Eating is one of those universal things. Apart from keeping us alive, we celebrate with food, it reflects our culture, it provides us with comfort or a lift when the 3 o’clock blues hit, and it can be enormously enjoyable. But how does it influence our mood and our behaviour?
There are in fact so many neurons lining our gut that scientists have nicknamed it our second brain. New research is showing that this second brain, in combination with the brain in our heads, is involved with our moods and emotions. Anyone can benefit from a healthy diet, but those with autism, allergies and intolerances are particularly susceptible to poor food choices because more often than not they have an unhealthy gut to start with.
So which foods are best to create a healthy mind? As with most things in life, and especially in relation to food, everything depends on individual needs. Putting aside (but not forgetting) your unique needs, I will attempt to provide you with some guidelines you may find useful. Firstly, eating sufficient amounts of protein is important. Most neurotransmitters are made from amino acids (the building blocks of protein in the foods we eat). Neurotransmitters act like chemical messengers in the brain, and among other things, affect mood, anxiety, sleep, learning, stress, aggression and fear. Also, protein helps balance blood sugar levels which directly affect mood and brain function. Those with autism, diabetes or impaired glucose function particularly benefit from keeping their blood sugar levels stable. Be aware that although there are plenty of fantastic vegetarian protein options, a lot more thought and planning is needed to meet your requirements this way than if you eat meat.
Good fats are especially vital for effective brain function, given that a large percentage of the brain is in fact made from fat. It’s highly inconvenient I know, but the sort of oil they use in most fast food outlets is in the “bad fat” category. The most crucial fats for the brain are called Omega 3. These fats affect the growth of new brain cells, gene expression in the brain and are a major structural component of the brain, influencing the ability of brain cells to communicate with each other. Studies have shown the positive effect of omega 3 on mood disorders such as depression. They can be found in the highest amounts in fish (especially oily fish such as salmon). Smaller amounts can be found in marine algae, nuts and seeds (unheated flaxseed oil for example), grass-fed meat and free-range eggs (a natural diet of grass and insects is higher in omega 3 than the corn or soy they are likely fed in a cage or shed). Omega 3 supplements are traditionally available as oil or in a capsule (chewable and non-chewable). More recently though I have discovered one that even my fussy kids like. It’s called Barlean’s Omega Swirl. It has the taste and feel of a fruit smoothie without any of the usual off-putting fishiness or oily texture. Please do your research, as some brands do more rigorous testing for heavy metals than others.
Eating fresh whole fruits and vegetables is a great way to get critical nutrients required for a whole host of processes throughout our brain and body. More specifically, studies have shown that diets rich in fruit and vegetables can reduce depression and mental distress. Whole foods, whether it is fruit and vegetables, or other foods such as grains, nuts and legumes, are almost always healthier than their refined counterparts. When foods are not whole, such as with white flour, white rice and sugar, we miss out on all the fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals that nature intended. Refined foods also help feed the unhealthy bacteria in our guts, which are often out of control with our modern living. This is especially the case in autism, allergies, intolerances and other gut issues such as candida. Supplementing with probiotics (“good bacteria”) to fight the “bad guys” is often useful in these cases. Refined foods also tend to send blood sugar on a roller coaster ride, which can affect mood, unlike foods that release sugar into the bloodstream more slowly. Some people are more prone to blood sugar crashes than others, but most of us are affected to some degree. Ever experienced a mid-afternoon slump for example?
Of course it’s not just what we eat, but what we avoid, that affects a person’s brain. You may be familiar with some of the autism diets available, the most popular of which is gluten-free and casein-free. The theory is that gluten (from wheat, rye, barely and contaminated oats) and casein (from dairy) can affect the brain like an opiate in susceptible individuals, acting like a drug and causing an addiction reaction. We removed gluten from our son Orlando’s diet at 18 months and the effects were incredible. He was a different child overnight. Apart from the enormous physical improvements in his development and strength, his mood improved dramatically. Because the proteins in gluten and dairy can be difficult to digest, those with already compromised digestive systems (such as many on the spectrum, with allergies, intolerances or IBS) can be especially inclined to react negatively. If you think specific food groups could be negatively affecting you or your child, I strongly recommend seeing a specialist health professional, such as a nutritionist, naturopath or dietician.
Whatever you do, don’t underestimate the effects of food on a healthy mind. As Hippocrates said “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food”.
May your mind be happy, healthy and full of beans,