“There is a very likely link between the adverse changes in nutrition seen in recent times, and the rise in brain disorders. It is the same story whichever side of the pond you view it from, US or EU… This rise in the incidence of mental illness cannot be due to genetic changes, as it has happened too fast. However, epigenetic change in response to the changing environment is a plausible explanation.”
These words were written by Professor Michael Crawford on the Mother and Child Foundation blog a few weeks ago. I’d like to pick up on that tantalising theme – epigenetic change.
Epigenetics, in a nutshell, is about “heritable changes in gene function that do not involve changes in the DNA sequence”, to quote Wikipedia. Unhealthy parents, at the time of conception, can pass on these “dysfunctional” genes to their children. In this way, mental health problems can cascade down families and generations.
There are plenty of studies showing that the brain suffers without the right foods. The most important of the “brain foods” come mainly from the sea – fish, particularly oily fish rich in omega-3 DHA and iodine. They are vitally important, because these nutrients are scarce in land foods.
The most important thing is to feed the brain as it is forming and developing. At three weeks from conception brain cells are already visible. Even before that, at conception there is a total resetting of epigenetic switches on the genes. It is best to get parental diets as healthy as possible in preparation for healthy conception.
Although the official UK estimate for brain disorders in 2010 was £113 billion, autism would add another £30 billion and cerebral palsy another £8 billion on top of that. Early problems correlate with subsequent difficulties in communication and learning, school-exclusion and unemployment, and even criminality and prison, indicating a major contribution of developmental brain disorders to violence.
Looked at in these terms, violence costs the UK £124 billion a year!
Obesity and the bigger picture
Improving diet to reduce brain disorders will also reduce obesity, one of the scourges of the so-called Western diet. Better diet also helps address other perennial health issues such as diabetes and heart disorders, which currently cost the health service around £70 billion.
The potential for saving across all these health areas is hundreds of billions.
Improving diet in children and young adults has been shown to improve behaviour and learning, but brain-building is the most important. As well as the importance of diet at the time of conception, the last months of pregnancy are absolutely vital too. The baby’s large brain is growing fastest at this time, demanding a huge supply of DHA. The ‘placental pump’ favours the baby at this time and depletes the mother’s DHA, leaving her likely with depression, so common during and following pregnancy. Ensuring enough DHA for both mother and child is therefore crucial.
All parents wish their children to inherit all the positives and none of the negatives. Diet needs to viewed in these terms – as something that bequeaths brain -related positives that are handed on to the infant.
Teaching young people how to care for their own brains and bodies, which means those of their future children as well, is only fair to everyone. Financially it is a no-brainer, promising the biggest return ever. Health services across the world are looking for ways to make savings. What an incredible windfall a policy of promoting healthy diets would give them!