Food for Thought: Nutrition and the Brain

We have artificially separated our brains from our bodies. We talk about psychosomatic illness, and the body-mind connection as if our mental and physical selves are two separate entities. In reality the brain is just one part of our body. Poisons harm it and it needs the right balance of nutrients to function right. While foods and toxins affect our whole body, there are certain substances that have a definite impact on cognition. Here is what some of the research says about nutrition and thinking.

Lead and Intelligence

Some historians say that lead poisoning caused the decline of the Roman Empire. Researchers worry that we will suffer the same fate if we don’t control lead contamination within our society. Lead exposure is commonplace. When leaded paint (banned in 1978) crumbles and turns to dust, we may inhale it or inadvertently consume it if that dust touches our hands. Water is tainted by lead found in old plumbing. Although prohibited in most regions, lead from gasoline used in the past has settled into soil along roadways. Imported
pottery, lead crystal glassware, and the ink on the outside of plastic bread bags are also sources of lead.

It is established that lead is a neurotoxin, a substance poisonous to the nervous system. Children are most harmed by lead poisoning. Their small bodies and developing nervous systems are very susceptible to lead’s adverse effects. Symptoms range from fatigue and reduced appetite to nervous system disorders such as lead encephalopathy. More frightening is that exposure to low levels of lead appear to be eroding our children’s intelligence.

Two Pennsylvania investigators gathered together a dozen studies on lead poisoning and assessed how this heavy metal affects a child’s IQ. They concluded that even low doses of lead over a period of time probably impairs a child’s mental capacity (1).

All cases of lead poisoning are preventable (2). Yet based on maximum safety levels of 15 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, as many as four million American children are afflicted (3). Sixty-eight percent of African American children living in the inner cities have been poisoned by lead. These figures would be even higher if the newer, more stringent standards of 10 micrograms per deciliter were used (4).

Aluminum and Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s disease is a devastating condition that slowly robs a person of his mental functions. There are no clear answers why this form of dementia occurs, but growing evidence suggests that aluminum may be partially responsible.

Not only is aluminum the most abundant metal in the world, but like lead it is prevalent among the many foods and products we use. It is found in baking powder, antiperspirants, antacids, black tea, drinking water, cookware, aluminum foil, and aluminum cans. It can
also be inhaled. Industrial waste contributes to aluminum exposure and acute aluminum poisoning.

The body is skilled at disposing of excess aluminum. Whereas lead targets the very young, low doses of aluminum take longer to alter cognition. As an editorial in the British medical journal, The Lancet, says aluminum “may cause slow death of ageing brains” (5).

The link between Alzheimer’s disease and aluminum is complex and still considered controversial. Some researchers have discounted aluminum’s contribution to Alzheimer’s disease. Donald Sherrard, MD, a Seattle physician, feels that we need more evidence before we “throw out the aluminum cookware” (6).

Others are more convinced that this metal is hurting us. One investigator went as far as to recommend that we all limit our aluminum exposure (5). An English study has even offered a biochemical reason why the Alzheimer-aluminum connection is at times hazy. It revealed that Alzheimer patients had more free floating aluminum in their blood than normal people. Unbound aluminum can move toward the brain and cause damage (7).

A poor diet may exaggerate the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Researchers from Tufts University argue that mild vitamin deficiencies are partly responsible for the diminishing mental capacity of many elderly people. Vitamins B6, B12, and folic acid are most likely to be low since older individuals have less stomach acid. Acid is required to absorb these vitamins (8).

Schizophrenia and Nutrition

Schizophrenia, a group of mental disorders characterized by social withdrawal, distorted thinking, and bizarre behavior, is difficult to treat. Antipsychotic drugs are usually used to control this condition. However, some doctors are using a different approach.

Orthomolecular psychiatrists have been prescribing large doses of specific vitamins such as niacin to treat schizophrenia and other mental health disorders for a couple of decades (9). Although nutritional therapies help many schizophrenic patients, this complex disorder appears to be affected by other lifestyle factors as well.

Schizophrenia has been called a disease of civilization because as countries become more industrialized, schizophrenia increases. Five years ago Harold Foster, PhD looked for a geographical link to this condition. He discovered that regions with low-selenium soil and
less sunshine had more schizophrenics. Some scientists think that a prostaglandin deficiency may be one cause of schizophrenia. Selenium is required for some prostaglandin synthesis. Sunlight gives us vitamin D, another nutrient that may be lacking in schizophrenics.

Areas where industry, road salt use, and toxic waste sites are prevalent–and thus have high levels of pollutants–also have higher incidences of schizophrenia. Living in an industrialized society usually means eating more processed and refined foods, and spending less time outside. All of these factors affect both our physical and mental health (10).

Earth House is an inpatient facility in East Millstone, New Jersey that treats schizophrenia and other mental illnesses using several natural therapies. They assess patients for biochemical imbalances and then treat them with orthomolecular medicine, exercise,
counseling, and other methods.


Until six years ago, boron was considered a relatively obscure mineral. Today it is not only known for its role in building stronger bones, but has been shown to affect brain function as well. In 1989 at the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center, psychologist James Penland began investigating how a low boron diet influences brain waves. He put 15 healthy women and men on a restrictive boron diet for nine weeks. Using an electroencephalograph (EEG) to measure their brain activity, Penland found that when his subjects ate less boron they were less alert.

When volunteers for this study were interviewed, they said they didn’t feel any different when they were deprived of boron. However, EEG readings showed that alpha waves, prominent during relaxation, were decreased and delta waves, seen during sleep, were higher. Subjects also performed poorly on mental exercises such as counting and computer tasks (11,12).

Folic Acid and Birth Defects

For at least three decades researchers have suggested that low folic acid intake during pregnancy is related to birth defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly. Two more recent studies, one in Hungary and another in England, are even more convincing that supplementing a pregnant woman’s diet with this B vitamin dramatically decreases her baby’s chance of birth defects.

Hungarian researchers worked with almost 5000 pregnant women. Every day half of the women received a multi vitamin and mineral tablet containing 800 micrograms of folic acid. The rest took a tablet with a minimum of nutrients and no folic acid. All the women took their tablets one month before conception and continued through their first trimester. The folic acid group had 40 percent less birth defects than the women given none of this vitamin and none of their babies with neural tube problems. There were six cases of neural tube defects among the newborns whose mothers who didn’t take folic acid (13).

When English investigators gave four milligrams of folic acid each day to women who had given birth to a child with a neural tube defect in the past, the results were even more pronounced. Almost three-quarters of these supplemented women delivered children free
from this birth defect (14). As of last September, health officials at the Centers for Disease Control recommended that all women of childbearing age should take folic acid as a preventive measure (15).


  1. Needleman HL, Gatsonis CA. Low-level lead exposure and the IQ of children. Journal of the American Medical Association 1990;263(5): 673-78.
  2. Anon. Fatal pediatric poisoning from leaded paint–Wisconsin, 1990. Journal of the American Medical Association 1991;265(16): 2050-51.
  3. Jaroff L. Controlling a childhood menace. Time 1991, February 25: 68-69.
  4. Sibbison JB. USA: lead in soil. The Lancet 1992;339: 921-22.
  5. Anon. Is aluminum a dementing ion? The Lancet 1992;339: 713-14.
  6. Sherrard DJ. Aluminum–much ado about something. The New England Journal of Medicine 1991;324(8): 558-9.
  7. Farrar G et al. Defective gallium-transferrin binding in Alzheimer disease and Down syndrome: possible mechanism for accumulation of aluminum in brain. The Lancet 1990;335: 747-50.
  8. Rosenberg IH, Miller JW. Nutritional factors in physical and cognitive functions of elderly people. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1992;55: 1237S-43S.
  9. Jenner FA. Vitamins in schizophrenia. The Lancet 1973, October 6: 787-88.
  10. Foster HD. The geography of schizophrenia: possible links with selenium and calcium deficiencies, inadequate exposure to sunlight and industrialization. Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine 1988;3(3): 135-40.
  11. Nielsen FH. Nutritional requirements for boron, silicon, vanadium, nickel, and arsenic: currently knowledge and speculation. Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology 1991;5: 2661-2667.
  12. McBride J. The making of an essential element? Agricultural Research 1989, April: 12-13.
  13. Czeizel AE, Dudas I. Prevention of the first occurrence of neural-tube defects by periconceptional vitamin supplementation. The New England Journal of Medicine 1992;327(26): 1832-35.
  14. MRC Vitamin Study Research Group. Prevention of neural tube defects: results of the Medical Research Council Vitamin Study 1991;338(8760): 131-37.
  15. Cimons M. US advises folic acid use to reduce birth defects. Los Angeles Times 1992, September 15: A1 & A17.

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Written by Lauri M. Aesoph ND

Explore Wellness in 2021