Our brains are incredible, individually intricate, sophisticated webs of neuro-chemical and electrical activity. They co-ordinate mundane automatic processes within our bodies as well as enable more profound processes such as executive thought, ingenious creativity and consciousness. These processes are influenced by myriad factors, including various toxins that can thwart efficient function of the entire nervous system.
Brains comprise largely fat substances and are co-ordinated by complex cascades of interacting, and often shape-shifting, chemicals. Although the entire nervous system is protected somewhat by a remarkable capillary network, known as the blood-brain barrier, toxic substances still pass into it, impairing its function and, over time, its structure. One only needs to consider short- or long-term use of recreational drugs to recognise this effect.
According to the National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing 2007, 45 per cent of the Australian population will experience a form of mental health disorder during their lifetimes. This figure is concerned with anxiety, mood and substance abuse disorders and does not include age-related diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, which would push this percentage beyond the halfway mark. These are alarming statistics.
Protect your brain
Healthy practices that aid natural detoxification processes have the potential to contribute to preventing mental illness. Combined with nervous system nourishment, social supports and possibly holistic counselling, this epidemic could be alleviated, if not avoided.
A toxin is defined as any compound that has a detrimental effect on cell function or structure, and there are many that can damage the nervous system: heavy metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic, nickel and aluminium; chemicals including chemical solvents, formaldehyde, toluene, benzene, drugs, alcohol, organophosphates and food additives; and microbial toxins and internally produced chemicals such as endotoxins, exotoxins, toxic amines, toxic derivatives of bile, various carcinogenic substances and even ammonia and urea if allowed to accumulate.
Autopsies on human brains in two Mexican cities revealed alarming levels of pollution from the air, affecting neurological function. In the UK, studies have shown that pilots and air crew suffer decreases in mental flexibility, lack of concentration and cognitive deficits, due most probably to slight exposure to organophosphate-based fuels leaking into the cockpits and manifold over long periods of time.
Dr Reza Samvat, speaking at the International Summit for Mental Health in Melbourne this March, highlighted the important role of sleep in effective detoxification. He created an analogy of a nightly board meeting occurring in the brain’s suprachiasmatic nucleus. Dr Samvat described over a dozen sleep molecules, neurochemicals, hormones and prostaglandins acting as essential “board members”. The presence of each enables the execution of the nocturnal agenda. Topping the agenda is always toxic waste management. Only when this is dealt with can the other nightly agenda items, such as healing, repair, immune functions, growth, emotional processing, memory consolidation and learning, be tended to.
When the “rest and digest” arm of the nervous system predominates, as it does during sleep, detoxification processes are more effective. The liver, through a two-phase process, primarily orchestrates detoxification. Put simply, Phase One involves a series of enzymes called P450 that break down toxic substances into smaller fat-soluble compounds. These are then dealt with by one of seven different Phase Two processes, which involve anabolic, or building up, processes, that effectively add a compound to the Phase One end product to render it water-soluble and thus able to be excreted from the body. Given that the brain and nervous system comprise about 60 per cent fat, ensuring both these phases are in good, balanced working order is incredibly important.
Dr Samvat suggested that the liver is predominantly involved in Phase Two processing during the night, so by supporting this in the evening, and avoiding Phase One stimulation, we assist in adequate detoxification and allow the board members to get to other agenda items. Sleep is the time to build up the body’s reserves.
There are many variables to consider when creating a detoxification program. Digestive function, historical and current nutritional intake, individual toxic fingerprints, drug exposure, stress management ability, and family and personal medical histories all play a role. Additionally, polymorphisms, the genetic variations of an enzyme in more than 1 per cent of the population, can lead to depressed activity of an enzyme, blocking or slowing one biochemical pathway. For example, variations the serum paraoxonase (PON1) enzyme have been identified and found to directly relate to the sensitivity of individuals to various organophosphate chemicals. The presence of PON1 means the individual’s ability to detoxify is depressed, so they are more affected by the toxin.
If you want to undertake a serious detoxification process, enlist a trained health professional. Ask them about the suitability and safety of neuroprotectants such as CoQ10, L-carnitine, L-acetylcysteine, SAM (S-Adenosylmethionine) and betaine, as well as antioxidant agents and herbal liver and other nutrient supports. It’s helpful to have someone guide you through the process, drawing on some safe, basic naturopathic principles. After all, if the human brain were simple enough to understand, we’d be so simple we couldn’t understand it.
How to support detoxification
In the evening
- Reduce alcohol, nicotine, charcoal meats, citrus (except grapefruit), high-protein meals and taking supplements of B complex and vitamin C.
- Increase brassica vegetables, low-protein meals, gastrointestinal supports (digestive aids and probiotics), turmeric, rosemary, calcium and magnesium.
During the day
- Ensure your consumption during the day provides sufficient vitamin C (particularly in the morning), vitamin B complex (including folate), iron, selenium, complete amino acids, DHA fatty acid, zinc, magnesium and phospholipids.