Five Steps to Optimal Brain HealthOctober 7, 2011 Dr.Pejman Katiraei
Our brains are sophisticated machines that help us experience the world. What if this machine did not work well?
Imagine if you had an out-of –tune, clunky engine that was making all kinds of weird noises. Now imagine if this was your brain? Many of us who suffer from ADHD, depression, anxiety, poor memory, etc., have brains that are just as much a mess as that clunky, out-of-tune engine. These problems are not Adderall, Ritalin, or Xanax deficiencies. We suffer from these problems because our brains are irritated and do not have what they need to function well.
I want to share with you a patient’s story. Ever since this person was a child, he had poor memory. When he got older, he described his mind as being “foggy.” He felt anxious and even wondered if he was depressed. He discovered that he may have a gluten sensitivity, took himself off gluten and noticed that his memory and “foggy mind” started improving. We did some testing on him and found that he had an elevated homocysteine level. Homocysteine is a nasty chemical that can irritate our brain and can build up due to certain genetic weaknesses. We fine tuned his diet and started him on some supplements to get rid of the homocysteine. Within a few months his entire experience of the world changed. His memory improved. The foggy mind resolved. The anxiety and “depression” even starting melting away. Did he need Zoloft or Ritalin? No! He needed a diet and supplements tailored to the needs of his body. When he eats well and takes his supplements, the world looks fresh, clear, and in perfect focus. When he doesn’t, it is as if someone has taken a camera lens and put everything out of focus.
If your life feels out of focus, you should consider learning how to adjust the focus so that you can experience the beauty and charm of this amazing life. You don’t need to suffer from ADHD, anxiety, or depression. Here are five steps to help you bring the world into perfect focus:
1) Diet: Imagine you had a million dollar car that was designed to run on special 100 octane fuel. What would happen if you put poor quality 87 octane gas with all kinds of impurities in it? It would probably start shaking and performing really poorly. Your brain is way more sophisticated and advanced than any million dollar machine, and yet many of us give it poor quality 87 octane gas. Our diet gives us calories for energy, but it also gives our body the nutrients it needs to work well. The foods you eat can also contain things that are irritating to your intestines, immune system, and brain. Imagine you have a skin rash that is constantly irritated by some chemicals. Obviously, you need to get rid of the chemicals that are irritating your skin before it can start healing. In ADHD and even depression, the brain can be irritated by certain proteins and chemicals in our diet. To help your brain work perfectly, you must start by taking away the things that are irritating it. Some things that can be irritating to the brain are: gluten (wheat), casein (dairy), artificial dyes and preservatives, and sugar. The “foggy mind” and poor memory I suffered from was nothing more than my poor brain being irritated by gluten. When we take away the things that irritate the brain, it can start working the way it was designed. The diet that I suggest to my patients is called the Paleolithic diet. Imagine you lived 200 years ago. Minus gluten and casein, you can eat any food that you can find in its natural form. Another great idea is to make your diet as colorful as possible (and yellow dyes found in Twinkies do not count!). The chemicals that give fruits and vegetables their colors have powerful healing effects on the body! Use them to heal your brain.
2) Probiotics: A happy gut = a happy brain. Some people with various psychological conditions may be suffering from increased intestinal permeability or a leaky gut. In a healthy gut, all foods are broken down to their smallest pieces (amino acids), which then travel through the body and are used to make useful proteins. A leaky gut allows parts of proteins that have not been fully broken down to pass through and cause irritation within the intestines and even in the brain, which can then show up as ADHD, a foggy mind, depression, etc. The good bacteria that are found in yogurts and probiotic pills can help heal a leaky gut and improve our intestinal function. What is even more amazing is that at least in animals, the bacteria in the intestines can actually influence mood. Yes! Little mice become depressed based on what type of bacteria they have in their intestines. What if the bacteria in your intestines were sending signals up to your brain causing you to feel blue? Taking a probiotic pill, yogurt, or fermented food like Kefir can make sure you have the right bacteria in your intestines for optimal function. Remember, a happy gut = a happy brain.
3) Stress: We live in a world filled with stress. Many of us are stressed out all the time. We don’t think that stress is that big a deal. This is as far from the truth as can be. I tell all my patients that stress is one of the biggest poisons you can put into the body. Stress damages the gut and leads to a leaky gut. Stress also damages and even shrinks our hippocampus (the part of the brain we need for learning and memory). Certain mindfulness practices have been shown to increase the size of parts of our brain. Stress turns down the immune system and keeps it from working well; that is why some of us get sick right after a really stressful time. You may say, “Well my life is stressful. What do you want me to do?” There was a time when I was a very stressed out person. The more I learned about stress, the more I realized how much damage I was doing to myself and then found ways to reduce my stress. I now tell my patients, “If you knew your stress would kill you, would you continue to allow yourself to be stressed out?” Obviously not! No one wants to die early. There are studies that show that people who are very negative actually develop more diseases and die earlier than people who are very positive. Get rid of this poison! A simple way to start is by learning some easy breathing exercises, such as those listed on the website of Dr. Andrew Weil (http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/ART00521/three-breathing-exercises.html). Yoga, Tai Chai, exercise, and various mindfulness programs like MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction) are all very powerful ways to eliminate stress from one’s life.
4) Good fats, bad fats: Sixty percent of our brain is made from fat. Where does this fat come from? Our diet. Have you ever tried to run a car without oil? Probably not a very good idea. And yet many of us are walking around with the wrong kind of oil (fat) in our brain. Researchers decided to starve some poor rats of omega-3 fatty acids (fish oils) and found that the hippocampus and other parts of the brain of these rats actually decreased in size (remember the hippocampus is what we use to learn and remember). These researchers also found that these rats had lower amounts of dopamine in the frontal part of the brain. People with ADHD don’t have enough dopamine in the same part of their brain. So your child’s ADHD may not be a Ritalin deficiency, but rather a deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids. A great way to get these fats is from fatty fish like salmon. Many of us (and most children) do not like eating fish. A simple solution is for us to take fish oil supplements. One thing to realize is that not all fish oils are made the same. For example, most children’s omega gummies have any where between 50-100mg of DHA. From my experience, most children need at least 800-1000mg of DHA to get an effect. Some practitioners have suggested much much higher doses, such as 5,000-16,000mg of DHA (the equivalent of 16-32 gummies each day). When you are shopping for omega-3 supplements, make sure that the product is guaranteed against impurities (mercury, PCBs…) and that it is decently concentrated (200-500mg DHA per dose). Along with omega-3 fatty acids, it is a great idea to use olive oil and other monounsaturated oils for all their great health benefits.
5) Vitamins: Try baking bread without yeast and see what happens. Baker’s yeast is mandatory for bread to rise. Now what if your brain was lacking essential ingredients it needed to make the chemicals you need to feel good. Dopamine is one of the key chemicals in our brain that helps us feel good and stay focused. Did you know that the enzymes that make dopamine need iron, zinc, vitamin C, B6, Folate, and magnesium in order to work well? Did you know that up to 30% of people are low in magnesium? Some doctors are starting to check people with ADHD for zinc and iron deficiency. But how about all the other vitamins and minerals? Some of these nutrients are also needed to help us make Serotonin. Serotonin is the chemical that makes us feel pleasure and gives us an overall sense of happiness. Perhaps the reason why you are depressed is not because you have a Zoloft deficiency, but that you are lacking one of these very important ingredients needed for brain function. A good place to start is by taking a good multivitamin that has all of these vitamins and minerals in it.
We have been told that ADHD, anxiety, depression, insomnia are “normal” experiences in life. We have been told that the solution is Ritalin, Xanax, and Zoloft. Unfortunately, these medications never fix the real problem. They simply ease the symptoms (well sometimes). Other times, they create a whole new set of problems. There are other options. These few steps can help your brain function better which can help improve or even eliminate things like ADHD, anxiety, depression. What you may also find is that other problems, like abdominal pain, allergies, asthma, poor energy, difficulty weight loss, all start to improve as well.
You and your child deserve to feel great. You deserve to have great focus, clarity, and energy without coffee or medications.