A neuron, the basic cell of your brain and nervous system, needs a few things to survive. One of the biggest things it needs is "activation." You see, your body is extremely efficient. That which you don't use, you lose. This is especially with nerves where, let's say, a particular neuron responsible for firing in a sequence that allows you spout off some spanish you learned for that attractive latina you had a crush on, may be fired repeatedly when you're chasing this lady; then abruptly halted after she turns you down. If we zoomed in on the neuron responsible for your spanish, we would see its connections diminish as you're no longer saying "que pasa" to the chica, and if your spanish isn't used for a very long time, that neuron responsible for your ability to speak spanish would be one of the many neurons that die every day. (If you're an adult, you've lost something like 6 neurons in the time it took you to read this first paragraph. Don't worry, you still have trillions left.)
A neuron that isn't being used will be lost. Your body is extremely resourceful, and if it sees something isn't being used, it shunts resources elsewhere.
How does this relate to your child? One of the ways neurons are activated and kept alive more than anything else is through bodily movement... through exercise! Is it any wonder why children are so full of life? They're stimulating and crafting their brains! They're doing what they were built to do. My spazz of an 11-month-old is the epitome of this: if he's awake, he's moving; if he can't move his body, he's moving his vocal chords. Nothing is still.
The best thing you can do for you kid – right up there with making sure they have enough omega-3 fatty acids – is giving them plentiful oppurtunities to move. Don't call it "exercise," because to a kid, it's fun. Just get out of the way and let them do their thing, and their brains will flourish.
You've started supplementing with omega-3's, you lessened your saturated fat intake, your paving the way for some tremendous neurons to grow in your kiddo's brain. Congratulations. Neurons are precious. Although new research supports that we can make more neurons in certain parts of the brain, making new neurons is still a rare feat. Neurons are senstive, finicky guys at times.
With everything you know about the brain and its importance, would you ever knowingly kill neurons? Would you do the trick with your friends in the backyard where you choke yourself until you pass out? Would you huff paint? Would you be OK if you saw your kid doing that?
Of course not, you'd probably slap someone silly.
Well there's a substance that I can almost gaurantee you're feeding your kid that is causing his/her neurons to literally "pop." Ever let your child eat:
- Chips - doritoes, cheetoes, any of the flavored chips (BBQ, sour creme)
- Ramen noodles
- Canned soup
- Ranch dressing
- Restaurant chicken
- Soy sauce
- Cold cuts
- Parmesan items?
... if you have, you've probably killed neurons.
The culprit linking all these foods together was found by a chemist in Tokyo, Dr. Ikeda, who was able to isolate the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate from a seaweed. The real fun began when they found what this substance did when added to food. It turned out to be magic dust that enhanced the flavor of almost any food being eaten. The substance was quickly set up for international manufacture and shipped to food industry giants around the world as "Monosodium Glutamate." A multi-billion dollar industry was born.
Why MSG Is Bad For Your Brain
Glutamate in and of itself isn't a bad thing. In fact, it's a good thing. An excitatory neurotransmitter that over 50% of the neurons in mammalian brains are wired to work with. Glutamate is bad when there's too much of it, too fast. It literally causes neurons to be excited so much that they die. Like a 7 year old on speed given Nike's, a track, and a iPod, these cells run themselves into the ground.
It appears that glutamate does this in two ways: calcium and sodium.
When blood levels of glutamate are very high the glutamate protein connects and opens a certain "door" on the outside of the cell called a sodium channel. When this gate opens sodium floods in... and that's not too bad. What's bad is that sodium brings water with it, and the cell fills with so much fluid that it swells and stretches so much that the cell exhausts itself trying to pump all the water outside of itself. It seems to use up all its energy, and then it shrivels and dies. This is the first way.
When glutamate levels aren't acutely high, but chronically higher than normal, a different mechanism of destruction is observed. For two hours, the neuron appears completely normal. Then, shortly after, it shrivels and dies for no apparent reason. On closer inspection, slightly higher levels of glutamate do not activate the sodium gates as happens with high levels of glutamate, but calcium channels are.
This is a little bit more complex, but what happens is that excess calcium spills into the cell, causing it to dump its own calcium, therefore creating even more calcium build up, which in turn activates phospholipase, and enzyme which breaks down fat from the cell membrane. When phospholipase goes to work, it frees a fatty acid arachidonic acid. Arachidonic is one of those omega-6, inflammatory fatty acids I've told you about before. Thus, neuronal inflammation occurs! Free radicals are formed like gang-busters. Free radicals can be thought of as chemically destructive lava bouncy balls. They're freed within the cell, bouncing around, burning everything they touch... including your genes. They're fairly destructive.
Needless to say, the neuron doesn't last long with this barrage, and shrivels and dies within 18 to 24 hours.
How To Spot MSG and Its Friends
Luckily, scientists are catching up and making changes in our food industry. MSG isn't in (most) baby foods (more on that in a sec). More and more companies are labelling "MSG free," and it is not uncommon to see Asian restaurants advertise that MSG is not used in their kitchen. But, MSG and its friends (collectively called excitotoxins by the research community) are disguised in many foods adults eat, and many foods that adults let their kids eat.
What's In A Name?
The most common way food industry hides excitotoxins is via a quick name change. Avoid foods with these ingredients in the labels:
- monosodium glutamate (of course!)
- vegetable protein
- natural flavorings
- hydrolyzed vegetable protein
Each of these may contain 12% to 40% MSG. Hydrolyzed vegetable protein is the worse! It's added to most canned goods to make bland food addictive. Your kids probably crave the stuff you're feeding to them that has MSG in it because it tastes so amazingly good. Its taste trickery! Don't let your brain be fooled.
Combating Low Grade MSG Exposure
We've all been exposed and will probably be unknowingly exposed to excitotoxins. What can we do about it? The easiest and cheapest way to protect your brain from calcium influx and all the craziness that comes with free radical barrage is to supplement with nature's natural protection against free radical damage: antioxidants.
These guys literally take those lava ballons and absorb them up so they don't poke holes in your genetic make-up.
Two brain winning anti-oxidants: vitamin C and alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E). These two warriors go past the blood brain barrier, so that means that ingesting these supplements will directly raise brain levels of these anti-oxidants and give your neurons the protection they need. Plus, they're cheap! Go to Natural Grocers and buy bulk vitamin C right now for less than a sody pop. Vitamin E is a little bit pricier, but I like to diversify my nutritional supplementation, so you should throw some E in there too. And if you have even more cash, try vitamin K, D, and the minerals magnesium, chromium, zinc, and selenium (more on these in a later post!) – and your anti-oxidation should be set.
The best resource I've found for this topic is neurosurgeon Dr. Blaylock's book Excitotoxins: the Taste that Kills. It can be found on amazon here. Here are some of my favorite references for the above discussed subjects.
- Choi, D.W. "Glutamate Neurotoxidity: A three-stage process." Neurotoxicity and Excitatory Amino Acids. FIDA Research Foundation Symposium Series, Vol 4, 235-242. New York: Raven Press, 1990.↵
- Coyle, J.T., et al. "Excitatory Amino Acid Neurotoxins: Selectivity, Specificity, and Mechanisms of Action." Neurosci. Res. Prog. Bull. 19(1981); 4.↵
- Onley, J.W. "Toxic Effects of Glutamate and Related Amino Acids on the Developing Central Nervous System." Heritable Disorders of Amino Acid Metabolism. New York; John Wiley, 1974.↵
- Link to review article on current trends in neurotoxicity, specifically glutamate.↵