Nutrition and the Mind by Roger French


The brain, like every other organ in the body, is totally dependent on the bloodstream for oxygen and nutrients and on the lymph for removal of waste products. The condition of the blood and lymph is in turn dependent on what the blood collects from the intestines and on the condition of the eliminative organs. What is in our intestines depends, in turn, on what we put in our mouths. So there is a distinct connection between diet and mind.

Keeping the blood and lymph clean are the eliminative organs - liver, kidneys, skin and lungs. The liver is one of the most over-worked organs in the body because it has to process all the fat, protein and carbohydrate we eat and also detoxify all the chemicals that we consume or inhale, including air pollutants, pesticides, food additives, drugs, alcohol and so on. If the liver is overwhelmed by the demands placed upon it, metabolic wastes and man-made chemicals begin to accumulate in the body and there develops a state of internal pollution. In addition, the liver has less energy for the disposal of stress hormones after they have done their job so they remain in the bloodstream longer than they should and begin to do harm, adding to the many ways in which excessive stress is damaging.

So if there are nutritional deficiencies or over-eating, or we take in too many man-made chemicals, or if there is inadequate oxygen or poor circulation or liver overload, the body will become polluted, a state that we refer to in natural health as `toxaemia'. The body will be ill-at-ease or, 'dis-eased', and sooner or later symptoms will begin to appear, the particular disease depending on which part of the body or mind has succumbed first. To correct what has gone wrong, we don't need to treat the diseased organ or tissue as orthodox medicine does, we only need to look at the condition of the body as a whole. This concept of 'wholistic' health applies equally to physical and mental illnesses.

Toxaemia is invariably acidic in nature. So wide-ranging are the effects of this acidity that very recent research has discovered that it influences intelligence. A study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 22-8-96, found that schoolboys with alkaline brains (Ph range 6.99 to 7.09) did better at IQ tests than their friends with acidic brains. In fact, the IQ of the alkaline brains rose dramatically.

The biggest contributor to toxaemia is the modern diet, along with its chemicals, especially pesticides. There is clearly a direct connection between what we eat and brain function. In fact, there is now a mountain of evidence that nutrition has a huge influence on the mind.

Children's Problems

Although the conditions described in this section are usually regarded as children's problems, many can also affect adults. For example, hypoglycaemia is common to all ages, and it is quite probable that the adult equivalent of hyperactivity is aggressive behaviour such as 'road rage'. The division in this article into children's and adults problems involves much overlap.

Sugar, Hypoglycaemia, Hyperactivity and Delinquency
A detailed study of the connection between diet and behaviour has been conducted by the American Criminologist, Alexander Schauss, and described in his book, Diet, Crime and Delinquency, Parker House 1980,

Identifying sugar as a primary culprit, the book opens with the story of Gerry, who, by the age of 11 had had two years of violent behaviour, become a loner and was being arrested practically every month for more serious offences such as burglary. He felt no guilt about his crimes and apparently had little conscience. He could not sit still for a few minutes.

Breakfast consisted of cereal with great quantities of sugar and white bread, and during the day there were soft drinks and sugary snacks.

After probation officers urged his parents to eliminate refined sugar and other refined carbohydrates and replace them with fresh fruits, vegetables, wholegrain cereals and breads, nuts, fruit juices and herb teas, the probation officer's prognosis changed within a month from 'hopeless' to 'good'.

At the Tidewater Detention Home in Virginia, USA, refined sugar was excluded from the diet of a group of juvenile offenders, and the result was that the number of continually-prone juveniles dropped by 80%.

Similarly at a Florida correctional facility, when refined carbohydrates (specifically white flour and white sugar) were eliminated from the diet of inmates, the result was the strikingly low rate of disciplinary problems and violence. When they went back to the normal prison meals, the inmates themselves noticed a return of anxiety and aggression.

Alexander Schauss reports that repeated studies have demonstrated that there is an unusually high rate of hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar) among offenders, averaging 80-85%.

Also apparently related to refined carbohydrates is drug use. In Minnesota, over 90% of a group of women and children affected by alcohol or drug abuse were found to be suffering from hypoglycaemia. When they eliminated refined carbohydrates, caffeine and cigarettes, almost all cases improved significantly.

One of Nature's conundrums is that eating too much sugar can result in too little sugar in the blood. When we consume a large amount of concentrated sugar, the pancreas invariably over-reacts and releases too much insulin, removing not only the excess sugar from the blood but some of the normal level as well. This is because the pancreas 'panics' when confronted by very high levels of sugar. With blood sugar below the fasting level, the person craves sugar and reaches for another sweet snack, and the cycle of high blood sugar, followed by depressed blood sugar is repeated all over again. If this goes on day after day, year after year, the pancreas eventually becomes super-sensitive to sugar and reacts to even a small amount in the diet. The person then has a more-or-less permanent low level of blood sugar which is only relieved very temporarily by eating something sweet.

On the other side of the sugar-balancing mechanism, continual stress exhausts the adrenal glands so that there is not enough adrenalin produced to put sugar back into the blood. Allergies and the regular use of stimulants like caffeine and alcohol can similarly exhaust the adrenal glands and result in chronic low blood sugar.

This is hypoglycaemia. Hypo = low, glyc = sugar and aemia = in the blood.

Because the brain is totally dependent on a minute-by-minute supply of blood sugar (glucose), it instantly suffers when the blood sugar level drops and is almost literally driven crazy, resulting in fatigue and emotional chaos.

Mental symptoms may include fatigue, irritability, nervousness, depression, crying spells, dizziness, faintness, insomnia, mental confusion, forgetfulness, inability to concentrate, anxiety, phobias and fears, headaches, disruptive outbursts and, in extreme cases, delinquent behaviour. Common physical symptoms are cold hands and feet and cold sweats.

The hypoglycaemic reaction is particularly severe if a lot of sugar is consumed on an empty stomach because there is no other food to delay absorption. A recent study published in the Journal of Paediatrics, 15-3-95, found that giving children a sweet snack (2 cans of cola or equivalent) on an empty stomach, triggers an adrenalin rush which may make them shaky, excited, anxious and have difficulty concentrating.

It comes as no surprise that researchers have stated that regular very high sugar intake can cause a range of behavioural symptoms, including depression, hyperactivity and anti-social behaviour.

The 'epidemic' of delinquent behaviour today is easier to understand when we see that refined sugar consumption has risen over the last 200 years from about 5 to 10 grams per day to the current level in Australia of around 130 grams per day.

The key to preventing and reversing hypoglycaemia is to replace high-glycaemic-index foods with low-glycaemic-index foods.

High GI foods - in descending order - include glucose, white bread, honey, cornflakes, refined sugar, chocolate bars, white rice and jam. Low GI foods (with the lowest at the bottom of the list) include brown rice, wholemeal bread, wholewheat pasta, oatmeal, whole rye bread, unsweetened fruit juice, fresh fruit, lentils, chick peas and fresh vegetables.

As Dr Carl Pfeiffer of the Brain Bio Centre, New Jersey USA, says in his book, Nutrition and Mental Health (Thorsons, 1987), the key is to place the emphasis on complex carbohydrates as found in vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains (such as oatmeal and rye) and potatoes. Besides containing starch rather than sugar, these foods contain fibre which slows the rate of absorption of sugar.


With symptoms being broadly similar to those of hypoglycaemia, might not attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder also be related to refined carbohydrates?

Writing in Australian Wellbeing, No 59, page 70, the nutritionist and naturopath, Karin Cutter says:

"I have been struck by the fact that, no matter what the age, each child displays the following characteristics:

  An almost fanatical sugar or carbohydrate addiction.
  Signs and symptoms of rapidly fluctuating blood sugar levels.
  Adrenal imbalance.
  Multiple food sensitivities.
  A pathological aversion to fresh salads and vegetables."

One of Karin Cutter's patients was David. "He lived on iced confectionery and was very fond of instant breakfast cereals, the sweeter the better, and never turned down lollies or chocolate."

She also quotes the words of a mother of an ADD child: "Tania has been going great for three days. The kid's only had vegetables and fruit and now includes some proteins and carbohydrates. Tania's teacher said that after three days at school she had already seen an improvement. Wow!"

Some of the symptoms of ADD are disturbed sleep patterns; early speech difficulties; restlessness; very short attention span; short-term memory loss; impulsiveness; learning difficulties; low self-esteem; aggressiveness.

However, the well-known American psychiatrist, Dr William Glasser, has stated that very few children diagnosed with ADD actually have ADD, in which the brain is affected. He says he would never use medication and sees its use for ADD as a "big money-making scheme". His views are consistent with those of the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council which in 1996 raised concerns about the use of powerful mind-altering drugs for children, including those used for ADHD.

The picture that is emerging strongly suggests that ADD, hypoglycaemia, hyperactivity, learning difficulties, etc., are not different diseases but simply different manifestations of a brain that is literally driven crazy by large quantities of sugar and other processed foods, food additives other chemicals, and possibly additional lifestyle factors.

Is Refined Sugar the Proven Villain?

So far in this discussion, the role of refined sugar in children's behavioural and cognitive problems has been based on broad evidence rather than controlled scientific studies. The question arises as to whether sugar really is a villain or merely an innocent bystander among causes like food additives. So what does the recent research tell us?

Dr Mark Wolraich conducted a 3-week, double-blind, controlled study in 1994 and concluded that even when intake exceeds typical dietary levels, sucrose does not affect children's behaviour or cognitive function (N Engl J Med, 1994; 330(5); 301 - 307).

In the same journal (1994; 330(26); 1901), indignant letters declare that this conclusion in not justified. One explains that the sample size of problem children was too small and the study "ignored the fact that high-sucrose diets, with sucrose ranging from 25 to 60 percent of caloric intake, may be displacing essential minerals, vitamins and amino acids necessary for bain function. This would explain why most controlled, low-dose, short-duration, double-blind trials fail to find a relation between sucrose and behaviour, despite widespread public belief to the contrary."

In response, Dr Wolraich and colleagues (JAMA, 1995; 274; 1617 -1621) reaffirm their conclusion, this time on a 'meta-analysis' of 23 studies, that "sugar does not affect the behaviour or cognitive performance of children."

This also prompts a critical letter (JAMA, 1996; 275(10); 756 -757), which says that the authors have based their conclusions on an average effect observed in each study, and that if only a minority of children were sensitive to sugar, it could easily have been obscured.

An editorial review, 'Sugar and the Hyperactive Child' (N Engl J Med, 1994; 330(5): 355 -356), quotes a 1980 study which found significant correlations between sugar ingestion and destructive, aggressive or restless behaviour in the playroom, but not between sugar ingestion and activity level. After discussing other studies, the review concludes, "There is no evidence that sugar alone can turn a child with normal attention into a hyperactive child." However, "it may on occasion aggravate an existing behaviour disorder."

Clearly there is no consensus of opinion, with the researchers raging to and fro in conflict over the effects of refined sugar. It appears that the studies tend to be of short duration and have failed to assess the effects of high sugar consumption over many years by initially normal children.

The next best approach is possibly the use of elimination diets. Dr William G Crook, MD (N Engl J Med, 1994; 330(26); 1901) used elimination-challenge diets to identify dietary ingredients that were associated with ADHD and other behavioural and learning problems. Of 128 children whose parents observed that they reacted to dietary ingredients, sugar was an offending food with 77 children; additives, flavouring and colouring with 48 children; milk with 38; chocolate with 28; eggs with 20; and wheat with 15 children. In other words, parents cited cane sugar as the most frequent trigger of hyperactive behaviour."

Milk and Delinquency

The extent to which milk is implicated in behavioural problems is somewhat surprising.

In Diet, Crime and Delinquency, Alexander Schauss reports a Tacoma, USA, study of chronic juvenile offenders compared to behaviourally-disordered children who were non-offenders. The male offenders consumed an average of 1.8 litres of milk a day, while the comparison group drank an average of only 850 mls daily. Similarly, the delinquent girls drank 1 litre while the non-delinquent girls consumed only half a litre daily. (The reference quoted is J Orthom Psychiatry, 1979; 8(3); 149 - 157.)

Another study of 6- to 15-year-old hyperactive children found some to be sensitive to milk, and when milk was completely eliminated from the diet some showed "markedly positive" improvement.

In The Health Revolution, Fourth Edition, Ross Horne reports that an Oregon doctor found that milk had a damaging effect on five of his psychiatric patients. They had suffered for years from confusion, detachment, poor memory, poor mental efficiency and paranoid thinking, all accompanied by fatigue. When milk was removed from their diets, four patients became symptom-free and the fifth improved.

It is relevant to note that some writers accredit cows' as with being the greatest single cause of allergy.

As mentioned above, Dr William Crook found that, of 128 children with ADHD or learning difficulties, 38 were sensitive to milk.

Dr Frank Oski and Dr David Phillips report in their book, Don't Drink Your Milk, the experience of a psychiatrist who found that the food most responsible for insomnia, anxiety or depression in many of his patients is whole cows' milk.

Because the above evidence is not mountainous, the question remains as to whether milk has a major or minor role in behavioural problems. However, it is significant that humans are the only creatures on Earth that continue to drink milk after weaning.

Food Additives and Hyperactivity

The legendary scientist who established a cause-and-effect relationship between food additives and hyperactivity is Dr Ben Feingold of the Kaiser Permanent Medical Centre in San Francisco. He demonstrated that hyperactivity, which occurs more in boys than in girls, could be switched off or switched on again by withholding or re-administering offending substances.

Dr Feingold published Why Your Child is Hyperactive in 1975. He reported marked improvement in half the children who adopted the Feingold diet, in which all artificial colours and flavours, two artificial antioxidants (BHT and BHA) and foods containing substantial amounts of salicylates are avoided. In effect, this means eliminating all foods that are coloured, flavoured, preserved, instant or are otherwise known to contain chemical additives; also aspirin which is a salicylate compound, all medications with artificial colours and flavours, and many toothpastes, perfumes, and so on.

Foods with high salicylate content include plums, prunes, raspberries, strawberries, pickled cucumbers, champignon mushrooms, olives, chillies, capsicum, radish, tomato, zucchini, almonds, peanuts and honey.

Medium salicylate foods include apples, figs, cherries, grapes, mandarins, peaches, alfalfa, broccoli, spinach, tomato, pine nuts and pistachio nuts.

Many other foods, condiments, drinks and confectionery contain salicylates. A list can be obtained from the Hyperactivity/Attention Deficit Association (phone 02 9411 2186).

Hyperactivity, with its associated learning disabilities, rose from 2% to 25% of children between 1976 and 1986, with sometimes 40% of an entire school population being affected. This worsening 'epidemic' parallels the rapid increase in the use of food additives and highly processed (junk) food.

Additional established causes of hyperactivity include hypoglycaemia, as mentioned above, allergy to fungi (moulds and yeasts), excess copper and deficiency of zinc.

Many hyperactive children are able to eat some or all of the fruits and vegetables containing salicylates after they have eliminated food additives and other unnatural substances to which they are reacting. This is important because fruits and vegetables are the very foods that provide the nutrients which build physical and mental health in the first place. Avoid the unnatural and the abnormally-behaving child is often able to handle natural foods, resulting in a great improvement in health and behaviour.

Until recently, the usual treatment for hyperactive behaviour has been drug therapy employing central nervous system stimulants such as methyl phenadate (Ritalin) and dextroamphetamine. These are but superficial solutions; they do not remove the causes and their long-term effects are unknown and - as mentioned earlier - a cause of concern to the NHMRC.

The New York psychiatrist, Dr Alan Cott, has been quoted as saying (Diet, Crime and Delinquency, page 76), "The first thing I do with a hyperactive child is remove all soft drinks, cakes, cookies, candy, ice cream and sugared cereals from his diet. In nearly every instance, the child is markedly calmer within a very short time."

When the effects on the mind of food additives are added to the effects of highly processed foods, there is the potential for mayhem, and it would appear that mayhem there often is.

Phosphates, Zinc and other Deficiencies

Phosphate food additives have also been found to have an immediate effect on a child's behaviour. Phosphates may be constituents of evaporated milk, soft drinks, jellies, frozen dairy products, confectionery and soft cheeses. They may also be in insecticide residues. Because a meat-based diet is already high in phosphates and soft drink may be consumed in vast amounts, phosphate intake needs to be watched.

Zinc Deficiency and Learning Disabilities
Dr Carl Pfeiffer has found (Nutrition and Mental Health, page 56) that some children labelled 'mentally retarded' or 'learning disabled' responded to supplements of zinc and vitamin B6. He also says that it has been known since 1970 that autistic children respond to these nutrients.

Whenever food is processed, essential nutrients are lost. Processed grains, in particular, are left with less zinc while the toxic heavy metal, cadmium, remains intact. In a vicious cycle, the cadmium displaces zinc in the body, further compromising the many functions requiring zinc.

An article in The Lancet noted that children who are deficient in zinc become irritable, tearful and sullen. They are not soothed by close body contact and resent disturbances.

Lead, the Insidious Pollutant
Lead is ingested with food and inhaled with polluted air, the main source being vehicle exhausts. It has been estimated that the human body can tolerate only about 1 milligram of lead, above which toxic side-effects develop. Although we can excrete around ½ milligram a day, in urban and industrial environments lead slowly builds up in soft tissue and bone.

Lead is a special problem for children because their rate of absorption is much higher than that of adults. In the silver-lead mining town of Broken Hill in NSW, 48% of the children have blood lead levels above 10 micrograms per decilitre, the NHMRC recommended maximum level.

Recent research discovered that lead crosses the placenta. The study, published in New Scientist, 26-6-95, found that calcium going across the placenta to build the bones of the foetus carries lead with it. Previously it was thought that the placenta protected the foetus from this toxic metal.

A 1979 Harvard Medical School study revealed that children with high lead levels are less competent in verbal performance, auditory processing and the ability to sustain attention. They are easily distracted and lack persistence, are impulsive, easily frustrated and tend to daydream; they perform poorer on the Weschler Intelligence Scale. There is also a relationship between high lead levels and hyperactivity.

The Journal of the American Medical Association, 7-2-96, reported that a Pittsburgh psychiatrist found that children with high lead levels in their bones were more likely to engage in aggressive and delinquent behaviour. It had already been shown that high lead levels are strong predictors of criminal behaviour later in life. "Lead is a brain poison that interferes with the ability to restrain impulses," the psychiatrist said.

It is very difficult to remove lead from the body. Alexander Shauss lists the following measures:
  Chelation therapy, using intravenous EDTA, etc.
  Nutrients that naturally chelate toxic metals. They include methionine, cysteine and cystine, found typically in beans, eggs, onions and garlic.
  Vitamin C facilitates excretion through the kidneys.
  Alginate from seaweed chelates lead.
  Dietary fibre speeds the transit time of food, thereby reducing absorption of heavy metals. In particular, pectin, found in apples and other fruits, binds with toxic metals and assists their elimination.

Iodine Deficiency
Iodine Deficiency has been found to lower intelligence.

A study reported in the Medical Journal of Australia, June 1989, found that 72% of adults born in an iodine-deficient Chinese village were moderately to severely intellectually impaired. In comparison, in two villages with adequate iodine, the figures were 10% and 43%. The Sydney researchers noted that even adding iodine to salt often failed to prevent deficiencies.

Anaemia Lowers Performance and Breast Feeding

Anaemia Lowers Performance
When iron is inadequate, the body's oxygen levels are lower and so is brain function. Low levels of oxygen interfere with a child's ability to recall things such as dates, places and names.

Research in Java found that anaemic children with iron deficiency scored notably poorer results in achievement tests. When iron was added to the diet, there was marked improvement. Similarly, infants in Guatemala with low levels of iron - though not low enough to produce symptoms of anaemia - scored lower in mental development and problem solving. Their performance improved when iron was supplemented. (Australian Wellbeing, No. 45 1991, page 69).

Breastfeeding Elevates IQ
A Cambridge study of children born prematurely, reported in The Lancet, 1-2-92, found that children fed breastmilk had an average advantage of 8.3 points of IQ compared to those fed bottle formula only. The scientists found that there were biochemical differences in their brains, with the breastfed babies having greater levels of the highly-unsaturated (omega-3) fatty acid, DHA, which is important for nerve function.

Junk Food Affects Children's Intelligence
Children brought up on junk food will not do as well as those raised on healthy foods, said British psychologist, Dr David Benton, in 1990. A study found that children on poor diets improved exam performance by up to 9 points after five months on vitamin supplements. The treatment made no difference to children who already had balanced diets (Sunday Telegraph, 8-4-90, page 7).

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