Diet to support Neurological Conditions
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
The brain, spinal cord, and the nerves in our body make up what we call the ‘nervous system’. Together they control all the workings of the body. When something goes wrong with a part of your nervous system, you can have trouble with movement, speech, breathing, swallowing, or learning. You can also have problems with your senses, memory, or mood.
There are more than 600 neurologic diseases. Major types include:
- Muscular dystrophy
- Spina bifida
- Parkinson’s disease
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Diseases of the blood vessels that supply the brain, such as stroke
- Injuries to the brain and spinal cord
- Seizure disorders (epilepsy)
- Infections such as meningitis
- Cancers, such as brain tumours
Then there are the more common problems, that all come under the umbrella for neurological disorders, such as:
- Poor memory
- Muscle tics and twitches
- Brain fog
- Anxiety and depression
- Behavioural dysfunction
- Learning impairments like ADHD and Asperger’s syndrome
While there are causes of neurological disorders that are totally out of our control, there are some that can be triggered by a combination of dietary and lifestyle factors that we do have control over. Let’s look at some.
Dietary risks for neurological disorders
One of the most commonly overlooked causes of poor neurological health is diet.
Processed foods commonly contain additives that have been clinically proven to cause neurological problems. This is particularly true for diet soft drinks/sodas because of the chemical sweeteners contained in them. When I looked up my additives book for just one of the three main artificial sweeteners (aspartame) found in diet soft-drinks/sodas, I found 92 different symptoms associated with it. That’s quite an alarming number when you think about it.
Food dyes are another common contributor for a host of neurological symptoms such as brain fog and behavioural problems such as ADHD. For example, substances like food dye have been proven to contribute to aggressive tendencies and learning difficulties, especially in children and young adults. My daughter used to ‘climb the walls’ after eating artificially coloured lollies at friends’ birthday parties (until we realised what was happening and stopped it).
So why are these in our foods? Who knows why they have been allowed into our foods or why they haven’t been banned? There is a movement to remove them, but so far they’re still there. It’s up to us to stop buying them so they won’t be manufactured anymore.
Rather than allow food companies to control us, we (the buyers) have the power to simply NOT buy these toxic foods.
Undiagnosed gluten intolerance can be another common cause of neurological problems. Those with gluten intolerance are unable to break down the sticky protein complex found in wheat, barley, rye, and oat products. When consumed, the person’s immune system attacks these proteins, which in turn can damage the gut wall, causing chronic inflammation and malabsorption of nutrients.
Nutrient deficiencies combined with the opiate effect gluten (glutomorphines) has on the brain can contribute to anxiety, depression, muscle twitches, staring gaze, learning impairment and psychosis. Similar situations can arise with casein intolerance, where casomorphines interfere with our nervous system.
Another ‘baddy’ is trans-fats, also known as hydrogenated fats, which are particularly bad for the brain and neurological system because they stop the good essential fatty acids from doing their work effectively. Avoiding processed foods helps to eliminate these nasties.
We can’t have a list of ‘leave alone’ foods like this without including sugar. Sugar in its many disguises is quite inflammatory and best avoided for a healthy neurological system.
Avoid alcohol for a healthy neurological system
Some want us to believe that drinking alcohol in moderation may benefit our health, with red wine often cited as being beneficial due to the antioxidants it contains (which are in very small amounts).
But the risks of drinking alcohol can outweigh any benefits. Drinking 100% alcohol can make us go blind and kill us. Diluted alcohol in any quantity has been found to destroy brain cells.
Alcohol, even in small amounts, has been associated with a higher risk of certain cancers. According to a special report by the NHS, the national healthcare system for England, there is no ‘safe’ level of alcohol regarding cancer risk.
The report states, ‘Alcohol should not be seen as an option for improving health, and it’s best not to pay too much attention to studies or stories that highlight its ‘benefits’ without also mentioning the risks.’
Another cause of neurological symptoms and memory problems can be found in our own homes. Many household cleaning products and personal care items such as shampoos and cosmetics contain known hormone disruptors and neurotoxins that can damage your brain. Scented air-freshening sprays can bombard you daily with hundreds of chemical toxins.
Even products that show innocuous individual ingredients may seem natural (such as limolene). But when combined with other ingredients or are heated (e.g. scented candles) they can convert to substances like formaldehyde. Flame retardant used on bed-clothes, carpets, rugs, couches and curtains are also full of toxins and are best avoided.
Even if you eat an all-organic diet and exercise regularly, these extra toxins can still negatively impact your health. A chemical free household is your best insurance.
Medications, Vaccines & fillings
Now I cannot possibly suggest that you don’t have medications or vaccines, but it is good to be aware that there have been some links to both of these relating to various neurological conditions.
Mercury fillings have been known to cause muscle twitches, tremors, irritability, mental confusion and learning disabilities. If you suspect your mercury fillings may be causing problems, you could consider getting them removed by a holistic dentist. They now do biocompatibility testing with various compounds so that the replacement fillings are in harmony with your body.
Be cautious about getting rid of all mercury fillings at the same time. I have seen the aftermath of this with many clients who suffered from what I call ‘toxic shock’ because too much toxicity was released at the one time and their poor livers could not cope. Slow and careful is important. I suggest not removing any more than two fillings a year.
Gut infections and imbalances in micro-flora
Intestinal parasites are very common today, even in western countries. Some suggest that more than 50% of the population is infected with some type of parasitic organism. Parasites can spread havoc – and not just in the digestive system. Parasites can get into all parts of our body including the brain and create serious neurological damage.
Another ‘critter’ that can affect our nervous system is the candida species. Systemic candida infections can get out of control due to excessive intake of antibiotics, alcohol, refined flour, sugar, NSAID pain relievers and even from long-term use of the contraceptive pill. Once candida gets into the blood and brain it can seriously impact neurological health.
The bacteria in your body outnumbers human cells by a ratio of at least 10:1. When those bacteria are not the type that supports good health you are in trouble. You need the right balance of many diverse types of good bacteria to have a good symbiotic relationship between your cells and the bacteria in your body.
Consider: if you have more bacteria than human DNA cells, then bacteria are the BOSS and they rule us, so you need to be kind to them and feed them the right foods so that they are happy chappies.
Recent research shows us the link between neurological disorders and gut bacteria imbalances. But why wait for the double bind placebo trials before looking after your nervous system via your bacterial balance?
Much has been written here about what is not good for neurological conditions. If you avoid as many of these as possible (or correct these imbalances) you will go a long way towards looking after and caring for your body.
Now let’s look at what IS good for you.
Specific Carbohydrates for a healthy neurological system
You may have read literature about how complex carbohydrates are good for the brain and nervous system because the brain runs on glucose, a type of sugar. But you can get glucose from any carbohydrate as well as conversion from fat.
Our starchy complex grains can be beneficial to some degree but they are also pro-inflammatory. Whereas the non-stimulating carbs from our alkaline, anti-inflammatory vegetables/salads and some fruits give the body the glucose needed without the extra inflammatory burden on the system.
Some examples of starchy complex carbs that are not too inflammatory are foods like chia seeds, flax seeds, sweet potato, pumpkin/squash and small amounts of quinoa.
Essential fatty acids/good fats for a healthy neurological system
These fats are called ‘essential’ because your body can’t make them by itself, so they must be obtained from what we consume.
Your brain is 60% fat (dry weight, without water). 20% of this fat is made from the essential fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6 which should be in equal amounts, derived from what you eat and/or supplement.
It is believed that we should eat these fats in a 50:50 ratio to keep the balance. But commonly we eat more of the omega 6 fats from foods like poultry, eggs, olive oil, avocado and various nuts, but not as much of the omega-3 fats found in oily fish like salmon and nuts and seeds such as flax seeds, chia seeds and walnuts.
This presents a strong case for eating fish three or four times a week.
Good fats are generally considered to be anti-inflammatory, compared to the pro-inflammatory nature of ‘bad fats’ like trans, hydrogenated and super-heated fats (think deep frying).
Thus it’s important to avoid ‘bad fats’ and eat more of the omega 3 fats if your diet is currently insufficient.
Amino acids for a healthy neurological system
The neurotransmitters in the brain, which affect our neurological system as well as our moods are made from amino acids. Neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine are responsible for keeping our neurological system in balance.
The ‘essential’ (meaning our bodies can’t make them) amino acids must come from the foods we eat and these amino acids are put together in sequences to make the neurotransmitters needed for a healthy nervous system and the rest of the body. Amino acids come from proteins in food. Or I could say that protein is broken down into individual amino acids.
We need a good healthy balance of proteins in our diet, but more importantly we need to be digesting them efficiently. It’s worthwhile to check with your health care provider to ensure that you are digesting your proteins properly.
Vitamins and minerals for a healthy neurological system
Vitamins and minerals are very important for the functioning of your neurological system. The brain uses vitamins and minerals to help convert amino acids into neurotransmitters, and carbohydrates into glucose for fuel.
Therefore, a vitamin or mineral deficiency can affect your neurological system. Check with your practitioner to see if you need any supplementation. By following a diet for neurological support, you will also have a good range of nutrients to support your body.
Antioxidants for a healthy neurological system
Deeply colourful fruits and vegetables, such as strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, acai berries, spinach, beetroot, rainbow chard, red cabbage, pumpkin, squash, and beans are foods rich in antioxidants, which can help protect nerve cells from damage…and are also fun to eat!
Gut healing foods for a healthy neurological system
Gut healing foods such as bone broths and some fermented foods may help to support the healing process. However sometimes these substances can trigger neurological issues. So if you find that your condition worsens with this type of food, you may wish to discuss with your practitioner about whether you should go onto the low histamine, low glutamate or low oxalate diet.
Hydration for a healthy neurological system
If we are not hydrated, then we are not lubricated. Our nerve coverings need lubrication for the proper firing of nerve impulses.
The body is about 75-80% water, so it is important for us to drink plenty of fluids for our body to function optimally. We lose about 2.5 litres of water every day through our sweat, breath, and urine. This can vary, depending on our activity level.
In order to replace the water we have lost, we need to drink about 2 litres of non-alcoholic fluids every day. We also get extra fluids from eating plenty of vegetables.
While a diet for neurological conditions is not considered a cure, it includes foods that support the body, and eliminates foods considered detrimental, to help your body to do its natural job of healing.
A good base level for the diet is to be low in nightshades, grain free, gluten-free, dairy-free, additive free and low in sugar, with a good amount of healthy fats and proteins, using low starch carbohydrates in the form of heaps of yummy vegetables and salads loaded with vitamins, minerals, and anti-oxidants.
Some have found a high histamine diet is better, whereas others found the Ketogenic Diet more beneficial for certain types of neurological conditions.
As you can see, a diet for neurological support can be quite complex, which is why it’s important to be guided by an experienced health practitioner when deciding on the best diet for you.
Before you commence your diet, see your medical or health care professional for qualified guidance about what foods and supplements are best for your body. While on the diet do not stop any medications or supplements previously prescribed unless advised otherwise by your medical or health care professional.
During the early stages of a new diet, you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, headaches or body aches, which may occur because your body is detoxifying. However, if you are unsure about a symptom at any time, check immediately with your medical or health care professional.
Client name and identifying information changed
There are so many different types of neurological disorders that it was hard to decide which to use as a case study. I could write a book about the different neurological disorders that have been successfully treated by natural interventions including diet and lifestyle adjustments.
I decided to write about Georgia, a young 25-year-old woman, who had epileptic seizures for about three years prior to first seeing me. Her mum was naturally very concerned, as these events were destroying her girl.
Georgia, a once vibrant healthy young lady without a care in the world suddenly started getting seizures after she travelled overseas and got a ‘tummy bug’ of some sort which also gave her high fevers. The fevers only lasted for 24hrs, but there may have been some damage done to the nerve pathways in her brain, as from that point on she started to get seizures.
Georgia was put onto medication but it seemed that her body would keep overriding the meds and she would continue to have the seizures. They were very violent episodes that would often leave her with a broken arm, collar bone or severe bruising from when she was thrown onto the floor by her ‘fits’.
I couldn’t treat her epilepsy, but I could look at balancing her body as best as possible to see if this would help her condition. Because of her previous infection, we started by looking at her intestinal microbial balance and discovered that although she didn’t have any ‘bad bugs’ in her system anymore, her ‘good bugs’ were on the low side and she had high inflammation markers.
So the first thing was to put her onto a good multi-strain probiotic and an anti-inflammatory, low histamine diet. She went gluten free, dairy free, sugar free and additive free, including some extra supplements to help bring down the gut inflammation.
Things settled a little, but not enough.
I had read that low histamine levels can trigger seizures in those susceptible. Normally I advocate a low histamine diet for anti-inflammatory reasons, but in this case I advised Georgia’s mum to include in Georgia’s diet some bone broths, fermented foods and other gut healing recipes, which are high in histamine.
Georgia’s seizures had been occurring from two to six times a day. Within two weeks of introducing the high histamine foods, the seizures reduced to once per week, or less. Having additional histamine appeared to play a positive role, which was a great help in Georgia’s case.
It is hard to say if it was the gut healing or the histamine that helped, but at the end of the day if the seizures reduced, that was all that was necessary at that stage.
Usually it only takes a few months for gut healing to occur and then a person doesn’t need to keep up a protocol of bone broths and fermented foods. In Georgia’s case, if she stopped eating high histamine types of foods, then her seizure frequency increased.
By staying with the diet, over time her seizures became almost non-existent.
What’s interesting about this case study, and many more, is that things aren’t always as they seem. Rather than accept previous conclusions about health, if the condition remains, then it can be worthwhile to look deeper and consider other approaches.