Brain Health and the Protein Smokescreen

Photo by tirthankargupta on / CC - BY
Photo by tirthankargupta on / CC – BY

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.

Mental illness is now the foremost burden of ill health in western countries. Audits of health costs in the EU and UK, for example, show that brain disorders and mental ill-health constitute the greatest burdens on health services, with a cost greater than heart disease and cancer combined.

The increasing prevalence of poor mental health threatens the very sustainability of humanity.

Why the Surge in Mental Health Problems?

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.

The bulk of brain cells divide prenatally and mostly very soon after conception. Once formed, the brain has little capability to repair any distortion of early damage during development – it is for life. That is why it is so difficult to treat brain disorders in adulthood.

My conclusion is that the current epidemic in mental illness is due to our failure to attend to the highly specific nutrient requirements of the brain. Just as the risk of heart disease and stroke can be programmed before birth, so the brain can be affected by adverse nutrition.

Every child learning science at school knows that life evolved in the sea. It therefore follows that the brain later evolved in the sea too. The fuel for its development can only have been marine nutrients.

For some reason this simple fact is forgotten when people grow into adults and become responsible for food policy. Hence no country has a food policy in which the sea nutrients required by the brain are prioritized. And yet it is the brain that makes us human, and it is the nurturing of the brain that should be our priority.

The Protein Smokescreen

The prime concern with regulators and food policy gurus is protein. The logical conclusion of this is that muscle mass is all we need to worry about. And yet any respectable nutritionist or dietician will tell you that human milk has the least protein of all large mammals! On the other hand it is rich in the nutrients needed by the brain, including omega-3 docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

DHA happens to be the lipid most concentrated in the signalling lipids of the eye and brain, and is required for their growth, development and function. Unsurprisingly, DHA also happens to be abundant in the marine food web and poorly available on land.

The last FAO-WHO consultation recommended that pregnant women should consume 200 mg of DHA a day for this reason. The majority, in the US and EU alike, fail to meet this level of intake.

There is strong evidence from research that says this is the likely reason for the rise in mental ill-health.

A Return to the War Diet?

During World War Two, when major protein food items were rationed, fish and sea foods were not. Since then the great successes in intensification of land foods has swung the balance away from the marine food web and its wealth of brain specific nutrients to intensively reared land foods, which contain little of those brain specific nutrients.

It is a sad irony that the wartime diet, often cited as a time of food poverty and the tyranny of ration books, can actually be said to have nudged western diets in the right direction. But any lessons learned or benefits accrued have been lost in the protein-packed wave of modern food policy.

The brain is the most important aspect of human development, and that has to be reflected in nutrition. It is only the brain that truly sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.

With mental health costs rising, and with nutrition presenting a large part of the solution, the vital importance of feeding the brain has to be recognized. We need to take action, while we still have the functioning brains to do so.

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  1. Pelouze

    Hi Michael,
    We are facing a brain dysnutrition. Lack of foods from sea and lakes and a high consumption of high GI carbs which are clearly deleterious. This lead to hyperactivity in children and depression in adults. It is not clearly proven but the low-fat diet is not good for stroke. Some other circumstances do more harm, like veganism, transfats and poor content in micronutrients for those who consume mainly processed foods.
    My best regards,

    1. Michael Crawford

      Thank you Guy-André,
      Coming from someone who has to deal in practice with the consequences to heart health, it is good to have your comments. There is of course common nutritional ground with the brain and the cardio-vascular system as you know. The heart was affected first by what you describe, rising from a rarity in 1900 to number 1 killer by the 1970s. The brain is better protected in the womb but now it is the turn of the brain.

      Another miss-understood point is that these nutritional/epigenetic effects are multi-generational. Heart disease did not turn into a killer over night. My mother was born in 1898. She was born with the egg that eventually became me! That is the egg that people are born from is fashioned by the grand mother! Today too many in charge of health and government are concerned with the short term. It is going to take a paradigm shift to sort this mental and cardio-vascular problem. Faced with the rapidly growing world population, and the threat to the sustainability of humanity from the escalation of mental ill-health, we are going ta have to farm the oceans


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