Sunday, 26 October 2014

Food and the Brain

The food we choose to eat has a significant effect on our physical and mental health. Food is its own pharmaceutical compound and more information is known about its effects than ever before. Professor Fernand Gómez-Pinilla, a UCLA professor of neurosurgery and physiological science, has reviewed over 160 studies about the effect of food on the brain. 

Brain foods tend to be rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Fish, particularly salmon, provides this in abundance. One of the longest living populations on the planet are the inhabitants of the Japanese island of Okinawa. Not only do they live to a ripe old age, the incidence of mental disorders is very low. The two most obvious reasons for this are a diet rich in omega-3 (fish) and regular daily exercise, which is a feature of the lifestyle on the island.

It is always interesting to look at other cultures with regard to their health. Most people have heard about the benefits of the ‘Mediterranean diet’, for example. Yet how many people know that India appears to have a low prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease? According to Gómez-Pinilla this may be attributable to a diet rich in the spice curcumin, which has been shown to reduce memory deficits.

Omega-3 fatty acids are also found in walnuts and kiwi fruit. Gómez-Pinilla states that the effect of these fatty acids is to positively enable several molecules relating to learning and memory and helps in the fight against diseases such as depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and dementia. Some studies have reported that children who increase their intake of omega-3 perform better in school and have fewer behavioral problems.

Some omego-3 fatty acids appear to be more important. Docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, reduces oxidative stress and has a positive effect on learning and memory. It is the biggest source of omega-3 in the brain but, as Gómez-Pinilla states, only gets their by eating a diet that contains it.

We might be willing to abuse our own body with fast foods but how would we feel if we knew that the effects of our diet could be passed down through the generations? Well, this line of evidence is beginning to emerge.

“Evidence indicates that what you eat can affect your grandchildren’s brain molecules and synapses,” Gómez-Pinilla said.

Good sleep, a balanced diet and regular exercise. The combination protects the brain and wards off psychological distress. Studies have consistently pointed out that diets high in trans fats and saturated fats negatively affect brain function. People with depression and schizophrenia have reduced levels of a signaling molecule called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Most treatments for depression and schizophrenia stimulate BDNF, but then so can omega-3 and spices like cumin.

According to Gómez-Pinilla, smaller food quantities with appropriate nutrients seem to benefit the brain’s molecules, such as BDNF. Coupled with exercise, which also elevates BDNF levels, and regular sleep, both cognitive abilities and general health should improve.


Gómez-Pinilla, F (2008) Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function. Nature Review Neuroscience 9 (7) 568 DOI: 10.1038/nrn2421

Friday, 3 October 2014

Anger and Low Moods

Anger and low moods often coincide and it is sometimes difficult to see where one starts and the other stops. Sometimes anger can simmer until it reaches a point where the person explodes into a rage and may even become physically aggressive. Men seem particularly prone to anger and moodiness when they feel depressed.

Is there anyone who has never experienced anger? I doubt it and there are plenty of reasons why any one of us feels angry. The basis of anger is often frustration and we're all aware of our temper starting to build when our plans are thwarted. Our own bodies can contribute. Anything that affects body chemistry such as hormonal imbalance, medications, drugs and alcohol can add to stress.

Many people who suffer with depression are aware of Freud's adage that depression is anger turned inwards. Well, we certainly know that anger and depression often co-exist and the purpose of psychotherapy is to help the person unearth the hostility and resentment that help fuel depression. We know however anger alone isn't a cause of depression. And, whilst many people with depression become sensitive to criticism, more argumentative, impatient and irritable, these tend to be the signs and symptoms of depression itself.

In the normal course of a day we fall back on a number of socially acceptable ways to ease the pressure of our anger and stress. Many people find a good old fashioned grumble works wonders. Other people focus on lifestyle issues such as diet and meditation. Some go for long walks or play sports. Maybe you do them all! These aren't pointless distractions, they have a very useful purpose. If we don't vent our anger there's a danger it simply builds up and festers. Anger and hostility are two of the risk factors for heart disease, immune problems and digestive upsets.

Professional help for depression and anger may be found through cognitive therapy. One of the ways cognitive therapy helps is by working with you to identify certain patterns of negative thinking that lead to hostile interpretations and suggesting ways of thinking and behaving differently. Anger management programs often borrow their techniques from cognitive therapy. If you opt for an anger management program you should be aware that not all the people running these programs have a clinical background. They may not, for example, tune into the fact that your anger issues are symptomatic of deeper problems that should be medically or psychology treated.

You can help yourself and others by thinking about the effect your anger is having. In the short-term your outbursts may ensure compliance, but it is almost certain to stir resentment and hurt feelings. Anger often leads to isolation. People don't like conflict so may keep their distance. This may be what you want but there's a danger that it feeds into the isolation frequently sought by people who suffer with depression. Try to exercise a little self-control and talk to the person who is pressing your buttons about how it's making you feel. They may go off in a bit of a huff, but you aren't in control of their emotional reaction to your comments, especially if you've taken the time and trouble to explain without an edge of threat or hostility.

Anger is a perfectly normal human reaction. The problem comes when it occurs out of character, for a lengthy period of time, or overwhelms you in a fit of rage and physical aggression, for disproportionate reasons.