There is nothing new in the fact that a person’s nutrition can substantially affect mood, behavior, and brain function. The human brain is quite demanding when it comes to energy consumption. Our food intake influences brain chemistry and neural function (affecting neurotransmitters that transmit nerve impulses from one neuron to another), thereby influencing mood, sleeping patterns and etc. Deficiencies or excesses of certain vitamins or minerals may impair brain function.
The nutritional factors that can influence mental health, include: overall energy consumption, intake of basic nutrients such as proteins, carbohydrates, fats, alcohol, vitamins and minerals. usually, the lack of several nutrients rather than a single nutrient are the cause of deterioration in brain functioning.
Within the western world, alcohol is #1 wanted in the list of nutritional deficiencies that affect neural function. Certain illnesses are also responsible for nutritional deficiencies (since they limit absorption of nutrients into the bloodstream or increasing nutritional requirements.
Energy, represented by the caloric value of a certain food, is derived from the carbohydrate, protein, fat, and alcohol found in our daily nutrition. Vitamins and minerals are also essential to the body, although they don’t provide energy.
The human brain uses about 20 to 30% of a person’s energy intake. Relative to it’s size and weight, it is very demanding. That’s why People who don’t consume enough calories in their diet are more likely to experience changes in their brain functioning. Even the mere decision to skip breakfast has its consequences: it is associated with lower verbal fluency, lower ability to solve problems and the lack of motivation.
High levels of energy deprivation (continual hunger, starvation) massively affects mental responsiveness. The body responds to energy deprivation by slowing down most non-essential functions, hormonal levels, oxygen transportation, immune level efficiency, and several other physical functions that somewhat affect brain function. People with a continual low energy intake often feel apathetic, sad and depressed.
Fetuses and infants are especially sensitive to brain damage caused by malnutrition. Extent of damage depends malnutrition’s time span along with the stage of development. Malnutrition in childhood has been associated with low intelligence and cognitive defects.
Your brain works just like a vehicle. A vehicle requires gas, oil, water, brake fluid and other components to function well. Your brain also requires certain materials to function well: Sugar (glucose), Vitamins & Minerals and other essential chemicals. Our main mental fuel is Glucose that can be found in carbohydrates of all sorts.
Aside of it’s main fuel, our brain is producing essential proteins and fatty acids to grow and maintain connections between the neurons and to add myelin (the fatty sheath) to axons. Without the correct quantity of particular building blocks, your brain won’t function properly. Deficiency or overabundance of an essential nutrient can greatly effect
our nervous system.
Vitamins & Minerals are essential to the body but are not manufactured by the body. Hence, these materials must be consumed within our daily diet.
Lipids (fats)- some fats are essential for proper brain function. Two lipids especially critical to the brain are the n-6 and n-3 fatty acids. Low levels of n-3 cause visual problems by badly affecting the retina. Studies in rats have shown that diets without n-3 fatty acids cause learning and motor disabilities and may damage systems that use the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin in the frontal cortex. The n-6 fatty acids affect neurotransmitter release and contribute to the ability of neurons to use glucose for energy.
The Voyage Into the Brain
On their way to the brain, the nutrients face tricky pathway and overcome several obstacles: First, the stomach acid breaks some of them down. Next, they are absorbed through the cells lining the intestine and go through blood vessel barriers into the bloodstream. Next, nutrients need to avoid being destroyed by the liver’s metabolism processes. Once in the bloodstream, nutrients need to penetrate
the blood-brain barrier.
The Blood Brain Barrier
The blood-brain barrier keeps many substances out of the brain, allowing some nutrients into the brain. Any substance must cross through these tiny blood vessels in order the reach the neurons. The Blood Brain barrier (BBB) can be crossed in 3 different ways:
A. Some materials can fit through “holes” in the BBB.
B. Substances can be “carried” through the BBB.
C. Some materials can break down the BBB.
Malnutrition and the Brain
Vitamin and mineral deficiencies can be caused
due to these factors:
2. Poor diet
3. Poor absorption of vitamins and minerals
4. Damage to the digestive system
Since the brain of a human fetus grows rapidly from the 10th to 18th week (of pregnancy), it is crucial for the mother to eat well during this time. The brain grows most rapidly just 2 years after birth. Malnutrition during these periods of rapid brain growth may potentially cause severe damage to the nervous system, affecting neuron and glial cell development. Damage to the glial cells may change myelin development that continues to form around the axons for several years after birth.
Children who do not receive adequate nutrition in their first few years of life may develop problems later. Often the effects of malnutrition and environmental problems, such as emotional and physical abuse, can combine to create behavioral problems. Hence, the exact causes of behavioral disorders are difficult to determine.
Some effects of malnutrition can be repaired by a proper diet, so not all of the effects of poor diets are permanent. Researchers believe that the timing of malnutrition is an important predictor in determining whether problems will develop. This means that the absence of a particular nutrient while required by a specific part of a growing brain may cause a specific damage there.
The study of the Connection between Nutrition, Brain and Behavior is relatively new. Scientists have just begun to understand how changes in particular nutrients alter the brain and how these neural changes then affect intelligence, mood, and action. Experiments investigating the interactions between nutrition and behavior are complicated due to several reasons and factors:
1. There is a link between poor nutrition and environmental factors. Therefore, changes in behavior may not be due to poor nutrition only. Factors such as education, social and family problems may affect behavior too.
2. It is difficult to determine if a particular vitamin or mineral has a certain effect on behavior. Ethics dictate that experiments forbidding a person from eating a certain nutrient cannot are illegal, so much of the data comes from animal experiments. Studies in humans are generally limited to examining the effects of famine and starvation, cases where most of the essential nutrients are missing.
3. People respond differently to different diets. In other words, there is a large individual variation in the body’s response and need for different nutrients.
4. A change in diet may have a placebo effect. If a person thinks a change in diet will affect behavior, it may actually affect behavior even if the nutrients are not the cause of the change. Therefore, experiments must be conducted using a placebo control double-blind manner. (neither the experimental subject nor the experimenter know who has received a modified diet.