Health: Brain Power

1 October 2004

Publication: Take A Break: Autumn Special 2004


From childhood into old age, how we nourish our brains determines our quality of life. Improving your diet is just the first step on the road to enhanced brain power…

As Debbie Whiteley-Grant spoons lemon-flavoured fish oil into her kids’ mouths, she tells them, ‘This is your brain food’.

The evidence suggests she is telling the truth. But it isn’t only children who are benefiting from our new knowledge about the nutrients which nourish the brain and make us brighter.

It sounds impossible – after all, what has the brain got to do with the digestive system? – but the latest research suggests that eating the right things can improve intelligence and mental performance in adults, including the elderly, as well as kids.

Much of the recent research has centred on the effects of fish oils on schoolchildren who find it hard to settle down and learn in the classroom. The studies are funded by rival food supplement manufacturers, who are naturally keen to prove that their product works the best. But despite the hype, many parents and teachers are convinced that adding the right supplements to the diet really does enable their children to concentrate on their school work, as well as having a calming effect on their behaviour.

Oil capsules are an important new step, but they are only the beginning. There are many other ways in which we can feed our brains, from the months immediately before birth right through our lives into old age.


Professor Michael Crawford, director of the Institute of Brain Chemistry, has been talking about the benefits of fish in human brain development for over 30 years. He points out that we are much more like our fishy friends than we think. Because we have common ancestors – sea creatures which emerged in primeval swamps 600 million years ago – big chunks of the human brain, eyes and nervous system are made of the same fatty acids that are found in fish oils. When human beings first evolved into a separate species, it was their fish based diet that allowed them to develop bigger brains.

Professor Crawford emphasises that fish is a vital food in pregnancy, because it acts as a building block for the baby’s brain.

He says: ‘My advice to pregnant women would be to eat two or three fish dishes a week, with a least one fatty fish. Consider seafood such as oysters, mussels, crab and lobster as well as seaweed, which is a rich source of iodine and other trace elements good for the brain.

‘The same advice applies to breastfeeding women. Fatty acids from the fish will get to the baby through the breast milk and help it to develop a taste for fish when it gets older. Breast milk is best because it also contains nerve growth factors and chemicals that help boost the baby’s natural immune response.

‘You can buy frozen white fish very cheaply and its excellent for weaning. I am not keen on fish oils – it is better to eat the whole food rather than something that has been extracted, because then all of the nutrients in the fish can work together.’


The Government’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) says that women who are pregnant or trying to get pregnant and children should avoid eating shark, swordfish and marlin, as these foods contain high levels of mercury, which can interfere with the development of the nervous system in babies and children.

Tuna may also contain mercury and the FSA advises that pregnant women limit themselves to two tuna steaks or four medium sized cans of tuna (with a drained weight of about 140g per can).


Music is not only the food of love, it’s also nourishment for the brain.

Researchers have found that classical music, particularly Motzart, has a calming effect on both unborn and premature babies. As the baby relaxes, their intake of oxygen improves, and the effects are beneficial. Some neonatal units, aware that distress hinders a baby’s development, now play classical music. The soothing sounds increase the amounts of alpha (slow frequency) waves in the brain, relieving tension and so aiding relaxation.

A love of music is built into us all – even people who have no sense of rhythm or are tone deaf. That is why we all tap our feet when we hear music, or sing as we rock a baby. Music is processed in the right side of the brain, the part which also deals with emotion.

Unborn babies respond to music from the 20th week of pregnancy onwards. And after they are born they appear to recognise and prefer the same music they were played in the womb. One study of pre-school children compared the effects of piano lessons, computer lessons of no lessons at all on the children’s thinking skills. The youngsters who played the piano fared best,

Samantha Lindup, 38, of Copse Hill, London, was interviewed when she was eight months pregnant and was certain that her baby responded to the sound of music.

‘My husband is a musician and every time he plays or sings, the baby moves,’ she said.

In her last month of pregnancy, Samantha played a CD of piano music called The Healing Power of the Motzart Effect. On TV’s Richard and Judy, her baby’s heartbeat was monitored three times – while it listened to this CD, during a period of silence, and when a rock CD was playing. The heart rate was slowest with Motzart.

Second-hand tapes of classical music, including Motzart, can be purchased very cheaply from charity shops and boot sales. Or borrow them from your local library.

The Healing Power of the Motzart Effect costs £15, including p&p. from The Sheepdrove Organic Farm Shop (tel 01488 674747).


Young children’s diets are woefully lacking in the two minerals essential for brain development.

Eight out of 10 children under the age of four are low on iron, which is important for thinking skills and seven out of 10 are low on zinc, which is needed for brain growth.

Nutritionists believe the problem is caused by kids eating junk foods rather than meat, fish, eggs, cheese, nuts, and seeds, all of which contain plenty of zinc and iron.

Researchers at the University of Reading found that teenagers who breakfasted on chocolate and fizzy drinks were left with the mental reaction time of a 70 year old.

Dr Madeleine Portwood, a senior educational psychologist in Durham, says that junk food drinks are making the problem worse. ‘Parents who want to improve their children’s concentration should stop them drinking fizzy pop, which is high in sugar. Children who are on sugar “highs” find it difficult to settle in class and can be extremely disruptive.

‘The fact that the drinks are carbonated means the sugar gets into the bloodstream very quickly, making the problem even worse. Diet drinks contain chemicals which also affect children. The best drinks are natural fruit juice and water.

‘Parents also need to read labels and avoid hydrogenated fats, which interfere with the way the body uses essential fats like fish oils and corn oil syrup ingredients, as they are converted to fat very quickly.’


According to the Schools Health Education Unit, one primary-school child in 20 leaves home without breakfast. At secondary school, up to four girls in 10 skip breakfast.

Having a very sugary breakfast is little better – some cereals contain as much sugar as a chocolate bar. Because the sugar ‘high’ is followed a couple of hours later by a ‘low’, children are likely to be too tired to learn later in the day. They also feel hungrier between meals, which can impair their concentration.

Children who eat breakfast based on bran, muesli, unprocessed porridge oats or Soya are less hungry between meals than those who eat sweetened cereals or white bread.


In Durham, a supplement of marine fish oil and evening primrose oil called eye q has been tested in schools. Other studies have been conducted involving Haliborange DHA Concentration (tuna oil and orange syrup) and Efalex (tuna oil and evening primrose oil).

All three manufacturers are claiming success, although none of the products work for all children. The results suggest that three to four out of 10 benefit. When the supplements work, the results for the child can be dramatic, with big improvements in behaviour, concentration and school performance. If a child is showing signs of fish oil deficiency eczema, asthma, dandruff or lactose intolerance, the success rate increases.

Dr Portwood has studied the effects of fish oil on over 2000 children with learning difficulties. In September she will begin a new trail involving autistic children.

‘Fish oils will not solve every case, but I believe that in one child out of three learning difficulties are to do with diet,’ she says ‘in children with severe attention deficit disorder, fish oil supplementation is nearly as powerful as Ritalin, but without all the side effects.’


We’ve seen a change in both of them

Playing board games wasn’t much fun for Debbie Whiteley-Grant and her two children. Seven year old Mollie and five year old Jacob would lose interest and wander off in the middle of the game.

Mollie fidgeted when she was doing her school work, and her teachers said she found it hard to concentrate for long. Jacob was also restless in class.

Debbie, 40, a cosmetics consultant from Green Oak Avenue, Sheffield, heard about Efalex fish oil supplement from a friend.

She says: ‘I thought it was worth a try. They’d eaten fatty fish when they were smaller but didn’t like it anymore. They agreed to swallow four teaspoons of oil a day after I explained it was good for their brains.

‘We’ve certainly seen a change. Jacob is more settled and Molly is sitting in class now and learning her spellings more quickly. Jacob’s eczema is much better as well.’

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