The Magic of the Nervous System

I’ve just started back into Year 3 of nutritional science and my first module is the Nervous system. Every system I study just blows me away with it’s complexity and how it functions and the nervous system is no different. It is amazing what is going on inside the billions of nerve cells (called neurons) inside our brains and bodies every millisecond of the day. There is no computer or AI in the world that can even come close to performing at the same level as the human nervous system.

For context, my study modules are all broken up into two parts:

  • Anatomy and physiology – The structural components of the system and how it is all meant to work.
  • Pathophysiology – the different diseases and dysfunctions that arise when the system breaks down and nutritional therapy (NT) protocols that can help return the system to balance.

Our bodies are constantly sending and receiving messages (called impulses) from all of our senses (touch, see, hear, smell, taste) using the peripheral nervous system (PNS – all the nerve fibres extending out from the spinal cord) and relaying that information back to the central nervous system (CNS – brain + spinal cord). The CNS and various parts of the brain are processing that information and responding.

These interactions are immensely complex involving many physical parts for example within one tiny nerve cell, we have the cell body, axon, myelin sheath, dendrites, synapse and neurotransmitters that are super important for mood regulation (serotonin), movement, attention, focus and pleasure (dopamine), muscle reflex and memory (acetylcholine), anxiety and stress management (GABA). All of these parts have to work in harmony so that our bodies and brains can function optimally.

So what happens when it all breaks down and stops working?

That’s when you hear some of these conditions being mentioned:

  • Parkison’s disease (affects 8,000 people in Ireland)
  • Alzheimer’s disease (38,000)
  • Multiple sclerosis (6,000)
  • ADHD (60,000, mostly kids)
  • Autism (no stats to hand)
  • Epilepsy (37,000)
  • Anxiety (no stats to hand)
  • Depression (a whopping 450,000)
  • Bi-Polar (40,000)
  • Schizophrenia (9,000)

Many of these are in part, caused by insufficient levels of the neurotransmitters mentioned above. For example, one of the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease is low levels of dopamine and acetylcholine. ADHD requires dopamine and noraadrenaline. Depression is linked to low serotonin levels.

So one aspect that we, as nutritional therapists, can focus on is providing the body with the right raw materials required to manufacture these important neurotransmitters.

Personally I have a strong preference for plant based options over meat based so I still struggle a little with suggesting that people eat chicken or drink cow’s milk. This is an area that I know I need to focus on as not everyone is open to the plant based way!

Using dopamine as an example, manufacturing requires vitamin B3, B6, B9, C and minerals like copper and magnesium to be able to create dopamine from its raw ingredients: tyrosine, phenylaline and L-Dopa. So a diet rich in soya, almonds, avocados, brown rice and sesame seeds would do well here. For carnivores, red meat, cheese, milk and eggs are good sources.

Personally, I am finding it really interesting to trace it up from what our bodies need to function correctly and using that information to determine the best food choices to consume to meet that need.

My focus as a health professional is on proactive prevention rather than reactive reversal. Prevention will stop us getting into the hole in the first place. I believe in learning from those that have gone before us, our parents, our friends, our work colleagues and making better, more informed food choices for ourselves and our children.

Yours in health and happiness,