Nutrition and the Nervous System

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By: Thomas Cowan, M.D.
In my 17 years practicing medicine, I, like other physicians, have seen an explosive rise in the number of children diagnosed with disorders of the nervous system. In my little town in affluent, white New Hampshire, the local elementary school reports that one in nine boys in grades 1-4 receives some sort of stimulant medication for their attentional defects. Leaving aside the question of whether these children really have a neurological disease (see ‘Talking Back to Ritalin’ by Peter Breggin) I would like to report on the single most promising intervention I have seen for children diagnosed with ADHD, epilepsy, and other neuro-behavioral disorders.

I started thinking about the role of nutrition in neuro-behavioral disorders after reading the work of Weston Price, a dentist who  in the 1930’s wandered the world looking for the healthiest people alive. When he found people with what he called “perfect health” (often in traditional societies) he always remarked on how happy, friendly, polite and well-behaved the children seemed.

A lot has changed for our children but perhaps nothing as much as the type of food eaten. In medical school I came across a curious but well-known medical fact: epilepsy, perhaps the granddaddy of all neurological diseases, is about 60-80% curable through a simple dietary intervention known as the ketogenic—or no-carbohydrate—diet. This diet is used by the most prestigous pediatric hospitals in the world including Johns Hopkins and Stanford University.1 Amazingly, once the patients have been on the diet for one to two years and the seizures end, it can be stopped. The seizures do not return. When I asked my professors why we didn’t prescribe this diet instead of putting children on lifelong  medication, their reply was, ‘“the patients don’t like it.” This didn’t satisfy me, so I looked further. The ketogenic diet rests on a few basic facts, and is remarkably like the diet of the traditional people whose children had the sunny dispositions.

The physiology is simple. The nervous system has two possible sources of fuel—sugar {carbohydrates) and ketones (fat-breakdown products). If sugar is available as fuel the nervous system will use it. If not, it will use fats. Either way works on a superficial level but the therapeutic effects of switching from a sugar-based fuel to a fat-based fuel can be profound. When you eliminate all sugars from the diet of an epileptic, forcing them to use the fats, within six months the seizures stop and behavior is transformed.
It was clear to me, observing people on the ketogenic diet, that it had a profoundly calming effect on the nervous system. In anthroposophical medicine we often relate an overly ‘cold and brittle’ nervous system to a thin-skinned nervous child. It is interesting to read what Steiner said about the relationship of fats to such problems:  “if the animalic forces supply the ego organization with too little fat it develops a hunger for warmth, withdrawing what it needs from the activity of the organs which then become  inwardly brittle or stiff.”2

This lack of warmth is the main physiological and soul problem our children face. They are cold, exposed and, as Steiner claims, inwardly brittle. This then results in the profound irritability that manifests as a seizure disorder or the less dramatic ADD or ADHD.

Contemporary researchers approach this problem from a variety of angles. Recent studies find that cholesterol (an animal fat) mediates the synaptic processes in the brain. Other studies connect low fat intake with early dementia and other chronic neurological diseases.

I have seen none concluding that our children be raised on a diet high in the good animal fats that used to be a staple of the American diet. These include fresh cultured butter from cows that eat green grass, lard from pigs that forage in the sun, cream and cod liver oil. For those interested I suggest the website or Sally Fallon’s book Nourishing Traditions.

Finally, many people advocate a vegetarian diet for the treatment of neuro-behavioral disorders. In my experience not only does this not work, it also flies in the face of basic physiology. It also is not a ‘moral’ response to the agricultural crisis  created by chemical food production. The solution to the agricultural crisis in a sense demands that we return to eating the wide variety of foods grown by farmers on  family farms, which include animal fats.

Every biodynamic farmer knows: without manure and the warmth of soul that comes with the presence of cows, the farm itself would become lifeless and die. Unfortunately the rest of culture surrounding our children also starves them of the protection and warmth they need to claim the health, clear thinking and happiness that is their birthright.

1. The ketogenic diet is a strong medical intervention that requires a doctor’s supervision.
2. R.St., Fundamentals of Therapy, p.50.

Tom Cowan is a family practitioner in Peterborough, NH. (603) 924-3544.

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