By: Dr. Jeremy Fritz
Most people understand that the brain is involved in behavior, yet few are aware that the brain is directly impacted by the food choices we make. The brain requires constant fuel and stimulation to operate and control all of the ongoing demands of the body. The basic fuel requirements for the brain are simply glucose (blood sugar) and oxygen. It is quite easy to understand the effects of low oxygen on the brain, however, one might not grasp the concept that blood sugar levels can alter brain function leading to behavioral disturbances, especially in our children.
Children are typically more sensitive to blood sugar fluctuations, simply because their brain is not fully developed and this is especially the case in the periods of fetal development through the first five years of life. During these early years, the brain is developing at a rapid pace and moving from a state of immaturity to relative maturity. It is during this time that the brain is most vulnerable to insults and stressors. With that being said, the brain will continue to develop throughout life but at an increased rate up until young adulthood. Blood sugar disruptions are unhealthy at any age and result in altered brain function, often times leading to imbalances in learning, memory, performance, and behavior.
So what actually happens in the brain when the blood sugar drops out of range you might ask? Considering that the brain relies almost entirely on glucose as its primary fuel source, even slight alterations outside of normal blood sugar levels can wreak havoc on not only the brain but the entire body. In a child, this may appear as agitation, hyperactivity, emotional outbursts, poor attention, headaches, lack of concentration, depression, fatigue and various other inappropriate behaviors.
Here’s how it works.
Once the blood sugar drops below an optimal set point, the brain will initiate an alarm response and signal the stress centers to release the stress hormone cortisol to mobilize glucose from stored glycogen in the muscles or liver. What this means is that a drop in blood sugar below a certain level will result in stress to your child’s brain and ultimately every bodily function. As a parent, you may be familiar with this as the typical up and down roller coaster of good days and bad days with you child’s erratic behaviors.
So, is there anything that can be done to help control the blood sugar? This question poses yet another question. How does the blood sugar get out of balance in the first place? As you may have guessed, it’s a diet issue. It all starts with the consumption of the dreaded carbohydrate. When we ingest carbohydrates the body needs to break them down through digestion into usable forms which are termed simple sugars. These sugars are then absorbed in the small intestine and sent throughout the body in the blood, hence the term blood sugar. At the same time this is occurring, the pancreas will produce insulin in equal amounts to the rise in blood sugar for the purpose of moving the sugar from the blood into the cells requiring energy. Insulin works as the gate keeper to the cells to allow for the appropriate entry of sugar into the cells. Without insulin, glucose will remain outside the cell in the bloodstream causing damage if left free to roam. This is well documented and known widespread with the damaging effects of Diabetes, which is an abnormally high blood sugar problem. Type II Diabetes is the end result of chronic ongoing imbalances between blood sugar and insulin ratios. This process develops over many years primarily because of lifestyle choices that include a diet of highly processed carbohydrates like cookies, cakes, and candy, resulting in short term blood sugar spikes followed by a crash within 30-45 minutes. As the blood sugar spikes abruptly, the pancreas will produce an excessive amount of insulin. Because processed foods carry no nutrient value, they are digested very quickly flooding the blood with a surge of sugar. At first insulin will match the blood sugar rise with excessive amounts, but this will eventually signal the body to become resistant to insulin causing a further communication breakdown in blood sugar control.
So, what can we do to stop this vicious cycle from happening? The solution can be achieved by following some simple dietary steps.
1.) Eat whole foods
2.) Eat every 2 ½ to 3 hours
3.) Eat protein at every meal
1.) Eat whole foods:
A whole food is defined as a food that is unprocessed and unrefined, or processed and refined as little as possible before being consumed. Whole foods typically do not contain added ingredients, such as sugar, salt, fat, and chemicals that only a scientist can pronounce. Examples of whole foods include whole grains, fruits and vegetables; unprocessed meat, poultry, and fish; as well as nuts, seeds and various oils. When determining food choices, it is imperative to read labels. A general rule of thumb is the lesser the ingredients the more whole the food. For example, a whole chicken comes without a label, while certain chicken nuggets can carry an exhaustive amount of ingredients. In making healthier choices it is often necessary to choose convenient foods like sausages, hot dogs, and lunch meats. When choosing these types of foods, be sure to read the labels to ensure buying a minimally processed meat. For example, many healthier lunch meats only contain 3-5 natural ingredients vs. numerous ingredients within the typical nitrate/nitrite laden meats. The preservatives found within processed meats can exacerbate hyperactivity and decrease attention within your child by negatively impacting brain function. So remember this when determining the makeup of your child’s next “feeding opportunity”.
2.) Eat every 2 ½ to 3 hours:
Eating often provides the brain with a constant supply of nutrients and glucose and decreases the likelihood of starving the brain of much needed fuel.
3.) Eat protein at every meal:
By ingesting protein at every feeding opportunity, we ensure a slow constant release of sugar into the bloodstream and avoid the stressful spikes that occur with consuming processed carbohydrates. High quality protein as that found in grass-fed beef, free range chicken and eggs, and cold water fish are slowly digested in the stomach. This slow digestion is what allows for a stress- free continuous release of sugar into the bloodstream.
The main take home message of concepts 2 and 3 is to plan accordingly to ensure your child always has healthy protein based foods available regardless of where they are!!!
To sum it up, the brain is reliant on a constant supply of glucose to operate optimally and control all bodily functions including behavior. The balance of blood sugar is something that can be controlled and is guided by our dietary choices. Knowing that a wide range of behaviors and health concerns can be the result of blood sugar imbalances, it is imperative to provide the appropriate food environment for your children to build a healthy constantly developing brain. Now ask yourself if your child’s behavior can be influenced by nutrition.
Dr. Jeremy Fritz is a board eligible Chiropractic Neurologist with the American Chiropractic Neurology Board, certified as a Clinical Nutritionist by the International and American Associations of Clinical Nutrition, and functional medicine practitioner with an emphasis on Childhood Neurobehavioral and Developmental Disorders. Dr. Fritz is also the Executive Director of the Brain Balance Achievement Centers of Vernon Hills, IL & Mequon WI.
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