Eating a variety of whole organic foods in their purest state is the surest way to grow young minds and bodies to their fullest potential. The brain undergoes dramatic growth in early childhood, and requires all essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients for proper development and function. There are also specific nutrients that play critical roles in brain health. These nutrients are required for building the physical structure of the brain, and for the synthesis of neurotransmitters, which allow the different parts of the brain to communicate with one another.
Critical brain nutrients are not drug-like in their ability to enhance cognitive function, but they must be present in adequate amounts at the correct time, in order for the brain to function optimally. Deficiencies can result in stunted brain development and reduced function.
In America, although we do not suffer from a lack of food, we often eat food that is processed and does not contain the necessary nutrients for optimal health and cognitive development. Many people believe that attention deficit disorder and autism are exacerbated by, and/or partially the result of, inadequate nutrition early in life.
At Komi Organics, we are dedicated to keeping abreast of the latest scientific research in nutritional science. Our meals feature ingredients that are rich in the nutrients your child needs, but may not be getting enough of: DHA, iron, zinc, choline, folate and B12. We have included below a bit of information on these six nutrients, because we believe it’s important to understand the science behind growth and development!
Most people are surprised to hear that the human brain is 60% fat by weight. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (omega-3 PUFAS) are the most important fats for the brain. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is a type of omega-3 PUFA that is especially important for brain health. Humans are thought to have evolved on a 1:1 ratio of dietary omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids. Our modern western diet has a ratio of approximately 1:15 of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids (Simonpoulos, 2002). It is widely held that many adverse health effects are the result of this imbalance in fatty acid consumption. Some of these health effects are cardiovascular disease, cancer, inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.
DHA maintains the ideal thickness and fluidity of cell membranes, enabling cells to signal one another properly. DHA also affects the synthesis and release of neurotransmitters, and impacts the myelination of cells. DHA is thought to be particularly important in the dopaminergic system of the frontal lobe. The neurotransmitter dopamine (DA) plays an important role in cognition, voluntary movement, motivation, reward, sleep, mood, motivation and memory.In the frontal lobe, DA also controls the flow of information to other parts of the brain.
All though the human body can synthesize DHA from its dietary precursor, omega-3 PUFA, Western diets are so deficient in omega-3 PUFAS, that it is unlikely that kids (and adults) are getting enough omega-3 PUFAS to manufacture adequate DHA. In addition, research has shown that pre-formed DHA is more effectively utilized by the body, than DHA which has been manufactured from precursor omega-3 PUFAS.
Many studies have documented how breastfed babies perform better on cognitive tasks, than babies who have been fed formula. These finding have been attributed to the high DHA content of breast milk, and have led the FDA to require the supplementation of DHA to all infant formula.Alarmingly, a recent study found that American women’s breast milk is 30% lower in DHA than necessary to provide infants with adequate DHA. This fact highlights the importance of a DHA rich diet for pregnant and lactating women, as well as for children. A plethora of studies have shown that low DHA levels are associated with problems in cognition, behavior and vision.
Iron is required for the synthesis of neurotransmitters. It is a co-factor for several enzymes that are required for the synthesis of dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. Iron also affects the proper myelination of neurons. The distribution of iron in the brain mirrors the brain’s distribution of dopamine (DA) and gamma-aminobutyric (GABA). Iron, GABA and DA are dense in the frontal cortex, which is an area of the brain that regulates mental, cognitive, emotional functions, and behavior. Iron deficiency results in a reduction of dopamine receptors, and inadequate dopamine uptake in animal studies (Ashkenazi, Ben-Shachar & Youdim, 1982). The neurotransmitter dopamine (DA) plays an important role in cognition, voluntary movement, motivation, reward, sleep, mood, motivation and memory. Anemic children also perform poorly on school achievement measures (Halterman, Kaczorowski, Aligne, Auinger & Szilagyi, 2001). Longitudinal studies show continued developmental disadvantage later in life, even after controlling for other factors, for anemic children under two (Lazoff, Jimenez & Wolf 1991, Wasserman, Graziano, Factor-Litvak et al., 1994). A meta-analysis of studies concerning the relationship between children’s iron status and cognitive ability revealed that nine studies found that children’s developmental delays due to iron deficiency were irreversible with iron therapy (Lazoff & Georgieff, 2006).
Zinc is needed for the synthesis of neurotransmitters. Zinc also plays an important role in gene replication, activation and repression. This nutrient also plays a role in DNA transcription, and translation, as well as protein synthesis (Walsh, Sanstead, Prasad, Newberne & Fraker, 1994). Mild deficiencies in Zinc have been linked to impaired growth, immunity and development, as well as increased death due to infectious disease. Cognitive development is impaired through alterations in attention, activity, motor development and neurophysiologic development. Zinc is also thought to be essential for neurogenesis, neuronal migration and synaptogenesis. Zinc and iron are found in many of the same foods. They are also inhibited by many of the same foods, for these reasons, the two deficiencies often co-occur. Because iron supplementation has a negative effect on zinc (and copper) status (Sanstead, 2000), it is suggested they be consumed at the same time in the proper 2:1 ratio, as occurs naturally in whole foods.
Choline works with folate, vitamin B12 and vitamin B6 to reduce homocysteine concentrations in the body. Elevated homocysteine levels have been associated with a higher risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Homocysteine has been found to induce apoptosis (cell death) in rat hippocampus neurons (Kruman et al., 2000). Researchers have recently found that rats with mothers that did not receive adequate choline during pregnancy, had poorer memories and stunted brain development compared to rat’s whose mothers ingested adequate choline. Of course we cannot directly extrapolate this data to humans, but it is becoming widely held that choline is an important nutrient in brain development throughout the life cycle.
Research has traditionally focused on folate’s role prenatally in neural tube development. Folate has recently been found to be important in children’s later cognitive development as well. It is thought that folate, with choline, vitamin B12 and vitamin B6 acting as catalyzing cofactors, is involved in chain of chemical events involving methylation, that ultimately impact neurological and psychological states by reducing homocysteine (Bottiglieri, 1996). Elevated homocysteine levels have been associated with a higher risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as cardiovascular disease. Homocysteine has also been found to induce apoptosis (cell death) in rat hippocampus neurons (Kruman et al., 2000).
Vitamin B12 is involved in the development of red blood cells. As red blood cells mature, they require information provided by DNA. Without vitamin B12, DNA synthesis is defective, and red blood cells become oversized and improperly shaped, making them function ineffectively. This condition is called pernicious anemia. Intrinsic factor, a protein made in the stomach is required for the absorption of vitamin B12. A second function of B12 is the myelination of nerves. Vitamin B12 is also required for protein to cycle throughout the body effectively. A recent study showed that children who had a macrobiotic diet (no meat or animal products like milk and cheese) early in life, were more likely to have a vitamin B12 deficiency later in life, and had reduced cognitive performance during adolescence (Louwman, Dusseldorp, Van de Vijver et al., 2000).