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Are you aware of how food affects your brain?
Studies continue to link your brain to your gut and dietary deficiencies to imbalances, such as:
- Drowsiness after meals
- Sleepless nights
- Violent outbursts
- Scattered attention
- Difficulty learning
- ADHD (Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder)
All of these behaviors are part of a constellation of disorders that often involve the brain, the immune system, and the gut. (1)(2)(3)
Brain experts like Dr. Eric Braverman and Dr. Daniel Amen point to diet as a crucial component to brain health. While many medications are effective, researchers are still trying to understand their impact on a child’s development. (4) For example, in terms of ADHD, researchers have not yet determined if medications are merely short-term solutions to lifelong imbalances. (5)
The foods that you choose can enhance or diminish cognitive function. (6)(7)(8)
Top 3 Trouble Foods That May Alter Learning and Behavior
Certain foods can directly affect brain health to negatively impact learning and behavior. An increasingly common disorder like ADHD could be related to the health of the brain, the immune system, and the gut.
Whether improving your diet or supporting your children or students with the right foods, once you know what the big offenders are—and why they are so toxic to your brain or child’s development—you might find it easy to replace problem foods with positive foods!
If you are looking for more inspiration and ideas, check out the weekly Body Ecology Meal Plans.
Here are some simple tips to follow:
1. Avoid Food Additives
Does your food contain added coloring, flavors, or preservatives? If the food you give to your child contains additives, research shows that it may contribute to learning and behavioral problems! (9)
Studies show that children can be sensitive to artificial food coloring and preservatives. (10)(11) The research is so sound that food manufacturers are under increasing pressure to avoid these additives—or, if additives are used, to include a warning on the packaging about the noxious effects of additives in a child’s body. (12)
The reality is that additives contribute to disorders like ADHD, which is characterized by impulsive behavior and hyperactivity. (13)
ADHD affects roughly 5% of children and adolescents. (14) ADHD is often paired with other problems, such as oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), conduct disorder (CD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), dyslexia, poor motor coordination, and anxiety.
Solution: Instead of foods that use additives to mimic sensational taste and color—go for the real thing!
Fermentation is a traditional method of preservation that is 100% natural. Foods like kefir and fermented veggies introduce good bacteria (probiotics) and protective yeast to the gut. These beneficial microbes help clean up a lot of the mess left behind by toxic foods. In fact, studies even show that kefir is healthier for your immune system than yogurt.
When looking at brain function, recent research proved that the probiotic bacteria found in fermented foods influences how we process emotions and sensation. (15)
2. Avoid Gluten
Gluten is a blend of proteins that gives food its structure, chewiness, and texture. Gluten is found in most cereal grains. This includes wheat, rye, and barley.
It used to be that only people diagnosed with celiac disease were warned to stay away from gluten. Those with celiac disease have developed an immune response to gluten that triggers the destruction of their own cells.
However, more people are now found to be gluten sensitive than those that actually have celiac disease. The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness reports that as many as 18 million Americans—including children—are affected by something called non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
Non-celiac gluten sensitivity has all the symptoms of celiac disease—which on a behavioral level includes mood swings, angry outbursts, anxiety, and depression. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity cannot be diagnosed by standard celiac testing, yet patients only respond to a gluten-free diet.
Other studies show that the proteins in gluten are pro-inflammatory.
In other words, these proteins destroy the lining of the gut and make it “leaky,” or permeable. (16)(17)(18) Leaky gut is linked to nutrient deficiency. When the digestive and absorption processes are impaired, the brain and body are unable to get the nutrition they need.
For example, in order to focus or recall information or feel happy or calm, your brain requires your body to convert amino acids in your food into the four major neurotransmitters—serotonin, dopamine, GABA, and acetylcholine—yet this process is sabotaged by impaired digestion.
Solution: Instead of grains that contain gluten, try grain-like seeds!
Grain-like seeds or pseudo-cereals are similar to cereal grain in taste and texture. But, botanically, they are different. On the Body Ecology Diet, we encourage the use of four grain-like seeds—quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, and millet.
Grain-like seeds are naturally gluten-free and provide a good blend of protein, minerals, and amino acids. When properly prepared, they are easy to digest and act as an important prebiotic that feeds good bacteria in the gut.
3. Avoid Added Sugar
Added sugar is everywhere. Foods marketed to people on the go and children—like breakfast cereals and bars—often contain large quantities of added sugar. The science is clear on the deleterious affects of high fructose corn syrup on the body and its link to increased risk of obesity, diabetes, ADHD, and autoimmune conditions.
However, the convenience foods that many of us eat are still too sweet.
Research into soda and its effects on mood brings up some interesting material. A paper called “The Twinkie Defense” looked at the relationship between non-diet soft drinks and violence in high school children. Researchers found that heavy soda drinkers (more than 5 cans a day) were more likely to have a history of violence. (19) Other studies also suggest a strong relationship between non-diet soda consumption and mental health. (20)
As it turns out, extreme swings in blood sugar affect mood and levels of aggression. (21)(22) That’s not all. Research also tells us that high glycemic foods—or foods that drive levels of blood sugar up—negatively affect the attention span and memory of children. (23)
Optimal cognitive function requires balanced blood sugar. Simple carbs, fruit juices, soda, and most pre-packaged snacks can be the root of blood sugar imbalance.
Solution: Looking for a way to ditch the added sugar without noticing? Use stevia!
Stevia is plant that is native to South America. Stevia has all the sweetness of sugar, but it naturally contains no sugar! This means it does not affect levels of blood sugar.
In fact, research shows that stevia may be one answer to the rise of metabolic disorders that affect children today. (24) These metabolic disorders—like obesity and type 2 diabetes—put children at risk for heart disease. Currently, over 17% of children are obese and at risk. (25)
Stevia does more than replace the sweetness of sugar. It fortifies glucose tolerance. It enhances your ability to metabolize sugar. In other words, it helps the body adapt to fluctuations of blood sugar. (26) Lakanto, a zero glycemic sugar substitute recommended by the Japanese Ministry of Health, is also great for cooking and baking.
What To Remember Most About This Article:
Your favorite foods can directly affect the health of your brain. Research has linked the brain to gut health and other imbalances like moodiness, sleeplessness, difficulty learning, and even ADHD. These are just a few disorders out of many related to the brain, the immune system, and the gut.
The foods that you or your child eats play a major role in cognitive function.
Here are 3 problem foods to avoid that could impact learning and behavior:
1. Food Additives: Research has confirmed that children are sensitive to preservatives and artificial food coloring. Additives may even trigger disorders like ADHD that affects roughly 5% of children and adolescents. ADHD may be further linked to issues like conduct disorder, anxiety, dyslexia, and autism.
2. Gluten: You don't have to have celiac disease to benefit from a gluten-free diet. According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, up to 18 million adults and children in the US may have non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity can trigger a number of issues, including angry outbursts, mood swings, and anxiety.
3. Sugar: Sweet treats may not be as innocent as they seem. Even worse, added sugar can be found in countless convenience foods and has been associated with a higher risk of ADHD, diabetes, obesity, and autoimmune disorders. Optimal brain function requires balanced blood sugar; extreme blood sugar fluctuations may also be related to mood swings and aggression.
Brain function can be improved with foods like fermented vegetables and kefir, as well as stevia and lakanto as sugar substitutes. For more guidance on a brain-friendly diet, take a look at our weekly Body Ecology Meal Plans.
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- Obregon, D., Parker-Athill, E. C., Tan, J., & Murphy, T. (2012). Psychotropic effects of antimicrobials and immune modulation by psychotropics: implications for neuroimmune disorders. Neuropsychiatry, 2(4), 331-343.
- Waly, M. I., Hornig, M., Trivedi, M., Hodgson, N., Kini, R., Ohta, A., & Deth, R. (2012). Prenatal and postnatal epigenetic programming: implications for GI, immune, and neuronal function in autism. Autism Research and Treatment, 2012.
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- Wärnberg, J., Gomez‐Martinez, S., Romeo, J., Díaz, L. E., & Marcos, A. (2009). Nutrition, inflammation, and cognitive function. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1153(1), 164-175.
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