Why doctors are paying more attention to your nervous system

THERE are few systems in the body that influence our physical, psychological and emotional well being as much as the nervous system.

While much of our national health agenda is understandably dominated by heart disease and cancer, chronic conditions of the nervous system such as multiple sclerosis and motor-neurone disease also occur with high frequency in the Irish population along with neuro-psychiatric disorders such as depression, psychosis and dementia.

All pain (physical and psychological) is generated by the nervous system, further explaining its ever-growing interest to doctors, researchers and the pharmaceutical industry.

Prevention and cure

One cruel aspect of neurological disease is that unlike most tissues and organs in the body, the nervous system tends not to repair itself very well, meaning that once it’s damaged, it can be extremely difficult to alleviate the effects of such injury. Given the debilitating nature of most neurological illnesses and that many of their adverse effects are not retrievable, it’s vital to take steps to reduce our risk of these disorders before they ever arise.

Diet and lifestyle

Happily, even though our knowledge of how to repair the nervous system remains quite poor, the measures we can take to protect it are becoming increasingly clear, with many related to our everyday diet and lifestyle.

For example, folate (available from green leafy vegetables and fortified milks and breakfast cereals) and vitamin B12 (available from animal products like dairy foods, meat, fish and poultry) have both been associated with improved brain function, while high alcohol intake (which depletes these B vitamins) has been associated with increased risk of depression, psychosis, early onset dementia and physical movement disorders.

Whatever the precise mechanisms at work here, good intakes of these B vitamins and the foods which contain them are associated with improved mental and physical agility as we age, marking them out as key elements of the neuroprotective diet.

Immune system

And then there’s vitamin D, a nutrient which most Irish people don’t get enough of. One of vitamin D’s critical roles is to help control the immune system — without it, our immune-cells become over-activated, producing an excess of the nasty chemicals they normally use to wipe-out invading bugs.

The net result of such unregulated “inflammation” is damage to surrounding tissue, including cumulative and irreparable damage to brain and nervous tissue, a cascade of events that’s associated with increased risk of early-onset dementia and multiple sclerosis.

While some foods contain decent amounts of vitamin D (eg. fortified milks and breakfast cereal, oily fish, liver), they usually don’t provide enough in their own right, highlighting vitamin D supplementation as a further important neuro-protective strategy.

Omega 3

Another clever way of minimising the potentially adverse effects of inflammation on our nervous system is to increase our oily fish intake. There’s plenty of evidence to show that high intakes of Omega-3 fats from oily fish such as mackerel, herring, salmon and sardines, are linked to reduced inflammation and improved mental processing as we age. It’s also been suggested that Omega 3 elicits improved blood flow to the brain, and possibly regulate the “excitability” of brain and other nervous tissue, further enhancing their neuro-protective properties.

Even where the over-agitated immune system has already produced an excess of damaging chemicals, nearby brain and nervous tissue can still be protected by neutralising these nasty substances. Increasing our intake of antioxidants, meaning that maximising fruit and vegetable intake, especially dark berry fruits, may provide additional defence against neurological damage and dysfunction.

So, quite apart from their other health benefits, optimising fortified milk, fortified breakfast cereal, oily fish and fruit and vegetable intakes; taking a vitamin D supplement and keeping an eye on our alcohol consumption should go a long way towards shielding us against the debility of neurological disease. Given the potentially devastating alternative, the case for doing so (especially as we age) seems compelling.


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