Improving your family's mental health: Feed their brains! - East Valley Tribune: Ahwatukee Foothills

Improving your family's mental health: Feed their brains!

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Posted: Sunday, January 15, 2012 10:45 pm | Updated: 1:59 pm, Tue Oct 14, 2014.

You already know the physical importance of eating healthy and limiting fast-food intake, but if weight gain is your primary reason for reaching for an apple instead of a cookie, would you believe that what you eat has a direct effect on everything from your mood to your ability to learn and retain information?

Your family's health is derived from all of its external and internal environments, and the individualized care and attention given to the needs of the body, mind, and spirit affect the overall health of each one of us. The current mind-body holistic health movement is more than just a popular trend; research shows that an increasing amount of physician visits are for complaints and symptoms rooted in psychology. Nutritional deficiencies are now being linked to behavioral problems, deficient social skills, decreased attention, inability to learn, and poor educational achievement. Knowing what to eat and how to properly select vitamin supplements is absolutely crucial to an optimally functioning brain.

If you're having a hard time buying the concept that what you eat can affect your mood, here's a layman's lesson in neuro-anatomy: The brain has key neurotransmitters which rely on amino acids to either inhibit or disinhibit their production and secretion, similar to how an anti-depressant pill works. For example, tryptophan contributes to the release of serotonin, the neurotransmitter essential for relaxation, sleep, and a steady feeling of well-being (think Thanksgiving dinner). A depletion of serotonin in the brain is linked to hyperactivity; therefore, it stands to reason that if your child is exhibiting symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), adjusting their diet to include more foods containing tryptophan is not a bad idea. Isn't that exciting? The neurotransmitter you're seeking or attempting to avoid can be "tripped" through a dietary precursor if it includes the correlating amino acid.

According to the National Mental Health Association, one in 33 children and one in eight adolescents suffer from depression or dysthymia (mild depression), a condition marked by a significant depletion of B-complex vitamins. The critical periods of rapid brain growth and development, and the windows in which the brain is most amenable for nutritional absorption are: gestation to age 2, ages 7-9, and the mid-teenaged years. We can control them when they're young, but those mid-teenaged years are usually the years of poorest food choice when their brains need it the most.

Our children need "wellness" education, supervision, and positive role modeling, because they inevitably mimic, for better or worse, their parents' eating habits and lifestyle choices.

We don't need research to know that kids can become hyperactive after a sugar-laced birthday party or that a heavy turkey dinner makes everybody drowsy. The power of this information is stunning. By educating yourself on the relationship between nutrition and the brain, you will have the power to control how you feel and perform by carefully choosing what you put on your plate. Just wait until we talk about dopamine!

• Ahwatukee Foothills resident Dr. Deborah Vogt Purscell is a school psychologist and nutritional consultant. Comments and suggestions are welcomed at dpurscell@cox.net.

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