Mental health: How nutrition plays a key role in brain development of a child

Nutrition plays a key role in all cognitive processes, mood, and brain performance, and nutritional deficiencies lead to disease and symptoms, many of which are age-dependent.

Children’s brain development depends on interaction with other children. Image via The Conversation/sutadimages/Shutterstock

A basic review of our Biology classes reminds us that the foods we choose to eat affect our brain development and function, from the stages of being a fetus to growing into old age. However, nutritional/nutrient insults, i.e. inadequate nutrition, can negatively affect brain development between 24 and 42 weeks of fetal development, since this is the time period in which various neurological processes overlap.

Nutrition plays a key role in all cognitive processes, mood and brain performance, and nutritional deficiencies lead to a variety of diseases and symptoms, many of which are age-dependent and affect the central nervous system.

The young brain is blessed with fantastic plasticity, that is, the brain’s ability to modify its neural connections to adapt to evolution or the new reality; Simply put, he enthusiastically rewires himself. This means that it can repair itself after a concussion, as a result of which babies and children can learn new skills, including those that promote resilience and protect their mental health. However, there is a catch. Vulnerability to nutritional insults in the gestation period, as well as during infancy and childhood, outweighs this plasticity of the brain. As a result, structural and/or functional damage may persist even after replacement.

Let’s look at ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Considered incurable, ADHD is a chronic condition that often begins in childhood and can continue into adulthood. In its outward manifestation, it can contribute to the individual experiencing self-esteem issues, relationship struggles, and difficulties in structured spaces, for example at school or work.

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A series of studies recently published in 2017 corroborated what public health warriors had long suspected: prenatal exposure to an unhealthy diet is associated with ADHD symptoms, except the studies also revealed epigenetic modification of DNA derived from the blood, that is, the DNA that is derived from the parents.
Low maternal serum vitamin D levels (sources of which include sunlight, mushrooms, fish, egg yolks, and fortified foods) during the first trimester associated with behavioral difficulties in the child with symptoms of ADHD in preschool age.

Maternal vitamin D is critical for early brain development, including brain cell development, regulation of neuron growth, calcium signaling, and more. Other studies have illustrated that vitamin D also appears to play a role in the pathogenesis of postnatal mental disorders.

Not just in ADHD, other nutritional insults such as insufficient levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) (sources of which include nuts, seeds, and oils such as walnuts, sunflower seeds, flaxseed or flaxseed oil, fish, soy, etc. .) can be linked to a variety of mental wellness issues, including depression, juvenile bipolar disorder, intellectual disabilities, and learning difficulties.

In health care, an increasing number of mental health professionals have been exploring addressing the microbiome-gut-brain axis. This involves understanding the increasingly complex interactions between multiple systems, including the metabolic, immune, endocrine, and neural systems.

During the last decade, a large number of studies have reflected the influence of gut bacteria on brain chemistry as well as neuronal development, which in turn affects the physiological stress system, cognition and different aspects of behavior human. This is not isolated from the fact that the brain can also affect gut bacteria to the point where it can even modify the gut microbiome leading to colonization by pathogenic bacteria, which, in turn, affects brain function and generates a series of mental well-being struggles for the individual. This cycle is especially evident in those living with mental health conditions like anorexia nervosa with the gut microbiome also playing a role in the persistence of eating disorders like anorexia nervosa.

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Although therapeutic efforts to influence brain function and mental well-being through nutrition have not yet been integrated, the variety of nutritional and dietary recommendations available for children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly can be overwhelming. Add to the fact that a one-size-fits-all approach does not work in this setting and adherence to a therapy/treatment regimen in itself is a challenge for most individuals and families, especially parents of young children.

Again, in a time when we live with multiple stressors, nutrition, most of which comes from locally sourced foods, may be the most viable option for addressing mental well-being, starting from the time a child is born. It is conceived and continues to be an area that needs the focus of professionals, individuals and caregivers alike.

The author is associate director of Swasti, The Health Catalyst, a global public health agency based in Bangalore, India. The opinions expressed are personal.

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