Feed the Brain and Lift the Mood

By Rebecca K. Kirby, M.D., M.S., R.D.

Sometimes after the holidays, people have a sense of slump. It may be just a change from the flurry of the holiday season or it may be an ongoing feeling of depressed mood. More workdays are lost due to depression than to hypertension and heart disease combined. What is depression? Depression is a disturbance in normal daily activities which may be accompanied by feelings of hopelessness or guilt; there is a familial pattern.

The brain is the biggest user of nutrients of all the organs in the body.

Since the brain and the body are connected, depression may cause changes in appetite, sleep, energy, and concentration with headaches, backaches, or gastrointestinal disturbances. It may be which comes first (the chicken or the egg) because the body chemistry creates brain chemistry. The famous Nobel Laureate, Linus Pauling, said, “The function of the brain is affected by the molecular concentration of many substances that are normally present in the brain.” In fact, the brain is the biggest user of nutrients of all the organs in the body. Our founder, Dr. Hugh D. Riordan, always said, “Find out what the brain needs and feed it.”

Studies have shown an association between nutritional status and cognitive functioning (thinking). Researchers found that when looking at healthy subjects (not on medications), those who did poorly with abstract thinking and memory had low levels of vitamin B2, vitamin C, and vitamin B12.

That is just the tip of the iceberg for nutrients associated with brain health. Vitamin B6 is necessary to make the neurotransmitter, serotonin. This vitamin is found to be lower in the blood of women on birth control pills; 64% of American women do not even get the RDA (recommended dietary allowance) of vitamin B6. Alcohol intake promotes destruction and excretion of vitaminB6, as does cooking and food processing practices.

Another B vitamin, folic acid, is 50% destroyed with cooking. In depressed patients, low levels of this vitamin make them 6 times more likely to not respond to antidepressant therapy.  In addition, there are certain people who have a genetic factor that prevents them from metabolizing folic acid to the form of the vitamin that is used by the brain to make neurotransmitters.

Vitamin C is another water-soluble vitamin like the B vitamins. Studies on the vitamin C status of persons admitted to a psychiatric hospital revealed that 32% had low levels of vitamin C. This was associated with behavioral changes as well as poor immune status; 10% had actual scurvy. The extreme vitamin C deficiency disease called scurvy has been found not only at The Center but Mayo Clinic has published reports of patients with bruising, joint pain, fatigue, and depression with low levels of vitamin C.

The highest concentrations of vitamin C in the body are in the adrenal glands and the brain, so vitamin C is important not only in helping to make neurotransmitters but is important in the response to stress. When 60 healthy volunteers were supplemented with 1000 mg of sustained release vitamin C three times a day for 14 days and then subjected to the Social Stress Test, they had lower subjective stress and better (decreased) blood pressure response and cortisol recovery.

Vitamin C also has an effect on histamine levels because as vitamin C levels go down, the level of the neurotransmitter histamine goes up. High levels of histamine are associated with low levels of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine as well as stimulation of the inflammatory response.

Fats are also important for the brain. The brain is the fattest organ in the body. The fats in your diet are in turn found in your nerve cell membranes. The fat-soluble vitamins A and E are required to protect the fats in these cell membranes. Other nutrients that are important are the omega-3 fatty acids. A study looking at fatty acids and behavior in patients with major depression found low levels of omega-3 fatty acids or high ratios of omega-6 fatty acids in the blood. The omega-3fattyacids, EPA and DHA, found in fatty fish, are abundant in the brain and make up almost half the fat in the brain.

Another important fat in the brain is cholesterol, which plays a role in cellular structure and function and may affect neurotransmitters. Low levels of the neurotransmitter, serotonin, have been found in men with low serum concentrations of cholesterol. Psychological functioning studied on 20 healthy men before and after treatment with a cholesterol-lowering statin drug showed significant increases in depression among the men.

The second brain in the body is often attributed to the gastrointestinal tract. Specialized serotonin-releasing cells are found throughout the digestive system. Keeping these and all cells of the digestive tract healthy is one of the roles of beneficial bacteria called probiotics.

In addition, the food you eat can affect mood. Not only is your food providing (or not providing) the nutrients that the brain needs, but dietary factors like sugar and alcohol can contribute to mood swings, grogginess, and fatigue. Alcohol is a depressant and can slow neurotransmitters and disrupt the phase of sleep that is necessary for serotonin production. Foods that elicit a high glycemic response such as sweets, refined grains, potatoes, and fruit juice or sweetened beverages can also contribute to insulin resistance and poorly controlled blood sugars.

Minerals like magnesium, zinc and copper plus the amino acids that make up the protein foods we eat are all necessary in the proper balance for optimal brain health. For example, low magnesium can cause insomnia and depression. Stress lowers zinc levels and raises copper levels which can cause agitation. Zinc is also necessary for the production of serotonin.

So remember to make nutritious whole foods a major part of your diet. After the holidays is a good time to recommit to getting good nutrition back on track. Center your eating plan around vegetables, whole fruits, protein foods, nuts and seeds, legumes (beans), and unprocessed grains. Remember also to eat regularly and drink plenty of water. The proper functioning of the brain depends on it!