Why is nutrition so important during the early stages of life?
Dr Rachel Gow explains the importance of good nutrition during the early stages of life:
“Most parents, teachers and indeed policy makers understand that nutrition is important for physical health, to prevent obesity and early onset diabetes in childhood and to safe-guard against cardiovascular disease and cancer in later life. However, the importance of nutrition for brain health and optimal function is almost completely over looked even in the 21st century.
We know the role of nutrition is especially critical during the earliest stages of embryogenesis and neurogenesis when the brain is undergoing a number of complex processes occurring simultaneously including: neuronal migration (simply the predetermined pattern which neurons migrate to in the brain), neurogenesis (the birth of new brain cells), synaptogenesis (the creation of synapses) and myelination (the formation of the myelin sheath which coats the neurotransmitter) , all of which utterly rely on a supply of omega-3 highly unsaturated fatty acids (HUFAs). These bioactive compounds are both critical and essential, vital for both infant growth and brain development. In fact, the human brain is made of specialised fats called lipids and around 30% of all neuronal membranes consist of omega-3 DHA. DHA enhances cell signalling in the brain enabling faster and more efficient communication between neuronal networks. This could be described as the difference between your child being able to focus and pay attention in the classroom versus another staring out of the window distracted and day-dreaming.
Science has taught us that the peak vulnerability to harm from nutritional deficiencies occurs during pregnancy, when the central nervous system is first developing and therefore the quality of the maternal diet is dependent on essential micronutrients including vitamins A, B, choline, folate and trace elements: iron, zinc, copper, iodine, and omega-3 DHA and omega-6 arachidonic acid (AA).
Scientific findings have also demonstrated that during both the last trimester of pregnancy and the first 18 months of life, DHA and AA build-up quite rapidly throughout the central nervous system, in part due to the transfer of preformed DHA/AA from the mother to the fetus in utero, and then post-birth during the transfer of human milk via the mother. It is known that this perinatal increase in cortical DHA concentrations coincides with very active periods of brain development.
In addition, DHA plays a critical role in early cortical circuit maturation. A cortical circuit refers to the connections between different neuronal pathways in the brain and maturation to their growth and development. A body of research has demonstrated that reduced frontal circuit connectivity is found in DHA-deficient non-human primates, children and adolescents born preterm, and patients with psychiatric disorders including ADHD and bipolar disorder. In other words, low omega-3 DHA results in lower connectivity in the brain.
Essentially, there is no doubt that what we eat influences our brains, mood, learning capability and behaviour. Cutting-edge scientific evidence has linked omega-3 fats to statistically significant improvements in attention deficits, hyperactivity, measures of intelligence, behavior and learning.”