Is our diet driving us crazy?

Is our diet driving us crazy? – importance of a balanced diet for good brain health

Carol Simontacchi

It comes as no surprise to most of us that mental and behavioral disorders are increasing at exponential rates around the world. Experts predict that within the next few years, suicide will be the No. 1 cause of death globally. Currently, more than 25 percent of all visits to a healthcare practitioner are for mental complaints, and that figure is only the tip of the iceberg. Most people do not seek the aid of a professional when they struggle with mild forms of mental illness such as mild to moderate depression, learning and memory problems and social phobias. Most of us prefer to suffer silently, believing that if we just “buck up a little,” we’ll feel better.

According to cold, hard statistics, our mental health is rapidly eroding. These facts are grim:

* Since World War II, annual prevalence rates of depression have been soaring, especially in young men.

* More than 10 percent of the population has been diagnosed with some form of mental illness (schizophrenia, phobias, depression and anxiety disorders).

* Up to 24 percent of adults experience a mental health crisis in any given year.

* 7 to 14 percent of children will experience an episode of major depression before the age of 15.

* Children ages 13 to 18 used 148,000 prescriptions for Prozac in 1995 and 217,000 prescriptions in 1996 (up 47 percent). Prescriptions for other antidepressants, such as Zoloft and Paxil, are also on the rise.

* More than $7 billion is spent on antidepressants every year.

Suicide rates for U.S. teen-agers increased nearly 30 percent from 1980 to 1992, and in some states, suicide is now the No. 2 cause of death among adolescents and children. Psychiatric hospitals in creased inpatient admissions from 46.2 per 100,000 population in 1969 to over 156 per 100,000 population in 1988; during the same period, outpatient additions increased from 12.8 per 100,000 to 51.2 per 100,000. More than 20 percent of U.S. students have seriously considered suicide during the past 12 months.

These statistics scare us–and they should Our attempts to create a healthy, well-functioning society are clearly not succeeding.

A simultaneous trend

Let’s examine another trend: the American food culture. Over the past century, the American food culture has gone through a transformation so pervasive that we have almost completely lost sight of what constitutes a normal, healthy diet. We no longer recognize real food.

Food used to be grown on the land. It used to swim in the rivers and oceans or walk through the forests. It was rich in vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fats and natural sugars, and these natural constituents of food fed our brains.

What do we currently eat? Consider these alarming food facts:

* The average teen-age boy drinks more than 50 ounces of soft drinks per day; the average teenage girl drinks just slightly less.

* The average child and teen-ager eat less than two servings of both fruits and vegetables per day, and a quarter of these is in the form of french fries.

* The average American eats more than 200 pounds of sugar and artificial sweeteners per year.

* The average American drinks more than 45 gallons of soft drinks, 26 gallons of coffee, 26 gallons of tea and 26 gallons (per adult) of alcoholic beverages per year, yet we drink less than 9 gallons of bottled water.

* The average teen-ager and child are deficient in magnesium, zinc, chromium, iron, vitamin B complex vitamin C and other trace elements. Each of these nutrients has an influence on the brain.

We eat sugary cereals for breakfast and home meal replacements for lunch and dinner. Less than 25 percent our kids eat a home-cooked meal at night Wee eat potato chips, hamburgers, pizza, fried chicken, french fries, soft drinks, canned soups, frozen entrees, infant formula, and canned baby foods–none of which are “real food.” These pseudo-foods have had most of the nutrients processed out of them, and they contain artificial ingredients, such as flavorings and preservatives. These pseudo-foods influence the brain in two ways: they deprive the brain of the fundamental building blocks needed to construct brain tissue, and they contain materials that are toxic to the brain.

For 30 years we have discussed the role of nutrition in cardiovascular health. We talk about the influence of environmental toxins and food additives on certain types of cancer. We have not, however, engaged in a similar national conversation about the role of food in brain health. This discussion is long overdue.

Healing foods

Food can help destroy the brain, but it can also heal the brain. If a nutrient-deficient diet can rob the brain of the ability to think and feel appropriately, a nutrient-rich diet can help the brain respond in a positive way.

The first step toward healing the brain is abandoning the American food culture and adopting a more natural way of eating. Natural food is minimally processed. A natural, well-balanced diet contains fresh fruits and vegetables in abundance and moderate amounts of protein from both animal and vegetable sources, which provide natural fats and oils. Natural foods include ocean-raised fish, lean, organic, range-fed poultry, beef and other meats, raw nuts and seeds, and whole, non-hybridized grains.

Pseudo-foods, on the other hand, include packaged lunches for kids, most breakfast cereals, pasteurized homogenized milk products, packaged breads and pasta, coffee, fruit juices, all packaged snack items, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables, boxed dinner mixes, and dessert items (cookies, cakes, candies, ice cream, etc.), in addition to the items previously mentioned.

The second step to take to improve brain health is supplementation with specific nutrients that feed and support the brain. This step is more complex and requires more insight into the biochemistry of the brain, but it is not difficult. Given the fact that most of our diets have been less than optimal, we have to compensate for chronic malnutrition. This can’t be accomplished by simply adding a fresh salad or a few ounces of seafood to our diets occasionally. We’re going to have to work hard to make up the shortfall.

Specific brain nutrients

Certain nutrients are particularly important to brain function, such as magnesium, zinc, B complex and chromium. When these nutrients are added back to a depleted diet, the results can seem almost magical to the individual struggling with emotional or mental disorders.

For example, classic symptoms of magnesium deficiency include the following:

* Short-term memory loss

* Emotional ups and downs

* Easily aroused anger

* Easily depressed or discouraged

* Cravings for chocolate and/or other sweets

* Palpitations of the heart

* Panic and anxiety attacks or disorders

* Irritability

* Insomnia

* Fatigue

* Constipation

* Unusual sensitivity to loud noises and sounds

* Muscle cramps or twitches

While most people recognize one or two of these symptoms in themselves, magnesium-deficient people will notice five or more symptoms. Notice that most of these symptoms are emotional or mental in nature. Supplementing the diet with 300 rug. of magnesium citrate or magnesium amino acid chelate can help ease these symptoms within just a few weeks. It is particularly important to supplement with additional B complex vitamins also, as magnesium cannot work efficiently if B complex vitamins are deficient.

Zinc is another nutrient often in short supply in the typical American diet. We have been conditioned to avoid zinc-rich foods such as oysters and red meat. While the recommended daily allowance for zinc is about 15 mg. for adults, the average adult only takes in an average of about 5 mg. These symptoms associated with zinc deficiency describe many American teen-agers:

* Depression, often to the point of suicidal thinking

* Anger/hostility

* Aggressiveness

* Loss of sense of taste and smell

* Loss of desire to groom oneself

* Confusion

* Dislike of protein foods

* Poor digestion

* Susceptibility to colds and influenza

* Skin disruptions (acne, eczema, rashes)

* Inability to focus and concentrate

Zinc also works hand in hand with B complex and should be supplemented in a range of 15 to 30 mg. daily. It can sometimes take weeks or even months before serious deficiencies are corrected, but the rewards can be enormous.

The typical American diet also contains inadequate amounts of essential fatty acids. This type of deficiency can seriously (and rapidly) erode mental health. A fascinating article in one peer-reviewed journal noted that low levels of serum fats were associated with “malicious attitude toward others” in women and a “domineering, aggressive attitude toward others” in men. Low-fat diets have been causally inked with depression, memory loss and other cognitive and behavioral disorders. Unfortunately, low fat diets have been the ruling standard in the diet world for the last two decades.

Ironically, numerous studies show that simply adding olive oil or other foods naturally high in fat to the diet and supplementing with oils such as salmon oil, DHA, or flaxseed oil can have an immediate, positive effect on the mood and ability to think. Fatty acids should be supplemented with B complex vitamins and zinc, as all three nutrients work synergistically in brain biochemistry.

The third step toward healing the brain is to avoid chemicals that poison it. It isn’t enough to merely feed the brain; we must stop inflicting physical harm on the delicate nerve tissue. Some of the food chemicals that can inflict real damage to the brain include common food additives, such as monosodium glutamate (MSG) and aspartame, and flavor enhancers like sodium lactate.

Aspartame is particularly harmful when heated over 120 degrees, which can easily happen when soft drinks are improperly stored in warehouses in hot climates or when used in food preparation where heating is required (making Jell-O, for example). By-products of heated aspartame have been shown to cause mental symptoms typical of Gulf War Syndrome, including headaches, ear buzzing, dizziness, nausea, gastrointestinal disturbances, weakness, vertigo, chills, memory lapses, numbness and shooting pains in the extremities, behavioral disturbances and inflammation of the nerves.

MSG is similarly linked to behavioral disturbances, cognitive disorders and numerous other mental symptoms. Sodium lactate (commonly added to children’s foods and snack items) has been linked to panic and anxiety disorders in susceptible individuals.

Unfortunately, only a few of the thousands of additives routinely added to processed foods have been tested for influences on the brain, so we really don’t know what effects they may have. But one thing is certain: even if they do no harm, they certainly do no good. Erring on the safe side by eliminating potential toxins can only be beneficial.

Eliminating the craziness

We now know that our food may literally be driving us crazy. And we know that our brains can heal if we feed them natural foods and remove the chemical irritants. The real question, then, is, will we heal our brains?

That question may be the hardest one of all. Healing out brains may require turning our backs on the American food culture altogether and returning to the natural diet of our ancestors. It will mean avoiding our food icons and shunning the marketing images that we have come to love so dearly. It means eating real food instead of pseudo-food.

In this case, the bad news is also the good news. Yes, we may miss some of our favorite junk foods, but we can stop feeling depressed, anxious, or angry for no reason. We can restore our memories and our abilities to think clearly and concentrate. In short, we can restore our mental health jut by changing our diet. We may find that we really don’t need psychoactive drugs after all. And that is very good news indeed!

Carol Simontacchi is a licensed clinical nutritionist and the host of Here’s to Your Health–Your Nutrition Coach, a nationally syndicated radio show. Her latest book is The Crazy Makers: How The Food Industry Is Destroying Our Minds and Harming Our Children (Jeremy P. Tarcher/ Putnam, 2000).

Carol Simontacchi, a licensed clinical nutritionist, is the host of a nationally syndicated radio show on health and nutrition and the author of several books. This issue features an excerpt from her latest book, The Crazy Makers. It’s a thought-provoking look at pseudo-foods and the undesirable effects they have on brain chemistry.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Measurement & Data Corporation

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group