Saturday, August 7, 2010

Energy Intake and Your Mental Health

Energy, what we call calories, is derived from carbohydrate, protein, fat and alcohol found in foods and drinks. Thought vitamins and minerals are necessary for optimum health, they provide no energy. The brain is a very metabolically active organ and uses about 20-30% of a person's energy intake at rest. People who don't eat enough calories to meet their energy requirements will experience altered mental functioning. Just skipping breakfast has been shown to lower problem-solving ability, especially if the person is already undernourished. Hungry people are also usually less motivated and are less energetic. Chronic hunger and depriving your body of energy drastically impacts mood and the ability to respond to stimuli. In order to conserve energy the body will begin to shut down nonessential functions such as oxygen and nutrient transport, hormone production, and infection fighting mechanisms. These systems  impact mental abilities so  these people may feel sad, apathetic and hopeless.
Young children and infants are especially susceptible to malnutrition. Brain development is impaired even in the unborn if the mother is undernourished. Depending upon the timing of the under nutrition, the effects can be linked to below normal intelligence and cognitive and functional defects.

Now, lets talk about carbohydrates. Some people say they never met a carbohydrate they didn't like. This usually is in context of a discussion about weight issues. There have been many diets that tout rapid weight loss based on carbohydrate restricting methods. Marathon runners use carbohydrate loading to stoke the furnace prior to a run. So what is a "carb" and is it a good guy or a bad guy? Carbs include starches, naturally occurring and refined sugar and dietary fiber. Carb rich foods include grain products, fruits,  and vegetables. Refined sugars are in things like candy, cakes, pies and sodas. Carbs radically impact mood. Anyone who eats chocolate when they are stressed or angry or sad can testify to that. It makes them feel better, usually pretty quickly. I keep a basket of chocolate on my desk because I handle complaints for the hospital I work for.. it is a great, easily accessible mood stabilizer. The method carbohydrates use to impact mood is by release of insulin which in turn causes an amino acid called tryptophan to be released nto the brain. You may recall tryptophan is the stuff in turkey that makes you sleepy. The reason it does is because it causes the release of serotonin which is a neurotransmitter that in higher levels, causes mood enhancement and a sedating effect. The final carb I want to touch on is sugar. Many people still believe that  high sugar intake causes kids to be hyper. Carefully controlled studies have proven this to be inaccurate. What  high sugar intake does promote is dental problems and the possibility of an obese child that is malnourished. Sugars are very low in nutrients so the child who east too much sugar may be lacking good nutrients for their overall health.
The next post will discuss proteins, fats and  alcohol and mental health.

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