A First Principles Approach to Mental Health and Wellbeing. Pt. 1 Nutrition meets Neuroscience

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Over 25 years ago I took a step away from the conventional psychological approach to mental health and wellbeing. When I discovered that nutrition impacts the structure, and therefore the function of our sensitive and sophisticated brain, I decided to walk the road-less-travelled, the road of nutritional neuroscience.

Instead of approaching mental wellbeing with a theoretical framework within which to have a conversation, I wanted to start at ‘first principles.’ I wanted to make sure the structure of the brain was functioning optimally so that any theoretical approach aimed at improving mental health and wellbeing had the best chance of succeeding. 

Fast forward to today when most of us have become significantly more aware of how critical it is to address mental wellbeing, especially in the context of chronic stress. We’ve also become more aware of how fragile mental health can be given the wrong circumstances. 

One thing that hasn’t been discussed enough is how we can make the brain more stress resilient and improve our mental health and wellbeing by optimizing brain structure and function. This series of posts summarises my ‘first principles approach’ to improving mental health and wellbeing. 

A fair amount of myth and uncertainty still exists around which nutrients the brain needs to function optimally.

A fair amount of myth and uncertainty still exists around which nutrients the brain needs to function optimally. With the brain being the greediest – and most complex – organ in our body, it has always surprised me that people pay so little attention to nurturing it. 

Most people don’t know that:

  • The brain weighs in at between 1.3 and 1.4 kg (about 3 pounds) 
  • And contains about 160,000 km (100,000 miles) of blood vessels 
  • And contains +80 billion sophisticated and specialized cells called neurons 
  • Each of these neurons have between 1,000 and 10,000 connections between them
  • Each neuron has between 3 and 5 supporting cells, called glial cells
  • At any given moment our brain is processing about 100 million pieces of information

The brain is a huge and very busy and interconnected place in a very small space.

Thinking occurs across this vast network of cells, chemicals, membranes, and molecules, which link emotions, ideas, thoughts, and memories, and generate behaviour and mood. These activities have the potential to form a beautifully orchestrated process, which leads to ongoing and optimal mental health and well-being. Unfortunately the opposite is true too.  

This vast network is supported by the same nutrients that support the rest of the body. However, many are required in greater quantities, and in different forms, which need to be synthesized differently, the lack of which are noted more quickly in behaviour and thought patterns versus a lack of the same nutrients for physical wellbeing. Why? Because our brain is one of our four primary survival organs, and the ‘head’ office (excuse the pun), where all the communication, from internal processes and external input, gather to be sifted, sorted, and sent wherever it needs to go.

So, as in true ‘first principles’ thinking, let’s start at the very beginning, at the foundation of our brain structure.

Why Fat Is Critical For Optimal Brain Function

The dry weight of the brain is 60% fat and although the body can make a lot of that fat itself from the carbohydrates we consume, between 20 and 25% of it must come directly from our diet. 

The types of fat that we cannot make, and which support optimal brain function are called polyunsaturated fats. These are also known as essential fatty acids (EFAs), or omega 3 and 6 fats. 

These fats have the amazing capacity to allow electricity to be used very efficiently when our neurons communicate with each other via specialized, electrochemical signals. 

Omega 3 and omega 6 fats are both susceptible to damage from light, heat, and oxygen. Unfortunately, for two main reasons, most people today consume too much omega 6 and not enough omega 3, 

About 60 years ago farmers realized that it was easier to grow warm-weather seeds, from which omega 6 fats are derived. They therefore started growing more of them to the exclusion of omega 3 fats, which are derived from cold-weather seeds. 

Manufacturers also prefer using warm-weather omega 6 fats because they don’t go rancid as easily as the omega 3 fats. Therefore, a combination of ease of cultivation and harvesting, coupled with easier manufacturing, and higher profits, means that we now live with significantly less omega 3 fats in our diet than we need. 

Unfortunately, the manufacturing process that produces vast quantities of omega 6 oils makes use of inexpensive and very efficient methods of extraction, which damages the delicate omega 6 fat molecules. 

So, even though most people are consuming too much omega 6, it’s generally in a damaged form. 

Dry skin, brittle nails and hair, hormonal challenges, cracked heels as well as moodiness, coupled with memory and learning difficulties are all signs of an omega 3 deficiency. 

The no-fat and low-fat diets that inundated the dieting mind-set for many decades didn’t account for the critically important role that fats and oils play in our health, specifically our mental health. 

It is an unfortunate fact that dietary trends take a very long time to work their way out of general use, even when new scientific evidence proves beyond a shadow of doubt that the data was severely flawed. 

Ironically, the very organ that requires the right fats and oils to function optimally, is the same one that needs to incorporate new knowledge, and which battles to do so when it is deprived of these special fats and oils.

These essential nutrients provide our fat hungry brain with the right building blocks to provide optimum nourishment for neuronal functioning and communication. 

It is therefore very important to be choosy about the fats and oils that you use, and focus on organic, cold-pressed EFA blends, organic cold-pressed olive oils, and coconut oils. Saturated fats are also healthy to consume, as long as you’re also consuming enough EFA’s, the omega 3 and 6 fats. 

Consuming crushed flax, sesame, and sunflower seeds, along with other nuts provides our brain with great fats and oils to facilitate improved cognitive functioning and improved mood, memory and learning capacity.

At the same time, it is also important to avoid shelf-stable cooking oils and spreads, which contain damaged trans fats and other toxic compounds that introduce the wrong kinds of fats to our delicate brain. 

In part 2 of ‘A First Principles Approach to Mental Health and Wellbeing’ we will delve into the importance of unrefined carbohydrates and clean protein for optimal brain function and stable mood, energy, focus, concentration and learning capacity.

About the author. Dr. Delia McCabe. Delia’s research has been published in several peer-reviewed journals, she is a regular featured expert in the media, and her two books, translated into four languages, are available internationally. Delia uses her psychology background, combined with nutritional neuroscience and neurological perspectives, to support behaviour change and stress resiliency within corporates.

If you would like Delia to help your workforce reap the benefits of having a fully fueled brain, reach out to us and we’ll make it happen for you.

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