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  • Nutrition and the brain

    Nutrition and the brain

    The vast majority of people claim to fail their new lifestyle, nutrition and exercise regime because of a lack of will-power. They blame their “weak mind” for their failure or lack of progress. They eat really well for three days then have a big blow-out meal and fall off the wagon. “I just can’t resist those foods”, “I enjoy chocolate too much “. I hear it all the time.
    It is true that some people naturally lack motivation and that certain people are inherently lazy, but what we must take into consideration is that the foods we eat determine our mind-set through the up-regulation and down-regulation of various hormones and neurotransmitters released in response to their consumption.
    To put it simply: “what you eat will determine how you think”.
    I don`t blame the vast majority of people for failing. I personally blame the overwhelming array of easy and desirable food choices: Pizza, sandwiches on the go, cereal for breakfast, sugar-saturated energy drinks, chocolate bars at the service station. It is staggering really. What most people do not understand is that these foods will pretty much kill your motivation, lower your mood and create a vicious circle of continual wrong decisions and bad judgement because of the interaction between these foods, your gut, your hormones and therefore your brain.
    Most underestimate the influence gut health has on your entire body. The gut acts as a second brain and contains more neurons than your entire spinal cord which is linked directly to the brain (this in itself tells us something). The gut houses 70% or our entire immune system and is our largest exposure to the outside environment (the small intestine alone when stretched and flattened will cover an area larger than a tennis court). It is home to trillions of strains of beneficial bacteria which interact with our bodies in ways we could never have possibly imagined. It is here we produce the neurotransmitters which are released within nerve synapses, essentially determining and governing how and what we think.
    Most of the neurotransmitters in our brain such as acetyl choline, GABA, serotonin etc. are produced in the gut and govern the ways in which we think and act. For example poor uptake of serotonin from the gut and between nerve synapses is associated with depression, which is why many people are prescribed SSRIs (antidepressants) to prolong serotonin exposure in the brain. Perhaps the rapid surge in antidepressant prescriptions is due to our poor nutrition? Science would certainly back this up as those with significantly elevated body fat levels are statistically more prone to depression. The human gut and brain are constantly communicating and relaying feedback via the vagus nerve and disruption at either end can affect the other. Researchers have even found that brain trauma has been associated with gut irritation and food intolerances.
    Constantly bombarding the gut with sugars, alcohol, trans fatty acids, food allergens such as gluten and poor quality processed foods can interfere with the micro flora balance (gut bacteria) and can influence the production and exchange of neurotransmitters through the gut membrane which will influence uptake of various neurotransmitters in the brain. The body will respond to these harmful foods as a stressor and this can lead to a prolonged release of glucocorticoid hormones such as cortisol, which up-regulate centres of the brain responsible for food cravings and appetite. This leads us to make the wrong food choices and governs our desire for particular foods, particularly sweet tasting foods which raise blood sugar (this will also extend to savoury foods such as bread and crisps etc. which are converted to sugar in the body). This uncontrollable desire to eat sugar laden food is governed not by our will power, but through a hormonal response to the fallout from eating the “wrong foods”. This is why those participating in diets where the underlying principles involve eating what you want but in small quantities will ultimately fail, as they overlook the fact that these foods are hyperpalatable and override the body’s natural satiety signals, leading to uncontrollable eating.
    One classic example is a typical bag of sweets. Most manufacturers claim that their bag of sweets will provide 6 whole separate servings. I don`t think I have ever seen somebody eat just a sixth of the packet and leave the rest. They eat the whole lot! That is because these foods interact with the opiate receptors on the brain and light up the feel-good, happy hormones. This is essentially how drug and alcohol addiction works. Food is no different!
    The stress response inflicted upon the gut and its processing of these harmful foods will also induce oxidative damage, leading to an upsurge in insulin as well as blood pressure. The body is fairly efficient at avoiding the extremes of any kind of hormonal reaction, so the inhibitory (calming) hormones serotonin and GABA are released to down regulate this response. Over time the cells in your body which possess a receptor site for these types of neurotransmitters desensitize to their signalling actions, causing a type of cellular resistance. This means that the once-balanced effect of an up-regulation of stress via release of cortisol/adrenaline etc. and the subsequent release of inhibitory calming neurotransmitters is compromised. This allows excessive amounts of stress hormones to run rampant through the body leading to depression, anxiety, an inability to sleep, and poor concentration (among other things!). All of these factors will increase the likelihood of suffering from the vast majority of modern day diseases. This all comes about as a result of a high sugar, nutrient deficient diet. The good news is that a good diet and a smart approach can reverse this.
    I will shortly be putting together a second article which will address ways in which to reverse these issues. Check back soon for part 2!

    By David Cox

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