Feeding the Brain & Gut | pickyeating.com.sg

Feeding the Brain & Gut

The brain and the gut are among the most important organs in the body. These organs develop throughout the early years, so optimum nourishment should be provided for infants and toddlers.

The brain
Brain growth occurs throughout childhood, but most of it happens during the first few years. At birth the brain weighs 300 to 350g. The brain weight accounts for about 2% of body weight. Your brain uses 20% of your body's oxygen and 20% to 30% of your body's energy.

During the first 18 months of life, myelination takes place in the brain. Myelination is the process by which brain cells are covered by a fatty sheath. The fatty sheath insulates cells in the nervous system, letting brain cells function better and permitting increasingly precise control of the arms, legs and torso of the child.

By age 4 years, it would have grown to a weight of 1200 to 1500g – 80% of the weight of a typical adult brain. This is often called the 'brain growth spurt'.

In the first 6 years the brain weight triples!

Researchers have shown that good nutrition helps in optimum development of the brain. This may affect the child's ability to learn.

The gut
All the food that we eat must be broken down to be used by the body effectively. Much of this breakdown takes place in the gut. The small intestine uses its many enzymes in the digestive juices to break down the food. The millions of microbes in the large intestine determine the health of the gut.

The gut is considered the most metabolically active organ of the body. This is partly because of the colon, which is home to a host of beneficial bacteria, also called probiotics. Without the gut microflora the human body would not be able to digest some fibres and resistant starches.

Gut microflora also has an effect on the body's overall immunity system. The 'good' gut microbes promotes the early development of the gut immune system, which in turn fights harmful bacteria and may help prevent allergies.

To support the development of 'good' gut microflora, beneficial bacteria such as Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria should be included in a child's diet (and adult diets too). These good bacteria can be found in yoghurts.

Good bacteria help by

  • Restoring the balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut, reducing the growth and activity of bad bacteria
  • Improving digestion
  • Producing certain vitamins in the body
  • Enhancing the gut immune system
  • Reducing the tendency to develop allergies
  • Limiting the incidence of certain infections
  • Preventing and treating diarrhoea caused by rotavirus or antibiotic treatments
Bacteria numbers can be changed
  • Increasing or decreasing the number of bacteria is possible with nutrition.
  • Certain foods promote the growth of beneficial bacteria and others contain the bacteria in its live form.

'Gut friendly' ingredients can function as prebiotics and probiotics. Together they are referred to as synbiotics and helps maintain digestive health.

Given early in life, synbiotics may
  • Produce digestive enzymes
  • Improve digestion
  • Inhibit rotavirus infection
  • Reduce diarrhoea
  • Have a positive effect on antibiotic-associated diarrhoea
  • Restore gut flora after antibiotic therapy
Given later in life, synbiotics may
  • Reduce up to 29% sick days in underweight children ages 3 to 5
  • Improve natural defences in children
  • Increase natural resistance to infectious diseases of the intestinal tract
  • Reduce incidence of food allergies
  • Alleviate symptoms of lactose malabsorption
  • Stimulate gastrointestinal immunity

Nutrients and the brain
The brain needs certain nutrients to function optimally.

Essential fats: During the first 2 years of life, the brain needs nutritious fat to grow and develop. Fats are major components of brain cell membranes and the myelin sheath around each nerve. The essential fatty acids such as omega-3 (especially DHA) and omega-6 fatty acids obtained from fish oils, flaxseed oils and soy oils are important for human brain development.

Phospholipids: These are unique fats important to brain cell membranes. As the name implies, phospholipids are made of the combination of lipids (fats) and the mineral, phosphorus. Phospholipids are found in high concentrations in the lining of practically every cell of the body, including brain cells. They help brain cells to communicate and also influence brain cell function. Although phospholipids are present in many foods, soy, eggs and meat are good sources. The richest dietary sources are egg yolks and organ meats.

Amino acids: Certain essential amino acids obtained from proteins are used to make neurotransmitters that allow your brain cells to network and communicate. Amino acids such as tryptophan and tyrosine help your brain perform well. Fish and meat, fowl and eggs, cheese and yoghurt are complete proteins that provide essential amino acids.

Vitamins and minerals:

  • Specific vitamins and minerals, especially the vitamin B group help the metabolism of the brain.
  • Vitamin B6 deficiency may cause hyperirritability and fatigue.
  • Vitamin B12 is vital to maintaining healthy myelin, the tissue that covers and insulates nerves.
  • Vitamin C is required by the brain to make neurotransmitters.
  • Folic acid deficiency may affect neurotransmitter function, which may result in symptoms associated with depression.
  • Deficiency of important minerals such as iron may lead to increased irritability and diminished mental alertness and learning.
  • Calcium is important to growing bones.

Taurine, choline and essential fatty acids are known to support brain development in children and should be included in the diet.

Taurine: An amino acid that plays a significant role in brain and retinal development. Taurine is found in animal products like meat, seafood and poultry. It is virtually absent in plant products.

Choline: A precursor of the molecules that send signals in the nerve cells including the brain. Good sources of choline are animal products especially egg and milk.

Fatty acids: Essential fatty acids need to be supplemented in the diet as they cannot be synthesised in the body. Two common types of fatty acids are omega-3 and omega-6.

  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is an essential omega-3 fatty acid. The body converts some ALA to another omega-3 fatty acid called DHA.
  • Linoleic acid (LA) is an essential omega-6 fatty acid. The body converts some LA to another omega-6 fatty acid called AA.

DHA and AA: These are both required for optimal brain function.

  • DHA is a major component of the brain tissue. It is found primarily in fish oils but also in some vegetable oils (eg, flaxseed oil, soy oil and canola oils). AA is present in the membranes of the body cells and is also abundant in the brain.
  • AA is found mainly in shellfish, butterfat and meat.