public standards–setting authority for prescription and over–the–counter medicines and other healthcare products manufactured or sold in the United States". On the USP website is a list of supplement manufacturers which have the USP test their products to ensure their quality -- eg. the product has the ingredients it says and it has no contaminants. The only manufacturer whose products I can find locally is NatureMade, which appears expensive, except our local pharmacy chain has them on sale 2-for-1 about twice a year, which makes them a best-buy.

Like Donna M and Laurie Walsh, I've struggled with SAD and severe depression since my teens. I've taken antidepressants for years and only recently found out the EXTREMELY important role Vitamin D plays in our health (physical AND mental/emotional). Check out: Also, check out The Alliance for NAtural Health . The FDA promotes meds and suppresses nutrition info. The FDA needs a colon cleanse NOW.

3:53PM PDT on Apr 27, 2010

This is a really great article, and I completely agree. Your mind and body are connected, and you have to take care of both in order to be balanced.

4:10AM PST on Mar 10, 2010

I have suffered severe depression on and off since I was fourteen (twenty years now), and was diagnosed as bipolar in September '08. I have taken a variety of anti-depressants and mood stabilisers, and endured a variety of side-effects including: insomnia, weight gain, hair loss, panic attacks, severe tremors, severe brain fog, nausea, dizziness, and plenty more.
In January I went off all of my medication and started using nutrition and lots of brain work (learning about the power of our thoughts and emotions, and our ability to choose them) to heal myself instead. I read a huge range of books on these subjects and learn new things every day.
I've discovered that I can't eat red meat (makes me crazy), for example.
I have been happier and more stable in the past two months than I have been for as long as I can remember. I'm not saying that in the future I might not need a bit of chemical help - who knows? - but for now I'm doing just fine :)

3:52PM PST on Jan 11, 2010

Finally, an article on nutrition that makes sense. Thank you so much. I am a firm believer that basically most disease and un-wellness comes from the foods we supply the body. We can avoid all those drugs (esp. prosac) if we feed the body and brain properly. We are so used to not question what goes in our bodies and than run to the doctor to get symptom treatment in the form of drugs or other intervention. Why not prevent disease? It's so natural and simple, where is people's responsibility to take care of themselves? Have we become brain fogged from a nutrient deficient diet? We need to think for ourselves, take charge and eat right.

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