Food and Mood: The “Seesaw” of Aggressive Behavior

Many  foods in the standard American diet that children and adults consume daily are very harmful and difficult to tolerate.  For many children, this results in aggressive behavior. Substances found in certain foods, particularly in the protein of wheat called gluten, and the protein in dairy products called casein, can trigger aggressive behaviors. Allergies, which are bodily reactions where the immune system perceives something in the body to be a foreign protein, play a major role in behavior. Common signs and symptoms of a food allergy are nasal congestion, scratchy throat, brain fog, and dark circles under the eyes referred to as “allergy shiners.” Allergies also play a huge role in chronic inflammation. If you induce an excessive inflammatory response by ingesting certain allergenic foods, the body sends signals to the brain that cause lack of focus, concentration, loss of short-term memory, difficulty with speech, and problems with fine motor skills, such as writing.  Furthermore, children can become irritable, hyperactive, and inconsolable.

In addition to food allergy avoidance, children with aggressive behavior must also eliminate excitotoxins which are food ingredients and substances that cause overstimulation of the nerves and nerve damage. To protect itself from excitotoxic damage, the brain releases substances that elevate opiod levels, causing symptoms like aggressive behavior because the brain’s chemistry has been altered. These brain chemicals, called neurotransmitters, must remain in balance to calm the brain and balance the mood. Two types of neurotransmitters exist in the human body: excitatory neurotransmitters, such as glutamate which is found in the common food flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG), and the inhibitory neurotransmitters, such as GABA (gamma amino butyric acid) that decreases anxiety, controls aggressive behavior, and improves social interaction. When one or both of these neurotransmitters are out of balance, this imbalance can contribute to symptoms such as mental instability, mood swings, and aggressive behaviors like temper tantrums and self-injurious behaviors.

The delicate act of the balancing of these two neurotransmitters can be thought of as a seesaw, so for example if the dietary intake of MSG is excessively high, and the level of GABA is deficient, the nerves repetitively fire, creating neurological inflammation and damage. Low GABA levels can increase aggressive behaviors, decrease social behavior, contribute to decreased eye contact, difficulties focusing and sluggish bowels. This is why controlling the dietary intake of glutamate and supplementing directly with GABA, as well as other natural minerals like magnesium and zinc, helps to promote consistent and controlled behaviors in children.

Think of it as your brain being over stimulated or maximally stressed-out, creating you brain to  become on fire. This damage produces the aggressive behavior that we see in children, and the common symptoms we observe in children with autism spectrum disorder. Once you are aware of these possible reactions, you can try to identify potentially troublesome foods by observing if there is an immediate negative reaction.  However, for some children, this reaction can be delayed up to several days, making the need to test their neurotransmitter levels essential.

For all of these reasons, it is vital to test a child’s biochemistry, avoid allergenic foods and use high-quality nutritional supplements free of harmful synthetic additives. Common problematic ingredients in both foods and supplements are glutamate, glutamic acid, aspartate/aspartic acid, and cysteine. In particular, both glutamate and aspartate occur naturally in many foods, such as protein-rich foods, milk products, and common wheat containing foods like breads and crackers. It is important to always read labels and try to significantly reduce the intake of these foods. In addition to food avoidance and elimination strategies to balance glutamate and GABA levels, you can also select from a variety of nutritional supplements to promote a healthy balance. It’s common sense that if a child takes nutritional supplements, but continues to consume food allergens, sugary foods, and harmful synthetic food additives, their behavior may still be undesirable.

Transitioning to proper nutrition and getting glutamate under control are foundational to your child’s behavioral and aggression issues. The B vitamins play an integral role in the functioning of the nervous system and help the brain synthesize neurotransmitters that affect the mood and thinking. Magnesium is a mineral that is essential to good health as it is needed for more than three hundred biochemical reactions in the body. It has been shown to be helpful in calming anxiety and balancing the brain’s pleasure centers. Magnesium is also important in energy production and assists with calcium and potassium uptake in the body. A deficiency in magnesium can lead to nervousness and irritability. Supplementing with magnesium can help with mood and muscle weakness. In combination with vitamin B6, it has been shown to reduce the aggressiveness seen in children on the autism spectrum. Vitamin B6 is important in the production of the neurotransmitters serotonin, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and GABA. It helps maintain a healthy immune system and calms anxiety.

Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are an essential part of the structure of the nervous system which is 60-70% fat. The two types of EFAs important in controlling behavior are omega-3 and omega-6. The pattern in children is usually a deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids, with excessive levels of arachidonic acid and trans fatty acids. Omega-3 is essential for childhood development and symptoms of deficiency are eczema, aggression, hyperactivity, and growth impairment. One of the most popular supplemental sources of omega-3s is taken in liquid or capsule forms of cod liver oil, which is naturally rich in vitamins A and D. Vitamin D is extremely important in mood regulation as it binds onto dopamine receptors in the brain and allows this reward-seeking and mood controlling neurotransmitter to function optimally.

In summary, from a biomedical perspective on behavior and aggression, the delicate balancing of the brain’s chemicals largely depends on dietary triggers such as excitotoxins, vitamin and mineral balancing, and food allergies and sensitivities. Perhaps upon initial view of this topic, it many seem overwhelming, so it’s helpful and reassuring to know that many tests are available to identify which problem your child is suffering from, and identify the pathways to stabilizing mood and behavior through proper diet and nutritional supplementation.

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