Monday, November 17, 2008

Exercises for the Low Back

Exercises that stretch and strengthen the muscles of your abdomen and spine can help prevent back problems. If your back and abdominal muscles are strong, you can maintain good posture and keep your spine in its correct position.

If you have degenerative joint disease, sciatica, a herniated disk, or a weak back from another problem, the exercises given below should help strengthen your back muscles and stretch your spine. The exercises will help flatten the curve in your low back, which can decrease your pain.

Caution: If you have a herniated disk or other disk problem, check with your doctor before doing these exercises.

The exercises are intended only as suggestions. Ask your doctor or physical therapist to help you develop an exercise program. Check with your doctor before starting these exercises. Ask your doctor how many times a week you should perform them.

If your muscles are tight, take a warm shower or bath before performing the exercises. Exercise on a rug or mat. Wear loose clothing. Do not wear shoes. Stop doing any exercise that causes pain until you have talked with your doctor.


  1. Pelvic tilt

    (Purpose: strengthens gluteal (buttocks) and abdominal muscles. Flattens spine.)

    Lie on back with knees raised. Squeeze the buttocks tightly together, then pull in your stomach muscles. You will feel your low back go flat against the floor. Hold for a count of 5. Relax and repeat 3 times, increasing gradually to 10 times. Do a pelvic tilt often during the day also in sitting and standing positions. The pelvic tilt is the most commonly recommended exercise for the low back.

  2. Single-knee raise

    (Purpose: stretches low back and hamstrings.)

    Lie on your back, with both legs straight. Hold a pelvic tilt while you perform the exercise. Bend one knee and slowly bring it toward your chest. Use your hands to gently pull your knee close to your chest. Hold for 5 seconds, then lower your leg slowly. Repeat for a total of 3 times, increasing gradually to 10 times. Repeat the exercise with the other leg.

  3. Double-knee raise

    (Purpose: stretches low back and hamstrings.)

    Begin with both knees bent. Hold a pelvic tilt while you perform the exercise. Pull your knees to your chest. Use your hands to pull your knees slowly toward your armpits. Hold for 3 to 5 seconds. Return to your starting position and repeat 3 times, slowly increasing to 10 times.

  4. Single-leg raise

    (Purpose: stretches low back and hamstrings. Strengthens stomach and hip-flexing muscles.)

    Caution: If you have sciatica (pain down the leg), avoid this exercise.

    Start on your back with one knee bent and your other leg straight. Hold a pelvic tilt while you perform the exercise. Slowly raise the straight leg, keeping it straight. Keep your low back flat. Raise your leg as far as possible without causing pain. Slowly lower your leg and flatten your low back as your leg nears the floor. Repeat with the same leg for a total of 3 times, increasing to 10 times. Repeat the exercise with your other leg.

  5. Partial curl-ups

    (Purpose: strengthens low back and abdominal muscles.)

    Start on your back on a soft or carpeted floor, knees bent. Hold a pelvic tilt throughout the exercise. Slowly raise your head and neck, then shoulders, as you extend your hands to your knees. Keep your low and middle back on the floor. Hold for a count of 5. Return to starting position. Repeat for a total of 3 times, increasing gradually to 10 times.

  6. Hip roll

    (Purpose: stretches low back and buttocks.)

    Start on your back, your legs bent. Keep both shoulders against the floor. Bring up your feet, with your knees somewhat together. Then lower your bent knees toward your left hip, then your right hip. Hold for 3 to 5 seconds. Repeat 5 times, increasing gradually to 10 times.

  7. Sitting bend

    (Purpose: strengthens and stretches the low back and hamstrings.)

    Sit in a chair, feet flat on the floor, knees no more than a foot apart, hands at your sides. Perform a pelvic tilt so that your low back goes flat against chair. Bend over comfortably, hands reaching toward the floor. Hold for a count of 3. Return to starting position, with your back flat against the chair. Repeat for a total of 3 times, increasing gradually to 10 times.

Exercises to avoid

It is best to avoid the following exercises because they strain the low back:

  • legs raised straight and together
  • sit-ups with legs straight
  • hip twists
  • toe touches
  • any backward arching.

Sports and other activities

In addition to conditioning your back, you need to condition your whole body. Physical activities such as walking or swimming can help to extend your life while also strengthening your back. It is always best to check with your doctor before you undertake any rigorous exercise program. Remember to begin slowly. Some sports can be harmful to your back.

The best physical activities include the following:

  • walking
  • bicycling
  • swimming
  • cross-country skiing.

Sports that may be dangerous to your back because of rough contact, twisting, sudden impact, or direct stress on your back include the following:

  • football
  • soccer
  • volleyball
  • handball
  • weight lifting
  • trampoline
  • tobogganing
  • sledding
  • snowmobiling
  • ice hockey.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Nutrition and Your Brain: Proteins for Function

Some day in the future, when you're watching a 21st-century remake of The Graduate, don't expect "plastic" to be the word whispered into Benjamin's ear. Instead, it's likely to be "neurotransmitters."

That night as you're getting ready for bed, you'll probably be eating a snack that's been specially "nutritioneered" for you to sleep soundly and perchance to dream. It will be one of many custom foods and menus formulated for you — based on your personal genetic disposition and metabolic profile — to achieve the mood or mind-set you desire.

As you drift asleep, assured of a wonderful night ahead, you might even laugh as you remember back to the 20th century when, along with everyone else, you were an amateur chemist experimenting daily with your brain — for better or worse. Back then you didn't realize how direct the connection was between what you ate and how you felt and thought.

You didn't really understand that a single meal modified the production of your neurotransmitters, the chemicals manufactured by your brain that motivate or sedate, focus or frustrate. Back then, you thought it was some unknown force that shifted your mood and changed your mind.

Implements of Science
The applied science of nutritioneering will have been born out of discoveries made at the dawn of the new millennium. Using nutriments appropriate to an individual's unique genetic profile, metabolism, and environmental circumstances, nutrition scientists eventually learned to more precisely predict and persuade neurotransmitter production. Nutritional supplements evolved into "nutritioneered complements" that were, in effect, true implements of science (rather than magic bullets fired from marketing departments).

Molecules of the Mind
Neurotransmitters are the mantras muttered in the minds of all Earth's creatures, ever since ancient anenomes first imagined them a half-billion years ago. These brain chemicals allowed animals to emerge from the sea and humans to ascend from the primordial gene pool of thoughtlessness. But, what are they? And most importantly, how can our knowledge of them help us continue to be thoughtful and hopeful, helpful and happy — generation after generation?

Neurotransmitters are chemicals that transmit information between your neurons, the hundred billion brain cells that are responsible for the totality of who you are. They are involved on everything from memory and mental performance to mood and movement. Your personality, your performance, your potential, all emanate from the remarkable ability of your neurons to communicate with each other.

A healthy neuron makes thousands — sometimes hundreds of thousands — of intricate connections with of other neurons. This creates a multi-trillion maze capable of performing 20 million billion calculations per second.

Communication within a Neuron — Local Charges
Neurons use two types of communication, local and long distance. Within a neuron, a bioelectric impulse or "action potential" travels to the cell body through an array of nerve fibers called dendrites. The impulse travels away from the cell body through an antennae called the axon.

Dendrite comes from the Latin word for "tree," because they form into many tiny branches that receive information from axons of neighboring neurons. Axon, from the Latin word for "axle" or "axis," is a single insulated fiber that sends the bioelectric current out to its terminal — which can be inches or even several feet away. The size and quality of the axon determines how fast the impulse travels, which can range from 1 to 150 mph.

A neuron's bioelectric impulse originates in the cell membrane at the beginning of the axon near the cell body. Membrane channels and pumps control an extremely rapid exchange of sodium and potassium ions across the membrane. This is what creates and transmits the action potential along the axon.

A Sports Analogy
The ice sport of curling gives an idea of how the nerve impulse is generated in neurons. In this sport, two players with brooms move along the ice and frantically sweep back and forth next to each other. They represent the sodium and potassium ions being pumped in and out of the neuron. Following this sweeping action, a large "stone" slides nearly friction-free along the ice. Similarly, in the wake of the ion dance — this dosido of sodium and potassium — an electric current is generated.

A single one of your neurons produces almost a tenth of a volt, and the total electrical activity in your brain is easily measurable with an EEG. When this activity completely ceases, you are pronounced dead.

Communication Between Neurons — Long Distance Plan
Between neurons, chemical communication is used instead of electrical. Within the cell body of a neuron, many different types of neurotransmitters are manufactured and shipped to the end terminals of the axon. Here they're stored in bubbles called vesicles, where they wait to cross a tiny gap over to the dendrites of other neurons.

Synapses — Meetings in Your Mind
Even though the bioelectric impulse speeds along the axon at up to 150 mph, it does not jump the gap, which is called the synapse (from the Greek word for" junction"). Instead, it signals the vesicles to burst and the neurotransmitters to spill out across the synapse, where they're caught by receptor molecules on the membrane of the target neuron's dendrites.

More than a hundred different neurotransmitter varieties have been identified in the brain, and others are continually being discovered. Our knowledge of the specific functions of neurotransmitters is in its infancy, but it seems that each one probably plays some role in most behaviors. In general, a neurotransmitter is often identified by whether it either excites or inhibits (in various degrees) the nerve impulse in target neurons. This is where receptors come into play.

Receptors — Where Chemistry Meets Physics
A receptor is a large protein molecule riding on a neuron's membrane — like a lotus floating on the green surface of a natural pond. Thousands of atoms give a receptor its unique geometric shape and magnetic configuration. This "geomagnetic lock" is designed to accept only the right key — the neurotransmitter whose molecular shape and polarity fit precisely into the lock. The correct spatial mating of these molecules is at the crux of your entire nervous system.

Like the spaghetti that's ready, neurotransmitters "stick to the wall" — link to the receptors on the receiving neuron. There are as many kinds of receptors as there are neurotransmitters, with numerous subtypes of receptor for any given neurotransmitter.

This extraordinary mating game of neurotransmitter and receptor influences every aspect of your behavior, spanning the gamut of human experience from physics to chemistry to biology to psychology to sociology. And it has everything to do with what you eat.

The Way to Your Brain is Through Your Mouth
The remarkable thing about neurotransmitters is that you influence their levels whenever you eat. That's because most neurotransmitters are made from the amino acids contained in dietary proteins. Proteins are the building blocks of the animal kingdom, and amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. When your body digests protein, it uses those amino acids to manufacture the 50,000 different proteins it needs, including neurotransmitters and chromosomes, hormones and enzymes, antibodies and muscles, hair and nails.

Your body's proteins are made from combinations of just 22 different amino acids, eight of which are considered essential nutrients for humans and must be obtained from food. The others usually can be synthesized from the eight and are called "nonessential," but they are equally vital to life.

Because of the importance of amino acids to all the cells in your body, your brain can be at a disadvantage. If your amino acid levels are low, then brain cells will have to compete with body cells which have an advantage, because they can more easily take up essential amino acids from your bloodstream.

Border Crossings
Neurotransmitters are synthesized within your neurons, so their production depends on which amino acids actually get into your brain. There is a barrier, however, that complicates matters. Not everything you eat is readily available to your brain cells.

To reach your neurons, amino acids must first pass through your blood-brain barrier, and they can only do so by "active transport." In a sense, amino acids must be "driven" across the border in a molecular transport vehicle, because the capillaries in this barrier are like a "Berlin Wall" whose crossing is carefully supervised. In contrast, capillaries in the rest of your body are more like a "U.S.-Mexican border" where elements — desired or not — can readily cross on their own.

To further complicate matters, amino acids are assigned a particular "truck." Amino acids in the same group compete for the limited space in that transport molecule. For example, the amino acids tryptophan and tyrosine both belong in the same category and must enter your brain together. If tryptophan dominates, your neurons will make more serotonin, the calming neurotransmitter that promotes contentment and is responsible for normal sleep. If tyrosine wins out, then you will synthesize more norepinephrine and dopamine, stimulating neurotransmitters that promote alertness and activity.

Tyrosine is crucial to brain power and alertness in another way. It's also needed for your body to make active thyroid hormones. Therefore, low blood levels of tyrosine are associated with an underactive thyroid gland. An extreme deficiency causes severe mental retardation known as cretinism.

Eat Protein for Stimulation, Carbohydrates for Relaxation
Although both tryptophan and tyrosine are derived from protein, a carbohydrate meal will increase your brain's tryptophan, and hence, serotonin levels. That's because the glucose from digested carbohydrates causes your body to secrete insulin. This hormone tells your cells to pull amino acids out of the bloodstream for storage — except for tryptophan. It keeps circulating and becomes predominantly available to your neurons, who use it to make the serotonin that makes you feel satisfied, relaxed, and ready for a nap.

On the other hand, you could be energized for hours after a morning meal high in protein, because it raises tyrosine levels in your blood and brain, causing your neurons to manufacture norepinephrine and dopamine. Unfortunately, after a night's sleep when blood sugar levels are low, you may be tempted to eat a high-carbohydrate breakfast.

Complete and Complementary Proteins
Dietary proteins fall in to two groups. Complete proteins contain ample amounts of all the essential amino acids. Fish and meat, fowl and eggs, cheese and yogurt are complete proteins. On the other hand, grains and legumes, seeds and nuts, leafy green vegetables and a variety of other foods are incomplete proteins, because they provide only some of the essential amino acids.

You can, however, combine different incomplete proteins to obtain all necessary amino acids. Such complementary proteins have been known for centuries and are part of traditional diets around the world. Rice and beans, rice and lentils, rice and tofu are examples.

Ensuring adequate neurotransmitter levels is crucial for optimal brain heath and fitness, however, poor nutrition is not the only obstacle. Stress, infection, and drugs tend to diminish levels, as do age-related impairment of digestion and cerebral circulation.

Better Living Through Brain Chemistry
As always, it's a matter of balance. Eat foods that provide the full spectrum of amino acids your brain needs for an appropriate harmony of energizing and calming neurotransmitters. Pay attention to what you eat and how you feel afterward. Learn what works best for you, according to your daily activities and need for rest.

Food is your best source of amino acids. Be cautious about trying to manipulate your intake with individual amino acid supplements. These potent metabolic factors have many functions in the body that we are only beginning to understand. They are not to be taken lightly.

Science continues to unravel the neurotransmitter mystery, and it's only a matter of time before that knowledge opens up a new era of "Better Living Through Brain Chemistry."

The Neurotransmitters that Change Your Mind and Shift Your Mood
Serotonin is the calming neurotransmitter important to the maintenance of good mood. It promotes contentment and is responsible for normal sleep. Serotonin is synthesized from tryptophan in the presence of adequate vitamins B1, B3, B6, and folic acid. The best food sources of tryptophan include brown rice, cottage cheese, meat, peanuts, and sesame seeds. Low serotonin levels produce insomnia and depression, aggressive behavior and increased sensitivity to pain.

Norepinephrine, also called noradrenalin, is the primary excitatory neurotransmitter needed for motivation, alertness, concentration, as well as for good mood. It is needed for your brain to form new memories and to transfer them to long-term storage. Norepinephrine also influences the rate of metabolism. Like a hormone, it travels in the bloodstream to arouse brain activity with its adrenalin-like effects.

Dopamine is crucial to fine muscle coordination. People whose hands tremble from Parkinson's disease have a diminished ability to synthesize dopamine. This neurotransmitter is also needed for healthy assertiveness and sexual arousal, proper immune and autonomic nervous system function.

One of the most vulnerable key neurotransmitters, dopamine levels are depleted by poor sleep or stress. Alcohol, caffeine, and sugar all seem to diminish dopamine activity in the brain. It's also easily oxidized, therefore adequate intakes of vitamins C and E are necessary to protect dopamine-using neurons from free radical destruction.

Norepinephrine and dopamine are both important for motivation and a sense of readiness to meet life's challenges. Your neurons manufacture these neurotransmitters from the amino acids tyrosine or phenylalanine in the presence of adequate oxygen, vitamins B3, B6, and C, folic acid, iron, and copper. Sources of tyrosine include almonds, avocados, bananas, dairy products, lima beans, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds.

An increased incidence of depression and other mood disorders are associated with low levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, while increasing the levels of these neurotransmitters might improve mood, alertness, mental functioning, and the ability to cope with stress.

Alcohol Depletes Neurotransmitters
Scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California concluded from animal studies that heavy alcohol consumption depletes the brain's supplies of the neurotransmitters responsible for feelings of pleasure and well-being — dopamine, GABA, and serotonin. Alcohol also promotes the release of corticotropin releasing factor (CRF) and stress hormones that create tension and depression. This creates a persisting chemical imbalance that leaves the alcoholic vulnerable to relapse.

Alcoholics then drink more to try and get back to normal, but the more they drink, the more CRF is produced. This cycle ultimately raises the amount of alcohol it takes to make an alcoholic feel normal. CRF can remain active for as long as four weeks after someone stops drinking. (American Chemical Society, Aug 27, 1999)

Don't Forget Acetylcholine
Acetylcholine is the primary chemical carrier of thought and memory — the Hermes of your mind. This excitatory neurotransmitter is essential for both the storage and recall of memory, and may be significantly responsible for concentration and focus. It also plays a significant role in muscular coordination. A deficit in acetylcholine is directly related to memory decline and reduced cognitive capacity.

Unlike other key neurotransmitters, acetylcholine is not made from amino acids. Its primary building block is choline, which doesn't have to compete for entry into your brain, so the more choline you consume, the more acetylcholine you can produce. Choline is a fat-like substance belonging to the B family of vitamins and is necessary to metabolize fats. It is found in lecithin as phosphatidyl choline. Foods high in lecithin include egg yolks, wheat germ, soybeans, organ meats, and whole wheat products.

You can boost your acetylcholine levels by taking supplements of phosphatidyl choline, which is also the form of choline most important to the structure of your neural membranes. Vitamin C and B5 are needed for your brain to synthesize acetylcholine, which it does by attaching an acetyl group to the choline molecule — in the presence of choline acetyltransferase, a key brain enzyme. Acetylcholine levels tend to decline with age, in part because of a decreased ability to synthesize this enzyme.

There also may be an increase in acetylcholinesterase, the enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine. This enzyme depletes the actual amount of usable acetylcholine, thus severely compromising memory. This is especially true for memory disorders, including Alzheimer's.

A 1988 study found that deteriorated acetylcholine receptors allowed the accumulation of beta-amyloid protein deposits in the brain that harden and strangle nerve cells. This amyloid plaque is found to be quite prevalent in Alzheimer's. (Japanese Journal of Pharmacology 48;3: 365-71)

DMAE (dimethylaminoethanol) is a natural substance found most abundantly in various fish such as anchovies and sardines. DMAE easily crosses the blood-brain barrier and promotes increased levels of choline in the brain. This can lead to increased production of acetylcholine. DMAE has been used to sharpen memory in normal adults and to treat attention deficit in adults and children.

A Little GABA Do You
Your brain's primary inhibitory neurotransmitter is GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), an amino acid that's made from glutamic acid. It is associated with states of calm mental focus and serenity. It helps combat chronic anxiety by preventing neurons from over firing from too much stimulation. GABA also promotes muscle relaxation, so a severe deficiency can lead to convulsions.

Glutamic acid is a major excitatory neurotransmitter involved in mental activity and learning. It increases the firing of neurons in the central nervous system. It also acts as an alternative fuel source for the brain when blood sugar levels are low. The conversion of glutamic acid into glutamine is the only means by which the brain can dispose of toxic ammonia — a natural byproduct of protein breakdown that even at low levels is irritating to neurons.

Taurine is an amino acid neurotransmitter that stabilizes neuron membranes by preventing erratic electrical activity. Found most in brain tissue, taurine fosters a centered calmness by balancing the action of certain excitatory neurotransmitters. It also has antioxidant properties. Taurine also promotes the excretion of excess sodium, thus preserving potassium and magnesium. (Dr. Atkins' Health Revelations, June 1996)

Magnesium helps control the firing rate of neurons, and along with vitamin B1 is an essential nutrient that supports the reparative process that neurons need to offset the stress from the continual firing of the electrical impulse. Low synaptic levels of magnesium can cause hypersensitivity. Noises will sound too loud and lights will seem too bright. This increases the body's response to stress, and because stress affects the kidneys' ability to recycle magnesium, hypersensitivity will continue to escalate. (Optimal Nutrition Review, February 1990)

Magnesium also activates sodium-potasium ATP-ase, a key enzyme in cell membranes that controls cellular sodium-potassium balance, which is absolutely essential to the electrical activity of neurons as well as to the existence of the neuron itself. Cells would burst if the sodium-potassium ratio gets too far out of balance!

References and Reading

Food and Mood by Elizabeth Somer, M.A., R.D., 1995
Prescription for Nutritional Healing by James F. Balch, M.D. & Phyllis A. Balch, C.N.C., 1997
Eat Right, Be Bright by Arthur Winter, M.D. & Ruth Winter, 1988
Mind Food and Smart Pills by Ross Pelton, Ph.D., 1989

Your Brain on Alcohol: How Can You Make Hangover Go Away

Has last night's delight turned into this morning's demon? How can alcohol, a simple molecule composed of only a few natural elements, create the havoc of a hangover? Most important, how can you make it go away.

Alcohol's very simplicity (carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen) accounts for its unmatched affinity for the brain and its broad range of negative effects. A hangover is basically a milder version of the withdrawal symptoms suffered by alcoholics. It can persist for 24 hours or more.

You may just feel a bit irritable and overly sensitive, fatigued or muddled. Your muscles might ache or even tremor. You could have a mild or a killer headache. Your stomach could be upset or you could become nauseous. Worst case scenario: a person who passes out from nausea can die of asphyxiation.

One thing for sure, you will be dehydrated after drinking alcohol.

Water Works
The fundamental cure for a hangover is time and rest, plus plenty of pure water. Drinking alcohol upsets the body's fluid balance as far more water is lost than taken in. When the brain becomes dehydrated, its outer covering (dura matter) can temporarily shrink and cause the painful sensation of a headache. Alcoholics can have shrunken internal areas of the brain.

Marrku Linnoila, a researcher at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, thinks the loss of electrolytes may contribute to hangover symptoms. He suggests replacing these electrolytes with a nightcap of one of the sports drinks that contain fresh supplies of sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium, as well as water.

Bull's Eye
There are some nutritional approaches that can intervene to prevent or diminish your hangover. If traditional folk remedies and modern hangover formulas work, it's because they support the body's natural alcohol detoxification process.

A classic remedy for hangover called the Bull's Eye is simply a glass of orange juice containing a raw egg. (Warning: raw eggs may contain salmonella, so use soft-boiled ones.) The juice supplies vitamin C and fructose; the egg is especially high in the sulfur-containing amino acids, cysteine and taurine.

Your liver needs cysteine to detoxify acetaldehyde, the first byproduct of its breakdown of alcohol. Acetaldehyde is approximately 30 times more toxic than alcohol. Used in the manufacture of adhesives and plastics, it is a close chemical cousin of formaldehyde. (Did somebody say embalming fluid?)

A powerful free radical generator, acetaldehyde is a potent neurotoxin that crosses your blood-brain barrier and is the primary culprit in a hangover. Acetaldehyde causes inflammation and depression, and interferes with energy production in the brain. It disrupts cellular function through its reactive tendency to cross-link molecules. (A good example of cross-linked tissue is the leathery skin of elderly alcoholics who spend a lot of time outdoors).

While the liver quickly converts the ethyl alcohol you drink into acetaldehyde, it is much slower at converting the acetaldehyde into acetic acid (which eventually is broken down into carbon dioxide and water). One of the biggest factors in a person's susceptibility to alcohol damage is their enzymatic ability to detoxify acetaldehyde. The longer acetaldehyde remains in the body, the worse the hangover. Furthermore, enzyme activity and liver function tend to diminish with age, disease, poor nutrition, and alcoholism.

Nutrients that Counteract Acetaldehyde
Important research on acetaldehyde was done in the 1970s at the National Cancer Institute by Herbert Sprince, M.D. When he pretreated rats with large doses of vitamin B1, vitamin C, and cysteine, they were able to survive a normally lethal dose of acetaldehyde.

Cysteine is available in supplement form, but to be effective it needs plenty of vitamin C. Steven Wm. Fowkes, editor of Smart Drug News, has found a combination that he says works remarkably well. "I use capsules (because they dissolve fast) containing 200 mg cysteine plus 600 mg of vitamin C (with or without extra B-1). I take one before I start drinking, one with each additional drink and one when IЖm finished." (Vitamin E and selenium also support cysteine's action.)

Your liver also needs cysteine (plus glutamic acid and glycine) to make glutathione, a crucial protective compound whose deficiency first affects the nervous system, causing hangover-like symptoms.

Taurine is another important amino acid that may help hangovers. Your liver makes taurine from cysteine, but because the cysteine is busy detoxing acetaldehyde, taurine may be in short supply. Taurine is an antioxidant and has a protective effect on the brain, particularly when the brain is dehydrated.

Taurine is used to counteract anxiety, hyperactivity, and even to treat seizures. It helps calm overexcited brain cells that are withdrawing from the effects of excess alcohol. Studies show that taurine levels naturally increase in the brain in response to both acute and chronic exposure to ethanol.

Do B Do B Do
Acetaldehyde rapidly destroys vitamin B1, thiamine. Originally known as the nerve vitamin, thiamine is crucial to brain function. Poor nutrition combined with a chronic B1 deficiency induced by excessive consumption of alcohol can lead to a condition known as Korsakoff's psychosis, which involves memory loss similar to Alzheimer's disease.

Durk Pearson at Life Enhancement tells how, when vitamin B1 became available in an injectable form earlier this century, interns discovered they could treat a hangover by injecting large doses of it.

Pantothenic acid (vitamin B5) aids the body in alcohol detoxification. Known as the anti-stress vitamin, B5 can become depleted in the detoxification of acetaldehyde. A deficiency of pantothenic acid may contribute to the hangover symptoms of headache, nausea, and fatigue.

All the B vitamins need regular replenishing — more so after drinking alcohol. Try taking a B-complex before, during, and as soon after a drinking session as possible. The same goes with vitamin C, which is perhaps why tomatoes are a common ingredient in many hangover remedies. Tomatoes are high in B vitamins and in vitamin C, the body's primary antioxidant nutrient.

An Oxidant Waiting to Happen
After alcohol turns to acetaldehyde, the production of free radicals increases. These highly reactive forms of oxygen damage the structural fats that give your brain cell membranes their strength and fluidity. Brain function is compromised depending on how much alcohol is consumed as well as for how long one has been a drinker.

To combat the destructive action of free radical oxidants, your brain must have an ample supply of antioxidants. Basically, antioxidants are chemicals that oxygen finds more attractive than the structural components of your cells. Antioxidants sacrifice themselves to preserve your body parts.

In addition to their vitamin C content, orange juice and tomato juice also contain a good dose of potassium, a mineral that is lost during urination when drinking. Low levels of potassium can contribute to feelings of weakness and shakiness. This may be the basis of a Chinese folk remedy for hangovers that says to boil a couple of banana peels in water and drink the liquid.

Folk Remedies Fight Free Radicals
Perhaps vitamin C has something to do with the Ayurvedic remedy of drinking fresh orange with a teaspoon of lime juice and a pinch of cumin stirred in . . . or the Puerto Rican folk remedy for hangovers that recommends rubbing a quarter lemon into each armpit. Chinese remedies include drinking fresh mandarin orange or tangerine juice.

Another Chinese folk cure is to eat 8 to 10 fresh strawberries, all at once. In addition to vitamin C and minerals, strawberries contain significant amounts of another antioxidant, lycopene.

Tomatoes are also very high in lycopene, the protective plant compound that gives them their distinctive red color. A French study found that alcoholic men had significantly lower concentrations of lycopene and other carotenoids in their blood than men who consumed low or moderate amounts of alcohol.

Alcohol and Brain Fats
Alcohol decreases levels of DHA in the brain, a specialized fatty acid essential to healthy brain cell membranes, which are rich in DHA. According to research by Dr. R.J. Pawlosky at the National Institutes of Health, alcohol not only appears to dissolve the DHA already in the brain's membranes, it also blocks the enzyme that manufactures DHA from dietary fats. This is not good, because lower concentrations of DHA in the nervous system are associated with a loss of nervous system function.

This same enzyme (D6D) blocked by alcohol is also responsible for manufacturing gamma linolenic acid (GLA) which in turn makes the crucial anti-inflammatory PGE1 prostaglandins. When PGE1 levels are low, the inflammatory prostaglandin PGE2 dominates — which is often the norm today and why so many people need to take over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. (D6D is also inhibited by stress, aging, trans fatty acids, viruses, and common medications.)

Prostaglandin Pressures and Pleasures
Supplements of preformed GLA may help increase levels of PGE1, which can alleviate hangover symptoms associated with inflammation and swelling, such as headache and aching muscles — even depression. In a Scottish study, GLA supplements dramatically reversed depression in certain alcoholics (Celtic, Scandinavian, Scottish, Welsh, American Indian). Again, it's genetic racial factors that affect enzyme activity and account for the inability of some people to withstand alcohol while others seem impervious to it.

It's interesting to note that the reason why a first drink may feel good is because alcohol has the ability to briefly activate the tiny levels of PGE1 that exist within the brain. This provides a welcome temporary relief from depression, but soon leads to a crash when the PGE1 reserve is depleted.

GLA is available in capsules of evening primrose oil. DHA is available in capsules of oil derived from fish or microalgae.

Honey, Please Pass the Blood Sugar
In an informative 1998 report, Jim Roberts describes an 18th century hangover recipe which instructs "the afflicted to suck on a sugar cube containing drops of clove oil, then chew on a sprig of parsley, followed by a cup of chamomile tea (sweetened with honey), followed by teaspoons of honey every half-hour for two to three hours. Clove was considered a painkiller back then, and parsley and chamomile were thought to soothe the stomach muscles." Parsley is also a good source of vitamin C.

Honey and fruit juices are common ingredients in hangover remedies, probably because they raise low blood sugar (glucose) levels and relieve hypoglycemia. Alcohol depletes the glucose reserves in the liver (stored as glycogen), so the brain is deprived of glucose and hence the energy it needs for normal functioning.

Low blood sugar may account for hangover symptoms of lethargy. Also when alcohol breaks down, acidic byproducts can build up in the blood and cause muscular weakness. Ian Calder, an anaesthetist at London's National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, says that both problems can be remedied by consuming extra sugar.

Magnesium Calms the Jitters
Acetaldehyde causes magnesium to be flushed out through the kidneys. Low levels of magnesium can cause nerves to fire too easily — even from minor stimuli. This can result in jangled nerves and a hypersensitive brain where even mild noises sound excessively loud, lights seem too bright, and emotional reactions are exaggerated.

An extreme case of alcohol-induced magnesium deficiency is delirium tremens, a life-threatening effect of withdrawal that is a medical emergency. It is characterized by sweating, shaking, confusion, hallucinations, seizures, agitation, and disturbances of memory. Emergency room treatment for the d.t.'s includes injections of magnesium sulfate.

Fifty Ways to Love Your Liver
Because your liver is the organ responsible for detoxifying alcohol, its health is paramount. Basically, it needs all known vitamins, minerals, and amino acids, including special nutrients such as lipoic acid, coenzyme Q10, and N-acetyl cysteine (NAC).

In addition, certain phytonutrients found in plants seem to promote or even repair liver function. These include milk thistle (silymarin), dandelion root, and turmeric (curcumin). Siberian ginseng supports the liver and is associated with people remaining alcohol-free after going through rehabilitation. For next day hangover relief, some swear by a shot of liquid ginseng chased by a tumbler of water.

Other Hangover Remedies
Some people use aromatherapy to clear their head or inhale apple-scented oxygen at one of the new "oxygen bars" that are cropping up in major cities. Others consume a few charcoal tablets as a remedy for hangovers, which is similar to a 19th century practice by chimney sweeps who drank warm milk with a teaspoon of soot. Nux vomica is the classic homeopathic remedy for people who feel woozy or nauseous after drinking too much alcohol.

A Promising Plant is Knocking at Our Door
Kudzu is a plant that's best known in the United States because it has been spreading unchecked throughout the South. But in China, an extract from this edible vine has long been used to treat headaches and hangovers. The Japanese make a hangover remedy tea with equal parts of kudzu root, umeboshi plum, and fresh ginger root.

A 1993 Harvard study found that alcohol-craving hamsters treated with kudzu extracts rapidly lost their appetite for alcohol and voluntarily cut their consumption by 50%. Animal studies done in 1996 at the Indiana University School of Medicine showed that daidzin, an isoflavonoid extracted from kudzu (Pueraria lobata), lowering blood alcohol levels. Daidzin and two other compounds from the plant also were effective in suppressing voluntary alcohol consumption by the rats.

Modern Formulations Put It All Together
A well-nutrified body is a good start, but taking extra nutrients before, during, and after a drinking session is usually necessary if you want to prevent or minimize a hangover. To sum it up, some key nutrients include: vitamin C, B-complex (with extra B1 and B5), magnesium, cysteine, taurine, lycopene, GLA, DHA, and kudzu.

Other nutrients include Siberian ginseng, MSM (a good source of bioavailable sulfur), and NAC (a stable form of cysteine and precursor to glutathione). GABA is an amino acid that acts as an inhibitory neurotransmitter and keeps nerve cells from over firing. It may also be of value to help calm the hypersensitivity associated with a hangover.

Perhaps the two most comprehensive anti-hangover formulas available today are Source Naturals Hangover Formula™ and Life Enhancement's Party Pill II™. They combine many of the above nutrients plus a broad range of supporting ones.

Some Basic Preventative Measures
If you take some preventive measures before and during your drinking episodes, you have the best chance of minimizing the symptoms of a hangover.

  • Don't drink on an empty stomach. Fatty protein foods such as cheese or cold cuts absorb alcohol the best and will slow down the rate at which it enters your bloodstream.
  • Drink slowly. At best, your liver can only break down about one ounce of alcohol per hour.
  • Be aware that champagne and carbonated mixed drinks will accelerate the absorption of alcohol into your bloodstream.
  • Know your limit and the effects of different kinds of alcohol. Darker drinks such as red wine, brandy, and port are higher in "congeners," ingredients that tend to worsen hangovers.
  • To ward off dehydration, drink plenty of pure water during and after alcohol use, including during the night when you wake. (Coffee is not advised because it contributes to dehydration.)
  • Don't try to cure your hangover with more alcohol ("hair of the dog").

WARNING — Before and While You Drink:
Never take Tylenol (acetaminophen). Combined with alcohol, it can cause severe liver damage. Also, don't take aspirin, because it will make you drunker.

Regarding the use of over-the-counter pain medication, the Mayo Clinic advised in their Dec. 1997 Health Letter: "Acetaminophen [Tylenol] or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), such as aspirin and ibuprofen, may help relieve your headache. However, they're not risk-free. NSAIDS, when combined with alcohol, may irritate your stomach. And excessive doses of acetaminophen can be toxic to your liver, particularly when combined with alcohol."

Final Notes
Alcohol temporarily deactivates the protective capabilities of your blood-brain barrier, making your brain more vulnerable to toxic substances, most of which cause free radical damage which can kill brain cells. What's more, several studies conducted since the 1980s suggest that ethanol accentuates the damage caused by lead and aluminum in the brain.

Alcohol triggers the release of stress hormones from the adrenal glands. Current research is shedding light on the real dangers these hormones do to memory and longevity. Click here for more information about the effects of stress on brain health and fitness. (And, click here to learn about ways to activate your relaxation response.)

Sprince, H., et al., "Protectants against acetaldehyde toxicity: Sulfhydryl compounds and ascorbic acid." Fed Proc 33(3) (Part 1): March 1974. Sprince, H., et al., Agents and Actions 5(2): 164-73, 1975. Sprince, H., et al., Intl J Vit Nutr Res 47 (Supplement 1G): 185-212, 1977.
De Witte, P., et al., "Acute and chronic alcohol injections increase taurine in the nucleus accumbens." Alcohol Alcohol Suppl 1994;2:229-33.
Dahchour, A., et al., "Taurine increases in the nucleus accumbens microdialysate after acute ethanol administration to naive and chronically alcoholised rats." Brain Res 1996 Sep 30;735(1):9-19
Montoliu, C., et al, "Ethanol-induced oxygen radical formation and lipid peroxidation in rat brain: effect of chronic alcohol consumption." J Neurochem, 63(5):1855-62 1994 Nov
Lecomte, E,. et al., "The relation of alcohol consumption to serum carotenoid and retinol levels. Effects of withdrawal." Int J Vitam Nutr Res 1994;64(3):170-5
Pawlosky, R.J., et al., "Ethanol exposure causes a decrease in docosahexaenoic acid and an increase in docosapentaenoic acid in feline brains and retinas." Am J Clin Nutr 1995;61:1284-89
Lin, R.C., et al., "Isoflavonoid compounds extracted from Pueraria lobata suppress alcohol preference in a pharmacogenetic rat model of alcoholism." Alcohol Clin Exp Res, 20(4):659-63 1996 Jun
Mathews-Larson, Joan, "An End to the Revolving Door." Addiction & Recovery, June 1990
"Drunk as a Skunk," New Scientist, Dec. 20, 1997
Durk Pearson & Sandy Shaw, "Why Not Party-Proof Yourself This Summer?" Life Enhancement, June 1998
Fowkes, S.W., "Living with Alcohol," Smart Drug News, Dec. 13, 1996

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Nutrition and Your Brain: Introduction

Your brain is a glutton for nourishment. Although it represents only about 2 percent of your body weight, it uses more than 20 percent of all your energy — consuming half of the blood sugar circulating in your bloodstream, a fourth of your nutrients, and a fifth of all the oxygen you inhale.

The trouble is that even in the best of times your brain is often malnourished, which is then reflected in your mood and emotions, and by your thoughts and behavior. Fortunately, your brain quickly responds to proper nutrition — even from a single meal — so what are you going to feed your brain today?

The Brain Food Pyramid
Brain nutrition has four primary aspects, each corresponding to a class of food. Like the sides of a pyramid, they work together to create, protect, power, and activate your brain.

STRUCTURE — FATS for essential fatty acids and cell membrane integrity
PROTECTION — FRUITS and VEGETABLES for antioxidants and brain cell longevity
ENERGY — CARBOHYDRATES for glucose and energy production
FUNCTION — PROTEINS for amino acids and neurotransmitter synthesis
Basically, you need essential fatty acids to build a your brain, antioxidants to safeguard it, glucose to fuel it, and amino acids to interconnect it.

Three Challenges to Optimally Nourishing Your Brain:
Your brain is dense. The immense complexity and density of the human brain is only made possible by the intricate network of blood vessels and capillaries that deliver the nutrients it needs. Optimal blood flow throughout the brain is absolutely essential for its proper function. When the brain's blood vessels are narrowed by disease or its capillaries weakened by poor nutrition, it becomes difficult to effectively and fully nourish the brain. Even gravity works against it.

Your brain is barricaded. The blood-brain barrier protects precious brain cells from fluctuations in blood chemistry and from toxins that may get into the bloodstream. Unfortunately, even necessary nutrients have some trouble reaching neurons. They only pass in minute amounts and in certain forms. Therefore, the brain is prone to malnourishment even when nutritional levels are adequate for the rest of the body.

Your brain has a sweet tooth. Glucose is the main fuel that brain cells use. Unfortunately, brain cells cannot store glucose. They depend on the bloodstream for a constant supply of glucose and oxygen. Two fixtures in our society, stress and sugar, each cause reactions that lower the amount of glucose available to the brain. In excess, they also damage the brain, especially its ability to remember and learn.

Your Brain Has a Mind of Its Own
Where does the mind fit into this model? What is the relation between brain and mind? One way to visualize this perennial dichotomy is by using the familiar image of a pyramid whose capstone hovers above its base.

The brain is represented by the pyramid-base. Nutrients are the building blocks that shape its four sides, providing strength and duration. The capstone represents the mind. The gap suggests the inexplicable relation between the two. The mind emanates from the brain — the foundation from which it reaches out to comprehend all it surveys or imagines. The brain's purpose is to provide a stage for its crowning glory, the conscious mind.

Carrying the analogy a step further, a motto beneath the pyramid says, "Nourish Your Brain." A motto above the capstone says, "Enrich Your Mind."

A Body of Knowledge
"Know thyself." This ancient mandate has ushered us into the inner workings of the brain. Here we are privileged to witness the amazing molecular dance of life. To see so deeply and intimately into ourselves is a thrilling experience — unique to our time. To learn how our brains work is to know who we are.

Another reason to understand brain function is to gain an awareness that enables us to consciously participate in our own behavior at the metabolic level. Just as psychoneuroimmunology has shown that we can consciously augment our body's natural healing process, our knowledge of how the brain works may support and even enhance its performance.

What is Metabolism?
It seems the ancient Greeks viewed the process of food being converted into body parts as a kind of metamorphosis. They called it "metabolism," a fascinating word whose Greek root is bole, "to throw" (as in ballistics, our primal propensity for propelling projectiles). Meta-bolism is beyond ballistics, the ultimate movement, where chemistry is broken down and rebuilt into biology — matter transformed into mind.

Please Pass the Magnesium
Nature has a special way of "throwing" things, and she uses bacteria as her quarterbacks. Consider magnesium, the eighth most abundant element on Earth:

Soil bacteria prepare magnesium for assimilation by plants whose green leaves contain photosynthetic bacteria (chloroplasts) that place magnesium in chlorophyll molecules to capture solar electrons and materialize the energy of the sun to make the carbohydrates eaten by animals whose intestinal bacteria pass magnesium into their bloodstream to trillions of cells full of energy-producing bacteria (mitochondria) that use magnesium to break down carbohydrates into the energy that animates us.

Better Brains Build a Better World
A fit and healthy brain depends on a combination of nutrients that support the structural integrity, electrical activity, and growth of its cells. Nutrients enable it to synthesize the chemical messengers it uses for intercellular communication. Nutrients power and protect it.

Because a malnourished brain alters mood and behavior, optimal nourishment has the promising potential to get at the root of social problems stemming from fear, apathy, anger, and violence. As research unveils the complex biochemistry of the human brain and the intimate connection between what we eat and what we create, this knowledge can enable us to function at our best. We can then explore our full cognitive potential for a richer life — positively influencing individual evolution and planetary health.

Why Your Brains Love Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving may well be the year's biggest bonanza for your brain — all of them. This famous feast doesn't just satisfy the survival instinct of your rudimentary reptilian brainstem. The gathering of family and friends also serves up the emotional interaction craved by your mammalian limbic brain.

Celebrating this historic holy day does more than fulfill the spiritual longing of your time traveling cerebral cortex, that human thinking cap and vault of heaven where you envision and give thanks-be to a higher power. The thanksgiving meal is also is a sensuous source of activity for another one of your brains, the one in your gut known as the "enteric nervous system."

Derived from the Greek word for within (and opposite of dysentery), your enteric nervous system is located throughout the lining of your gastrointestinal tract. This highly organized network of nerve cells is now recognized as a complex integrative brain in its own right, with a hundred-million neurons (more than the spinal cord has).

Like the central nervous system, the enteric nervous system has sensory and motor neurons, glial cells, and information processing circuits. The intricate circuitry in this remarkable brain enables it to perceive and respond, learn and remember, even to produce feelings — although mostly bad ones, like when you eat too much at thanksgiving.

Please Pass the Tryptophan
Thanksgiving has another reputation: the classic consequences of contentment and sleepiness. Turkey as well as the nuts in the stuffing and many of the other foods served are high in tryptophan, the essential amino acid you need to make serotonin. Serotonin is the inhibitory neurotransmitter important to the maintenance of good mood. It promotes calmness and is responsible for normal sleep. (Prozac blocks the reuptake of serotonin.)

Serotonin is needed to counterbalance the excitatory neurotransmitters, dopamine and norepinephrine, and has a role in regulating eating behavior and in producing satiety after eating. Cells located in several brainstem clusters called the "raphe nuclei" synthesize serotonin from tryptophan in the presence of vitamins B1, B3, B6, and folic acid — which your thanksgiving meal should provide plenty of.

This is Your Brain on Dessert
Although turkey is high in tryptophan, that's not why you might feel sleepy after a large thanksgiving dinner. Tryptophan must compete with the other amino acids in a high-protein meal to get into your brain, and tryptophan has a lower priority. But, because the thanksgiving meal is also loaded with carbohydrates and sugars (did somebody say pie?), your blood glucose levels rise, causing insulin to be released. This tends to pull all the amino acids out of your bloodstream, except tryptophan, which can then cross your blood-brain barrier and help synthesize serotonin so you can conk out on the couch.

Pain the the Gut
The enteric nervous system (ENS) uses the same major neurotransmitters as the central nervous system, including acetylcholine, norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin. That's why drugs that target the brain can cause severe reactions in the gastrointestinal tract. When doctors attribute nervous disorders of the stomach and intestines to psychological problems in the brain, they are only partly right. These problems don't originate with the cranial brain, but with the abdominal brain.

Symptoms emanating from the two brains often get confused. "Just as the brain can upset the gut, the gut can also upset the brain. If you were chained to the toilet with cramps, you'd be upset, too," says Michael D. Gershon, M.D., author of the 1998 book, The Second Brain.

Dr. Gershon is chairman of the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons. His thirty years of pioneering research into the enteric nervous system has ushered in the new medical field of neurogastroenterology, which promises rapid advances in the management of functional bowel disease. "Although we still are unable to relate complex behaviors such as gut motility and secretion to the activity of individual neurons, work in that area is proceeding briskly." (Hosp Pract, July 1999)

Internal Vigilance
The idea of a brain in the gut is not new. In his 1907 book, The Abdominal and Pelvic Brain, a respected physician and researcher named Byron Robinson wrote:

"In the abdomen there exists a brain of wonderful power maintaining eternal, restless vigilance over its viscera. It presides over organic life. . . . The abdominal brain is a receiver, a reorganizer, an emitter of nerve forces. It has the power of a brain. . . . The abdominal brain is not a mere agent of the [cerebral] brain and cord; it receives and generates nerve forces itself; it presides over nutrition. It is the center of life itself. . . . The abdominal brain can live without the cranial brain, which is demonstrated by living children being born without cerebrospinal axis. On the contrary, the cranial brain cannot live without the abdominal brain."

Surely You Digest
Acting independently of your cranial brain, the ENS coordinates behavior in your esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and colon — with particular emphasis on mixing food with digestive enzymes and propelling it through the intestine. The ENS helps control the absorption of nutrients into your bloodstream and protects against the possible intrusion of harmful bacteria and other toxins that enter the digestive system with food.

The ENS also has a major role in protecting you from external threats. If the danger is minor, your ENS may just shut down your digestive system. If fight or flight is imminent, it can rapidly empty your digestive tract from whichever end is more convenient — by tossing your cookies or by scaring you **itless.

Serious Protective Work
When your head alerts your gut to danger, histamine is released from mast cells in the lining of the small intestine and colon. This triggers a protective inflammatory response that attracts immune cells from the bloodstream into the area. Your body is then ready for trauma, such as an animal bite (evolutionarily speaking) that would introduce infectious material into your colon. You now have a better chance of controlling the infection and surviving the bite — or the knife or bullet (contemporarily speaking).

Master of its Own Domain
Dr. David Wingate, a professor of gastrointestinal science at the University of London, sees the logic of having two brains:

"As life evolved, animals needed a more complex brain for finding food and sex and so developed a central nervous system. But the gut's nervous system was too important to put inside the newborn head with long connections going down to the body. Offspring need to eat and digest food at birth. Therefore, nature seems to have preserved the enteric nervous system as an independent circuit inside higher animals. It is only loosely connected to the central nervous system and can mostly function alone, without instructions from topside." (NY Times, Jan. 23, 1996)

Therefore, the ENS was not replaced. It was connected. During fetal development, a clump of tissue called the "neural crest" is formed and then divides. Part of it becomes your central nervous system and another migrates south to form your enteric nervous system.

These two nervous systems are then later connected by your vagus nerve, which is composed of only a few thousand nerve fibers. Because your gut brain is on-location and master of its own domain, it is able to take second-to-second control without the need for a thick cable linking it to your head.

Your Inner Skin
The coordinated intelligence of your enteric nervous system is not only essential for digestion (hence survival), but for the quality of life itself — as anyone can testify who has ever suffered from irritable bowel syndrome or simply from indigestion or cramps, diarrhea or constipation.

Your gastrointestinal tract is basically a sensory organ that has a profound impact on your sense of well being — not unlike your skin. It evaluates situations based on sensory input, then decides how the digestive tract will respond in order to best ensure your survival.

Like your skin: when all is well, you don't even know it's there. But when it hurts, you hurt.

Professor J.B. Furness and his fellow researchers at the University of Melbourne describe the lining of the gastrointestinal tract as "the largest vulnerable surface that faces the external environment. Just as the other large external surface, the skin, is regarded as a sensory organ, so should the intestinal mucosa." He elaborates:

"The three detecting systems in the intestine are more extensive than those of any other organ: the enteric nervous system contains on the order of 10(8) neurons, the gastroenteropancreatic endocrine system uses more than 20 identified hormones, and the gut immune system has 70-80% of the body's immune cells. . . . Signals are sent locally to control motility, secretion, tissue defense, and vascular perfusion; to other digestive organs, for example, to the stomach, gallbladder, and pancreas; and to the central nervous system, for example to influence feeding behavior." (Am J Physiol, Nov. 1999)

The Plexus at the Nexus
It's comforting to know we have such a smart lining to that complex tube that tunnels all the way through our body. When one considers that nutrient digestion is our fundamental interface with the environment — and that nutrition is the basic evolutionary driving force that shapes our development as a species and our growth as an individual — then the role of the enteric nervous system becomes paramount to our existence and our future.

This Thanksgiving Day, when tryptophan is coursing through your veins and brains, and you are letting kith and kin, God and country, know how much you appreciate them, also take a moment to give your tummy a warm rub of appreciation. It likes that.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Healthy Diet

For a healthy diet you need to eat a wide variety of foods in moderate-sized portions that give your body the nutrients and energy it needs. You also need to limit foods in your diet that can be harmful to your body.

The Foods to Limit

Some foods contain very little nutritional value or have ingredients that can cause disease. Eating healthy doesn't mean giving up all sweets, salt, and snacks. It means eating such foods in moderation. The foods and food ingredients you need to limit include fat, cholesterol, sodium, alcohol, and sugar.

Eating foods high in cholesterol and saturated fat can cause atherosclerosis (narrowing of blood vessels from buildup of fatty deposits). This is critical for everyone but especially important if you have a family history of high cholesterol levels or diabetes. Atherosclerosis can lead to heart disease and strokes. Cholesterol is a substance found in animal products such as meat, eggs, dairy products, and baked goods made with eggs and milk. Vegetables do not contain cholesterol.

Of the various types of fats, saturated fats are the least healthy. They tend to increase the level of cholesterol in your blood. In fact, the amount of saturated fat in food is at least as important as the amount of cholesterol. Foods labeled "No Cholesterol" sometimes contain high saturated fat. Saturated fats are generally solid at room temperature. Foods that contain saturated fat include butter, cheese, margarine, shortening, tropical oils such as coconut and palm oil, and the fats in meat and poultry skin.

To reduce the saturated fat in your diet, limit the amount of butter and margarine you eat. Drink nonfat or low-fat milk. Choose lean cuts of meat and take the skin off poultry before you eat it. If you use cooking oil, avoid tropical oils such as palm or coconut oil as well as peanut oil. Better oils to use are sunflower, canola, soy, or olive oil.

Sodium, one of the ingredients in table salt, can contribute to high blood pressure if it is eaten in excess. Sodium is found in many foods, not just in table salt. Fast foods usually contain high amounts of sodium. An average healthy person should have no more than 2400 mg (milligrams) of sodium a day and no less than 500 mg a day. Read the labels on food packaging to check how much sodium is in the food. The following chart shows some examples:

    Approximate    Food   mg of Sodium          
Big Mac or Whopper 1000
Bread (2 slices) 200 to 600
Cheese, cheddar (1.5 oz) 300
Fruit (1) 2 to 5
Milk (1 cup) 120
1 teaspoon of salt 2100

On food labels, "low sodium" means each serving contains less than 140 mg of sodium. "Moderate sodium" is 140 to 400 mg per serving. "High sodium" is more than 400 mg of sodium per serving.

Excess alcohol consumption can lead to weight gain, liver disease, brain damage, and other disorders. Women should have no more than one drink a day. Men should not have more than two drinks a day. A drink equals about 5 ounces of wine, one can of beer, or one ounce of distilled spirits.

Sugar and foods that contain a lot of sugar supply a large number of calories but very little nutrition. Sugar also causes tooth decay.

The Foods You Need

A healthy diet depends on eating a variety of foods. If you eat a variety of foods you are more likely to get all the necessary nutrients. Your diet should contain the following nutrients:

  • Proteins

    Proteins form the basic structure of body tissue and organs. The body uses proteins for growth and repair of cells. Proteins are found in eggs, milk, cheese, tofu, nuts, meat, fish, poultry, dried beans, split peas, and lentils. About 15% of your daily calories should come from protein.

  • Carbohydrates

    Carbohydrates are the body's main source of energy. Carbohydrates are found in potatoes, bread, cereals, grains, pasta, milk, yogurt, vegetables, and fruit. They should make up at least half of your daily calories.

  • Fats

    Fats provide energy and are used for growth and repair of tissues. They are found in olives, nuts, cheese, meat, fish, poultry, butter, oils, avocado, and mayonnaise. Saturated fats are less healthy than polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Saturated fats are found mostly in butter, margarine, meat, cheese, poultry with skin, tropical oils, and whole-milk dairy products. Monounsaturated fats are found in olive oil, canola oil, and avocados. Polyunsaturated fats are found in fish and some vegetable oils.

    Fats should contribute no more than 30% of your daily calories. Only 10% of the fat you eat should be saturated fat. There are nine calories in a gram of fat. So, to calculate the maximum grams of fat you should eat each day, use these formulas:

    1. Multiply the maximum number of calories you should eat in a day by 0.30 (30%) to calculate the maximum number of calories you should get from fat.

      Number of calories a day x 0.30 = Number of calories from fat in a day

    2. Divide the daily number of calories from fat (the answer from the calculation above) by 9 to find the maximum number of grams of fat you should eat each day.

      Number of calories from fat / 9 = Number of fat grams a day

      For example, if you need 1800 calories per day, no more than 30% of those calories should come from fat: 1800 x 0.30 = 540 calories from fat. Divide 540 by 9 to find out the maximum number of grams of fat you should consume each day: 540/9 = 60 grams of fat.

  • Fiber

    Fiber is found in plants and is not digested by the body. It provides what is considered "bulk," which is used by the large intestine to help remove waste through bowel movements. Lack of fiber in your diet can worsen intestinal problems, such as constipation. Fruit, vegetables, bran, whole grains, and cereals are good sources of fiber. It is recommended that you get 20 to 35 grams of fiber a day. A diet high in fiber may help reduce your cholesterol levels.

  • Vitamins and Minerals

    Vitamins are important nutrients that help to regulate metabolism and help the brain, nerves, muscles, skin, and bones function properly. The major vitamins are A, B, C, D, E, K, B-12, and seven B complex vitamins. Minerals are necessary in very small amounts for the body to function properly. For example, calcium is necessary for healthy teeth and bones, and zinc and magnesium are needed to control cell metabolism. Iron is important for healthy blood and many chemical reactions in your body. Vitamins and minerals are found in many foods, especially milk, cheese, green leafy vegetables, fish, meat, and poultry. They are also added to milk and cereal.

  • Water

    Water is necessary to replace the fluid your body loses every day when you breathe, go to the bathroom, and sweat. You should drink six to eight glasses of water or other liquids (including soups and other beverages) every day.

You can use the following chart as a guideline for choosing the types and amounts of foods you eat in a day. Remember that carbohydrates (grains, fruits, vegetables) should make up at least half of your daily calories and variety is important.

 Number of      Examples of       Food Group        servings      serving size    
Meat, poultry, 2 to 3 2 to 3 oz of lean meat, fish, dried 1 egg, 1/2 cup cooked beans, eggs beans
Grains 6 to 11 1 slice of bread, 1/2 cup pasta or rice, 1 oz of cereal
Fruits 2 to 4 1 fruit, 3/4 cup fruit juice
Vegetables 3 to 5 1/2 cup nonleafy vegetable, 1 cup leafy vegetable
Milk, cheese, 2 to 3 1 cup milk or yogurt, yogurt 1 to 2 oz cheese

Meat versus Vegetarian Diet

Meat, including poultry and fish, is a very nutrient-rich food. Meat is one of the best sources of iron and protein. Most people get much more protein than they need, however. You should limit the amount of meat you eat, but you don't have to eliminate meat altogether. Choose lean cuts of meat and try to use the meat as a side dish rather than a main course. You can include meat in a casserole or stew, using the meat as a flavoring for the main dish without overeating the meat portion.

It is possible to have a healthy diet without eating meat. Vegetarians do have to be careful to make sure they get enough iron and protein, however.

Guidelines for Eating Healthfully

For best nutrition, choose foods containing high-fiber, complex carbohydrates and monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats instead of refined, low-fiber carbohydrates and saturated fats.

Learn more about nutrition and healthy living. Read the ingredients on all packaged and canned foods you buy. Some contain more fat, sodium, sugar, and preservatives than you expect.

In addition:

  • Bake or broil food instead of frying it.
  • Don't eat more than four egg yolks a week. Egg whites are healthy, but egg yolks are not.
  • Have a green leafy salad at least once a day. (Leaf lettuces and spinach are much more nutritious than iceberg lettuce.) Use oily dressings sparingly on the salads or try nonfat dressings.
  • Eat fresh foods instead of canned foods.
  • Eat more whole-grain products.
  • Cook vegetables only slightly or eat them raw.
  • Limit the amount of red meat you eat; eat more fish.
  • Remove the skin from poultry before eating it.
  • Limit fat, cholesterol, sugar, alcohol, salt, and caffeine in your diet.
  • Avoid pre-prepared foods as much as possible.
  • Limit dining at fast food restaurants. If you do dine there, leave off the bacon, cheese, sour cream, mayonnaise, and fatty salad dressings. Order broiled instead of fried items.