The body’s biochemistry is nothing short of amazing and science is increasingly revealing the role that nutrition is involved with this. In considering this, let’s begin with the mysterious world of methylation. Billions of times every second, our bodies are transporting methyl groups to our DNA. They are made up of three hydrogen and one carbon atom. They are involved in what is called epigenetics, which is the expression of each gene. While the gene code appears immutable, the expression of the gene itself is quite malleable. Consider the example of a dimmer switch, in which the brightness of a light can be modified. Similarly, the expression of a particular gene (and how it affects our functioning and development) can be altered significantly by the environment, and it appears that nutrition plays a key role in this gene modification.
Methylation is critical for gene expression for multiple reasons. It can mend the “wear and tear” that occurs with our DNA while also repairing damage to our cell membranes. It even assists in regulating our hormones. It is especially important because our bodies are exposed to countless toxins in the environment that we often can’t detect or prevent. Methylation is one primary way that our body defends against these toxins in reducing risk for diseases such as cancer. But what studies have uncovered is that many vitamins and minerals (termed micronutrients) are required to make this process as effective as possible.
While methylation is occurring at phenomenal rate, the body is also continuously engaging in brain metabolism. Simply put, metabolism is the conversion of one compound to another; in this article, we are going to discuss the transformation of chemicals in food to neurotransmitters, which are the chemicals released between neurons in our brain. Neurotransmitters facilitate communication between our neurons so that all basic (and complex) functions in our minds and bodies can occur.
In the process of brain metabolism, enzymes are necessary to convert chemicals in food into neurotransmitters. However, these enzymes depend on many different cofactors, which are composed of vitamins and minerals. Let’s take the example of how the amino acid, tryptophan (found in foods like turkey, chicken, and milk), is converted to serotonin, a neurotransmitter closely involved with mood, learning, sleep, memory and many other functions. Taking only a tiny corner of the chemical pathway (i.e., a few metabolic phases out of a thousand), we see that more than 10 micronutrients are utilized in this process. Without an adequate supply of these and many other micronutrients as cofactors, this enzymatic transformation is compromised. Thus, our ability to convert chemicals in food to chemicals in the brain is limited, and can affect our availability of serotonin and other neurotransmitters.
Finally, while methylation and metabolism are continuously occurring, there is another mysterious process at play, which involves mitochondrial function. In addition to producing chemicals that fight against chronic inflammation, mitochondria are probably best known as the “energy factories” of our cells. In using micronutrients taken from food, they produce ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which is the essential energy molecule for our existence. Yet like the other two processes discussed, this critical function is nutrient dependent, and many vitamins and minerals are required for this to occur.
What science has uncovered is that God’s design of our minds and bodies depend on nutrition for many of the most basic processes. When nutrition is maximized, we typically function well just as a vehicle operates optimally when a clean source of fuel is used. But when micronutrients are not present in adequate quantities, it is clear that the basic processes by which we live and operate are compromised, thus creating much greater risk for physical and psychological problems.
Unfortunately, much of what we are eating today, especially in the United States, does not possess adequate nutrition. A recent study found that 67% of the calories youth get from food come from ultra-processed food, which typically has little or no micronutrients. Given that bodies and minds of our youth are constantly developing, it should be no surprise that the rates of pediatric physical infirmities, such as type 2 diabetes and obesity, have reached crisis proportions as it has for psychological conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and suicidality. As Dr. Bonnie Kaplan has noted, “starving brains are driving the mental health crisis.”
God designed us in remarkable ways and many of the gifts we are given involve continuous processes by which we can’t control. And yet, what is clear is that His design demands we be a co-partner in the way in these processes function; otherwise, His image and likeness for each of us will not be realized as it should. Our faith has long provided wisdom and habits to support this collaboration, but as often occurs, we have failed to heed His way and have gone astray, never more in the simplest yet most life-giving ways. Truly we are, and become, what we eat.