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Food, Mind, And Mood: The Connection Between What People Eat and How They Feel and Act

Aug 15, 2008
Nutritional factors can have a significant impact on brain function, which can result, if deficiencies or imbalances occur, in numerous mental aberrations, such as depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, schizophrenia, autism, bulimia, anorexia and bi-polar disorder. Linus Pauling Ph.D., a two-time Nobel Prize winner, summed up this perspective well when he said, "It is now recognized by leading workers in the field that behavior is determined by the functioning of the brain, and that the functioning of the brain is dependent on its composition and its structure". The composition and structure of the brain is largely determined by what types of foods and nutrients people ingest. The resulting composition and structure determines how the brain works and how people feel and act.

Although many researchers in the fields of behavioral sciences have discovered strong evidence that what people ingest can have a tremendous impact on a person's emotions and behaviors, the connection is still often overlooked by most clinicians in the mental health field.

The nutrients that will be discussed here are vitamins B12, B6, and folate; the minerals iron, magnesium and zinc; the essential fatty acids, particularly omega 3's and trans-fats. Food sensitivities will also be discussed. These sensitivities are often referred to as brain or cerebral allergens. There are many other nutrients that affect the brain, but this overview should give the reader an adequate representation of the significant impact nutrition has on the brain and therefore, moods and behavior.

The B vitamins, particularly, B12, B6 and folate have many connections to mental health. A vitamin B12 deficiency, which can be caused from a poor diet, poor digestion, or drug-nutrient depletion, has been linked to an inability to concentrate, poor memory, confusion, fatigue, moodiness, agitation, depression, mania, paranoia, psychosis, loss of alertness, social withdrawal, and hallucinations. A serious deficiency of B12 causes pernicious anemia. If this condition is persistent it can lead to permanent nerve damage. Much of the nerve damage can occur before any symptoms manifest.

B12 and folate often work together and many of the symptoms of B12 deficiency are the same for a folate deficiency.

The third B vitamin is B6. A deficiency of B6 is associated with agitation, insomnia, irritability, convulsions, depression, confusion and brain wave abnormalities. Vitamin B6 supports the formation of the neurotransmitters. Therefore, a deficiency can manifest in numerous ways depending on which neurotransmitter is most affected. Pyroluria, a condition caused by a genetic error in the metabolism of B6 and zinc, greatly increases the need for these nutrients. People with this condition will need to take many times the RDA of these nutrients to avoid a deficiency.

The main minerals that are connected to mood and behavior are iron, magnesium, and zinc. There are others, but a deficiency of these minerals is found most often in people dealing with mood and behavior problems. The first nutrient, iron, has been studied the longest and has a strong connection to mental aberrations. The deficiency of iron can adversely affect attention span, memory, learning capacity, and immune function. A deficiency of iron leads to anemia, which can produce pallor, fatigue, dizziness, irritability, constipation and difficulty swallowing and breathing. The prevalence of iron deficiency and anemia is massive. According to Whitney and Rolfes (2002),

Worldwide, iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency, affecting more than one billion people. Long before the red blood cells are affected and anemia is diagnosed, a developing iron deficiency affects behavior. Many of the symptoms associated with iron deficiency are easily mistaken for behavioral or motivational problems. (p. 433)

The next mineral is magnesium. The symptoms associated with a deficiency of this nutrient are apathy, agitation, irritability, personality changes, disorientation, bizarre movements, sleep disturbances, depression, and in some cases hallucinations. The likelihood that people are deficient in magnesium is high. As survey conducted in 1995 showed that as much as 72 percent of the population of the United States may not get the recommended amount of magnesium each day. Regarding specific mood and behavior problems, one study found that magnesium was the most frequent deficiency in ADHD children.

The third mineral that is strongly linked to mood and behavior is zinc. A deficiency of zinc is associated with headaches, lethargy, amnesia, other memory impairments, irritability, behavior disorders and paranoia. Zinc plays an important part in the ability to taste and smell. Because of these and other aspects, zinc seems to play an integral part in the etiology and recovery of eating disorders. Schauss and Costin state, "Many researchers, including the authors, have discovered that most anorexics and bulimics are zinc-deficient" (1997, December, p. 8). As stated earlier, with regard to vitamin B6, those with pyroluria will need to take higher than normal amounts of zinc to get a proper amount of usable zinc. Along with these nutrients (vitamins and minerals), the fats that people ingest can have a significant impact on brain function.

People are fat heads. This is not a derogatory comment, but a fact, based on the finding that fats make up about 60 percent of the dry weight of the brain. Because fats make up the majority of brain matter, the types and quantities of fats that are ingested and subsequently taken up by the brain can affect how the brain functions. Two particular types of fats, which are considered essential fats, are omega 3 and omega 6 fats. These fats play a pivotal role in brain health as well as the health of the whole body. These essential fats make up about 20 percent of the fats that compose the brain. More and more research is demonstrating the importance of these fats, particularly the omega 3 fats. Dr. Stoll, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard, has been a leader in the study of these fats. His recent book, The Omega 3 Connection, lays out much of the research, up to the year 2000, on fats and their connection to mood and behavior. Even more extraordinary perhaps are the emerging findings that omega 3 fatty acids are useful not just for bi-polar illness, but perhaps also in depression, postpartum depression, ADHD, stress, and even schizophrenia and autism. The clinical and healing power of omega 3's are backed by hundreds of research studies in well-regarded scientific journals.

One of the significant changes that happened over the past century, regarding fat, is the dramatic increase in the intake of omega 6 fats and the decrease in the intake of omega 3 fats. The proper intake ratio of these two fats should be in the range of 7 to 1 to 1 to 1, of omega 6 and omega 3, respectively. It is estimated that many people have a ratio of over 25 to 1, respectively. The imbalanced ratio is implicated in brain problems and other degenerative conditions throughout the body. This imbalance of essential fats is a disaster for our moods. It's very clearly an issue in depression, with rates of depression over the past one hundred years rising along with our consumption of omega 6 fats.

These substances are not the only dietary aspects that should be considered. Food sensitivities should also be addressed. The body can react negatively, known as an allergy or sensitivity, depending on the type of immune reaction, to certain compounds that are found in foods. These compounds have nothing to do with the amounts of micro or macronutrients they contain. Certain compounds in foods, such as gliadian and casein can cause negative reactions in the brain. These reactions, instead of causing runny eyes, digestive problems, acne and so forth, cause the brain to function abnormally. Any food or ingredient can be the culprit. However, there are some common foods that many people with mood and behavior problems tend to react to. The offending foods are gluten (gliadin) containing grains (wheat, oats, and barley), milk products (the protein casein), peanuts, soy, eggs, chocolate, citrus, coffee, and corn.

Often the offending food is one that is eaten often. If ingestion is stopped, for a day or two, a strong craving for that food will manifest. The reaction to the food can result in an array of mood and behavior aberrations, such as anxiety, ADHD, depression and panic attacks.

Cerebral allergies/immune reactions have been linked to brain inflammation, irritability, fear, depression, aggression, and psychosis. Over 90% of schizophrenics studied by Philpott displayed neurological reactions to food. Pfeiffer finds that in 10% of schizophrenias, cerebral allergy is the primary source of symptoms. Regrettably, the idea of brain allergies is still not widely accepted, therefore the testing that is available to detect if there are negative reactions are not utilized. Many people could be helped, to varying degrees, by eliminating foods that are causing reactions. The problem is that people are often not given the chance to see if it helps.

The following list highlights the nutritional strategies that can have a positive effect on cognitive and behavioral functioning.

- Pre & post natal - critical periods of development - the nutritional environment of the baby in-utero and during the first three years of life are critical to brain development. These periods of development lays the foundation for how a person will function during their lifetime.

- Avoid trans fats - from partially-hydrogenated oils

- Avoid sugar and processed carbohydrates

- Minimize omega 6 fats (soybean, sunflower, & safflower oils)

- Increase intake of omega 3 fats (flax and chia seeds, walnuts, leafy green vegetables, salmon, sardines, fish oil supplements)

- Eat plenty of high quality proteins

- Check for food sensitivities

- Check for anemia (iron & B12)

- Always eat breakfast (emphasize proteins & good fats)

- Take a high-quality multi vitamin and mineral

- Check for other nutrient deficiencies, particularly, folate, zinc, magnesium, iodine, D, & B6

These are not the only nutritional strategies that are available, but they are the most commonly recommended ones. These nutritional strategies can have a profound effect on brain function, as well as, the health of the whole body. However, these nutritional strategies are not a panacea for mood and behavior problems. Other lifestyle factors, such as, quantity and quality of sleep, amount of exposure to sunlight, types of past and present relationships, and the amount of exercise can all affect a person's mood and behavior. Currently, the bio-psycho-social view, (biological, psychological and sociological, respectively), encompasses the holistic view to mental health. The area that needs to be emphasized should be based on each person's unique needs, which should be based on an in-depth assessment of each area.

There are hundreds of high quality studies that have been conducted that show that nutrition can have a profound effect on mental functioning. Besides the solid scientific support, there are two additional reasons why the nutritional approach should be utilized.

First, the likelihood of any short-term or long-term negative side effects from nutritional interventions is very low. Secondly, the cost of the nutritional intervention is often much less than medications and/or long-term psychotherapy. However, as strong as the evidence is for this aspect, it is important not to lose sight of the multiple factors that affect mood and behavior, i.e., bio-psycho-social view. The problem is the nutritional aspect (part of the bio component) is usually not considered and therefore is not utilized in the treatment protocols of many mental health professionals. The current paradigm is disheartening and should be revised. Based on the evidence, everyone dealing with mood and behavior problems should have an in-depth assessment of their nutritional status. The bottom line, each meal could determine whether a person moves closer to or further away from a healthy brain, which can determine whether a person will have more or less of a stable and productive mood and behavior pattern.
About the Author
Jeff Thiboutot BS, CN, CPT, LMT is a personal trainer and co-owner of L.E.A.N. Wellness Center in Mesa, AZ. He specializes in helping people feel, function, and look their best. Learn more about Jeff and L.E.A.N. Wellness Center at www.getLEANstayLEAN.com, or by email at JeffT@getLEANstayLEAN.com.
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