The Remarkable Effect of This On the Brain

The Remarkable Effect of This Diet on the Brain

It’s no secret that a diet high in fat can cause trouble to the body, but new research has discovered that the brain can also get caught up in the mess. 

One of the ways the brain keeps prime performance is through the work of the immune cells. They bustle around the brain like scavengers, getting rid of damaged cells or infectious agents in the brain. 

These immune cells are important for healthy brain function, but when a diet is so high in fat as to cause obesity, they stop bustling and start eating the connections between neurons. 

Too much fat in the body seems to cause chronic inflammation, which triggers these immune cells to have an autoimmune response. They stop mopping up toxins and instead turn on their own healthy brain cells. The fallout from this includes a reduced capacity to learn as efficiently.

According to researcher and neuroscientist Dr Alexis M. Stranahan, immune cells ‘eating synapses is contributing to synapse loss and cognitive impairment in obesity.’

It’s a scary prospect, but the damage is completely reversible. Changing to a low-fat diet for two months can reverse the damage completely and restore healthy cognitive function.

The research was conducted using two groups of male mice. (Mice are commonly used in research for their  biological and genetic similarity to humans.) One group ate a diet that was 10% fat, the other group ate a diet that was 60% fat. The human version of these diets would be along the lines of a healthy diet versus a fast-food diet.

After eight weeks, the mice on the high-fat diet were fatter – no surprises there – but they were similar to the mice in the low-fat group in terms of brain changes and other physiological measures.

At 12 weeks, the differences between the groups started to show themselves. The high fat mice were obese and there was evidence of reduced brain function.

At this point, half the mice in the high fat group were then placed on the low-fat diet. After about two months, their weight returned to normal, but they had a larger fat pad than their peers, making them a little more vulnerable to weight gain in the future.

The mice that remained on the high fat diet continued to get fatter, and the scavenger cells and neurons in their brain continued to wither.

As explained by Stranahan, ‘Instead of doing garbage disposal, they are taking your mailbox, your front door, your kitchen sink and all the stuff that you need, and not doing their job of getting rid of trash.’

This research is compelling and is further evidence of the way the body and mind are deeply connected. The health of the body will ultimately affect the health of the mind. Obesity is stealing people from the lives they deserve to be living and from the people who love them. What we now know is that it is also stealing the capacity for people to learn and grow and reach their fullest potential. That affects all of us.

Food is meant to be fun, and it’s important to remember that the effect of fat on the brain uncovered by this research didn’t start to emerge until the point of obesity. In the same way that any unhealthy relationship – with people, work, exercise , anything – will cause problems, an unhealthy relationship will food will also bring us undone. The good news it that this is completely reversible. It’s not often we have the problem and the easy solution in one easy package. Thanks science.

11 Comments

Helen

Love this site! The articles are articulate and explained very clearly. Very relevant to the reality of parenthood, especially when we all have our own baggage from our own upbringing.
These articles serves as a kind reminder to be mindful. Thank you.

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Laura Wolford

This goes against everything that I am reading that fat is actually incredibly beneficial for the brain. Of course not all fats are created equal and there are definitely good fats like fish oil, and pasture butter, and coconut oil and bad fats such as the unstable fats industrialized seed oils and hydrogenated oils (that we were told were healthy). See Dr. David Perlmutter ‘s book Brain Maker.

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Hey Sigmund

Some fats are really healthy and essential for brain health, in particular the fats found in oily fish like salmon, walnuts and the other foods you refer to. You’ll see from the article that the study is referring to fat of the type and quantity that leads to obesity.

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Jane

Could you put a copy or link to the Research article for further reading. I would like a clearer understanding of the diet that was used.

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MINDA CALDWELL

I have spoken about this to all my “college” students. I found out that for them, the taste is ” stronger” than “quality and nutrition” in food. So they go for the “taste.”

Disappointing, especially when people are intelligent but still make decisions based on their “emotions” rather than wisdom.

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Hey Sigmund

Yes, absolutely. The problem is that the things that are being added to our food for taste are all sorts of unhealthy, and we probably don’t know the extent of what they can do. If this is what excessive fat does to the brain, we can only wonder what other things are doing. I expect we’ll see some interesting research on this.

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Terrie

How does high sugar affect the brain?

Although many foods are “low fat”, they are LOADED with either high fructose sugar or artificial sweeteners.

Sugar causes weight gain too, but is it a different type of fat from that of “high” fat foods? Is the affect on the brain the same using sweeteners the same?

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Hey Sigmund

You’re absolutely right. Our food is loaded with so many things other than fat that cause weight gain. This research specifically looked at the effect of high fat on the brain, so the results are specific to that. It’s early days and there will no doubt be more research to come. I expect that future lines of research will explore the effects of other things, such as sugar, on the brain. It will be really interesting to see what we learn from this.

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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