Nourishing Your Child's Brain
By Philippa Norman, M.D., M.P.H.
I derive a certain perverse pleasure in sneaking flax oil into ketchup (Tee hee, I just made it healthier!) Do my children thank me for helping them maintain healthy brain cell membranes? Not yet, not until they are 40 and sprinkling flax seed on their own kids' cereal, I suppose. Though I give them flax at home, I wonder if they will be able to make the best choices for themselves as they live in this culture that pushes junk food and disregards the needs of a growing child's brain.
Though food processing began as a way to increase availability of foods, it has become a renegade public enemy, with fluorescent green condiments, bits of candy served for breakfast, and snack cakes that won't spoil for years. What has been the impact of poor nutrition on our children's brains? How has it influenced their emotional well-being? In some cities, nearly half of school children (and their parents) are on medication for ADD. Many children are depressed, anxious and tired. Others have behavior problems and seem to lack impulse control. Even if they do not have these problems, they live in a world replete with potential threats to their brain health: pesticides with hormone-like activity, toxins that damage membranes and DNA, and stress levels that throw their brains into a state of unrest, short-circuiting their ability to learn and diverting energy reserves that could be used for creativity and higher level processing. Eating the typical, unconscious American diet certainly takes its toll.
What are the foods needed by the brain? What does food have to do with learning? As your child learns, his brain responds by growing and changing physically. When she learns something new, the neuron processes this information and it is retained in the cell. When she connects what she learns to previous knowledge, she sprouts a dendrite, a tiny cellular arm, connecting that cell to the one that retains the previously learned information. This process of brain growth is dynamic and lifelong, and involves an interplay between the learning environment, the individual child's learning style and the availability of nutrients necessary to form neurotransmitters and cell membranes, and to maintain growth and cell repair. Zinc, a trace mineral found in seeds, nuts and meats, is a key mineral in processing memory and regulating mood. It is also an essential growth regulator for brain cells, balancing the process of growth and pruning of brain cells that occurs as we learn. Essential fatty acids, contained in fish, seeds and nuts are needed to form pliable, healthy brain cell membranes. Cell membranes are needed to form storage packets for molecules of chemical messengers, transport nutrients and water along membranous highways within the cell, and maintain high-speed electrical conduction. Vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients , abundant in whole foods, drive chemical reactions in the brain and protect it from damage. Nourishing your child's brain is truly a powerful way to help him function at his best, maintain a more even mood, think more clearly, and handle stress better.
Here are some basic guidelines for choosing the best foods to nourish your child's brain (and your own):
In addition to nourishing the brain with food, practice balanced living for a balanced brain. Sleep promotes cell repair and growth. Play creates endorphins and promotes creativity. Sunshine stimulates vitamin D production, and helps regulate circadian rhythms that influence our ability to remain alert.
Beyond all the science of food is the matter of being whole and connected with the source of our food. Food is energy. Earth is our home. Our health and well-being depends on making a shift to sustainable, whole living that honors our earth home and trusts what it yields for us, and which we in turn care for. How can children learn this if they think fruit is canned peaches, or peas come in a can? Seeing the universe in action, sprouting seeds that they plant, and then munching on the tasty results of their efforts, helps children to understand and appreciate food and develop a sense of caring for the Earth.
It can be a lot of work to feed your children's brains, and to teach them to make the best choices. Nourishing your child's brain is a lot like growing a garden. It takes daily attention, vision, and loving choices. You will reap what you sow: underlying laws that govern the universe are at the core of all functions in our bodies and minds, as well.
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