A leading researcher and educator in the role of nutrition in ADHD and overall brain health, Dr. Gow says your nutritional “fuel” is critical to your mental health. 05/06/2021
Rachael Gow, Ph.D. is a registered nutritionist, child neuropsychologist and an experienced researcher who is also parent of a child with ADHD. She is widely published in neuroscience and nutrition journals, was a guest researcher at the National Institutes of Health from 2012 to 2016, and is most recently the author of Smart Foods for ADHD and Brain Health: How Nutrition Influences Cognitive Function, Behavior and Mood.
She’s the founder of Nutritious Minds, a charitable organization that aims to empower neurodivergent [a term used since the early 2000s to describe those with learning and behavioral differences] and families through education and support.
She spoke with Eliza Leggatt from her home in London, UK.
Dr. Gow, you’ve co-designed and managed the world’s first randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial to test the effects of omega-3 fats in the brain activity of adults with ADHD.
Based on your conclusions, and drawing from your own clinical experience as a registered nutritionist one-on-one, is it ever too late to experience a real difference by introducing changes you recommend, such as higher omega-3 intake?
For decades, there was a commonly held belief in science that the adult human brain was essentially immutable, hardwired and fixed in form and function. Furthermore, by the time we reached adulthood we were pretty much stuck with what we had.
However, modern science has taught us that the human brain is capable of change throughout life until old age via a process called neuroplasticity. Our brain has the ability to generate new synapses – the connections between neurons that encode memories and learning – enabling people to recover from traumatic brain injury, stroke and psychiatric illness.
Even the simple process of acquiring new skills – such as learning a musical instrument or a new language – can change the structure of our brain. The concept of neuroplasticity excited the field of neuroscience and beyond, and has sizeable implications for human health.
After all, who doesn’t want a better brain!
Nutrition is one of the single most easily modified factors, and plays a key role in prevention of the development of premature diseases, and in improved brain health. We can make changes at any point in our life, although it is important to consider that the biochemistry of nutrition is complicated.
In your book, you substitute the term "brain health" for the ubiquitous term "mental health." Why is it important to make this distinction?
I personally prefer to use the term “brain health” because my neuroscientific research and training taught me that the brain is a magnificent organ which operates on molecular and cellular levels with biochemical underpinnings.
It is pretty impressive that a mass of fatty jelly is able to govern our everyday thoughts, behaviors and actions. If you held an adult human brain in your hands it would actually be quite heavy, weighing approximately 1.4 kilograms, and oily to touch.
The brain is, in fact, the fattiest organ in the human body. At least 65 percent of its dry weight is made from specialized fats called lipids, and around 25 percent of all neuronal membranes are made of omega-3 fats.
One of the singularly most important omega-3 fats present in the brain is docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, which can be obtained by eating fish and seafood. Hence, the biological health (including providing the “nutritional fuel” if you like to optimize its function) of our brain is critical in better understanding mental health.
Nutrition is often addressed from the neck down and its effects on our brain health and function are often overlooked.
What are some of the biggest challenges a family faces when first making the steps toward changing dietary habits? What foods do you prioritize as the most crucial to include or exclude when undertaking those changes?
My new book is a reflection of some of the knowledge I have accumulated during my 14 years of study and research. It serves as a guide to those seeking to make changes and adopt a healthier lifestyle not just for their children but the whole family.
It contains a list of foods which are considered beneficial (e.g., those which help support brain health versus those which can potentially hinder). It presents the latest research findings concerning links between food, mood, cognition and behavior, as well as providing recipes for all the family, some of which were kindly contributed by Vital Choice.
[Dr. Gow’s book is indeed replete with seafood-based recipes, including Sea Bass with Sweet Potato Wedges and Vegetables, and Smoked Salmon with Eggs and Avocado. Look here for even more recipes from the Vital Choice collection such as Chilean Sea Bass with Spice Rub and Deviled Smoked Salmon Eggs.]
Seafood is rich in key nutrients such as omega-3 brain-essential fats, zinc, magnesium, iron, iodine, vitamins B6 and B12, vitamin D, etc. which are known to promote brain-health, influence neurotransmitter function and help regulate mood. They do this via their impact on serotonin (the hormone which governs happiness and well-being) and dopamine (which is critical for motivation, pleasure and reward).
The book shares the science and potential impact of nutritional insufficiencies in key micronutrients. Nutrients don’t tend to work in isolation. They work in synergy to optimize absorption. Therefore, sourcing nutrients directly from food (especially seafood and oily fish) provides a greater variety of nutrients which work together.
My book has got you covered on this and contains a wealth of information on the synergistic, mechanistic action of nutrients. It also addresses how the health of the brain is reliant on our gut health – it is a bi-directional relationship and Chapter 2 details how the environment of the gut can have effects on learning, memory, mood, our stress responses and more. It also teaches you ways in which you can heal your gut and, in doing so, help regulate the production of serotonin (our happy hormone).
Recent research has demonstrated that changes in neurotransmitters in the intestine can lead to changes in behavior, including the development of mood disorders. This two-way relationship takes place across hormonal, immunological and neural pathways. The knowledge that nutrition is a modulator on so many levels is exciting and empowering.
After accomplishing so much in over 18 years of academic and psychological research, what drives your work going forward - what most motivates you?
Nutrition and brain health is an area of research I am immensely passionate about, because, first and foremost my life monumentally changed direction in my mid-twenties because I was profoundly and personally affected by my own son’s diagnosis that resulted in a choice to dedicate my life to advocating for brain health and neurodiverse conditions.
It was an extremely challenging journey. I was a single mom, I worked and studied hard. I had to find ways to pay for my university fees but there were kind and generous individuals who at the time, believed in me, and made the journey easier.
The preface of my book provides a little of our personal journey, the challenges, the frustration, hope and despair in navigating through this new environment we found ourselves in. As a parent, I felt I had to become as good an investigator as an FBI agent! I adapted, I acquired a new style of speech – one of symptoms, assessments and diagnoses. I learnt the processes of SEN [Special Educational Needs] statements and statutory assessments, the procedures of tribunals and educational law in my fight to secure an appropriate educational provision.
I gave up my career in the property world to study neurodevelopmental differences so I could, in turn, patiently explain the symptoms to unknowing teachers and other parents and professionals who were active and present in my son’s life. Although ADHD is much more in the public eye now, there sadly remains many misconceptions.
My personal story and struggle forced me to adjust my sails and motivated me to commit to the course of helping others in the process. There remains a certain level of stigma surrounding different brains – or neurodiverse conditions – which makes life challenging for many of those affected. There also are risk factors attached to impulsive, restless inattentive behaviors which can increase risk of self-medicating, incarceration, depression, anxiety, educational failure and more. Prevention of all of this keeps me motivated!
On the flip side, neurodiverse individuals are often highly creative, can possess exceptional attention to detail, can be great visual thinkers, do extremely well in entrepreneurial positions; as inventors or in the creative arts and technology industries. For example, dyslexia is four times more common in London Art students than in the general population (Everatt & Steffart, 1999). It is also 35 times more common among entrepreneurial millionaires than in the managers they employ! (Logan, 2009). Awareness and advocacy of these differences is key – we need to continue to celebrate different brains!
For more information on Dr Gow’s work you can follow her social media links and websites which contain a wealth of information, research and support for parents, professionals and individuals:
- Everatt, J., Steffert, B., & Smythe, I. (1999). An eye for the unusual: creative thinking in dyslexics. Dyslexia, 5, 28-46.
- Logan J. Dyslexic entrepreneurs: the incidence; their coping strategies and their business skills. Dyslexia. 2009 Nov;15(4):328-46. doi: 10.1002/dys.388. PMID: 19378286.