Sunday, January 22, 2012

Brains: A Love Letter.

There are days I feel like a brain in a jar, fastened to electrodes that control my fast-typing fingers, dulled resistors directing the rest of the body.  Now I’m responsible for the care and feeding of another small human, another brain to tend to.  I hope she finds hers a more comfortable fit. 

Feeding a child's brain is difficult when you're only together for a few hours a day.  I think the next few months will be different.  Figurative brain food is handled--our stash of workbooks and readers should get us through the summer.  The actual nutrient-based feeding presents more challenges.  Optimal brain function requires a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, primarily from small species of oily fish.   

So in the fall, when she starts kindergarten, am I supposed to send her off to school with a lunchbox full of little fish? 
DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid that is a primary structural component of the human brain. Cold-water oceanic fish oils are rich in DHA. Most of the DHA in fish and multi-cellular organisms with access to cold-water oceanic foods originates from photosynthetic and heterotrophic microalgae, and becomes increasingly concentrated in organisms the further they are up the food chain. Text: Wikipedia, Docasahexaenoic acid.  Image: School of Sardines, by Tanaka Juuyoh

Kids don’t grow evenly.  At this age, we can almost see it happen.  She’ll stay the same for a few weeks, and then we’ll start to notice a little more chub in her cheeks when she smiles, a little pooch to her belly.  One week later, her pants are a half-inch too short and she’s back to beanpole.  I think her brain must grow the same way.  Every time I get used to talking to her, she’ll add a new verb tense, or jump a difficulty level on her puzzles, or read a book.  It’s inevitable, but startling when it happens.

I try to think back to when I was her age, to anticipate what she's in for when she starts school.  A good brain works on standardized tests, but did not, for me, lead to an optimal classroom experience.  When I was not much older than my girl is now, a teacher felt that my propensity for daydreaming was inhibiting learning.  The solution was to put my desk in a three-sided refrigerator box so that I could no longer see out the windows to the sky.  It was wonderful: quiet and private, with no one to object if I read a book instead of listening.  The following year, I tested into the new gifted program, which meant that I got to spend good chunks of each day playing Oregon Trail in the computer lab.  It was more fun than class, but not exactly a hothouse for neural development.    

A kid I went to school with had a real problem with his brain.  He had a tumor cut out of it, and you could see the giant scar winding around his head even after his hair grew back.  One year, we somehow ended up in a remedial math together, something my parents didn’t realize until most of the way through the year.  They were not entirely pleased.  The result of their discovery was one infamously intense weekend of studying followed by a sudden transfer to the advanced class.  Although I didn’t have many classes together with him after that, he used to come to my house every few months and ring the bell, or throw rocks, or train the sites of his replica rifle through my window until I came outside.  In all the years we were friends, I was always terrified that his brain would suddenly kill him.  
Several studies report possible anti-cancer effects of n−3 fatty acids (in particular, breast, colon, and prostate cancer).  Omega-3 fatty acids reduced prostate tumor growth, slowed histopathological progression, and increased survival in mice. High levels of DHA (the most abundant n-3 PUFA in erythrocyte membranes) were also associated with a reduced risk of breast cancer. A 2011 study, however, found that men with the highest blood percentages of DHA have two-and-a-half-times the risk of developing aggressive, high-grade prostate cancer compared to men with the lowest DHA levels. Text: Wikipedia, Omega-3 Fatty Acid.  Image: 1940 Iceland Postage with Herring

Try to pack a nutritious lunch for an iron-willed preschooler, and you’ll start to draw conclusions about nutrition in institutional learning facilities.  Carbohydrates may not be necessary for health, but they don’t need refrigeration or heating.  Protein is the main challenge: the only meat she will eat is chicken nuggets, hotdogs, and pepperoni.  If you are what you eat, then my child’s brain is 90% cheese and crackers.  For brain-building nutrients, I buy the fancy eggs with Omega-3 fatty acids, laid by chickens who eat better than we do.  The child will not touch, so far, the milk fortified with algae oil.  When she was a baby, we bought her the fancy formula with DHA and ARA, “clinically proved to improve brain and eye function in infants.”  Years later, we got a class action settlement check for $6.  They overstated “proved.” 

It’s not as though its much easier to eat healthy food in an institutional work setting.  On a typical office lunch hour, the attorneys go out to lunch while the secretaries line up to heat their Lean Cuisines.  The Tortilla-Crusted Fish meal is decent, but whoever heats her meal in the microwave next will object.  The favorite place to eat out is a Mexican restaurant in a warehouse by the train tracks.  Their machaca is amazing, but the fish dish tastes worse than it looks, which is actually pretty surprising.  In the end, the easiest way I found to navigate lunch was to run by the drive-thru and eat in my office, with a book, where it was quiet. 
Every day before work, I draw a picture on her lunch bag.  I want her to know, in retrospect, that her bland and repetitive lunches are not the lack of attention or concern.  

Fish and shellfish concentrate mercury in their bodies, often in the form of methylmercury, a highly toxic organic compound of mercury. Fish products have been shown to contain varying amounts of heavy metals, particularly mercury and fat-soluble pollutants from water pollution. Species of fish that are long-lived and high on the food chain contain higher concentrations of mercury than others.  The presence of mercury in fish can be a health issue, particularly for young children. Text: Wikipedia, Mercury in Fish. Image: Anchovies, public domain. 

There’s not even anything special about the fish, necessarily. Their little bodies process the oils from green foods--algae--and the fish fill with what’s left behind.  You could do the same if you ate algae all day long.  Your lunch box wouldn’t smell much better though.

You’re not supposed to eat too many of the bigger fish--the tuna and swordfish and salmon--because fish eat lots of other things besides the good green algae.  The bodies of the big fish retain poison.  The smaller fish have shorter lives, so they don’t accumulate toxins in the same degree.  For optimal brain function, you need to feed your body fish that die before they become polluted. 
As I was editing, she asked me what I was doing.  "I'm writing a story," I told her, "about how eating fish will help you grow up healthy."  She lit up.  "I love to eat fish."  It took her getting the box for me to realize what she was talking about.  She is munching her goldfish right now, snuggled in next to me on the couch. 

If we really try, and she still doesn’t want to eat fish, I’ll be okay with it.  If she doesn’t want to read the books, I will try very hard to be okay with that too.  I would rather we enjoy our time together, because fall will be here soon, and then she'll have to navigate her own little waterway alone.  

In the meantime, I worry about the omega-3 content in her nutrient profile so that I can pretend that's all there is to worry about.  I mean, I already know there's no diet for scared, no diet for lonely, and that the real question isn't what I pack in her lunchbox, it is "how am I supposed to let her go at all?"  Nothing I can feed her is going to make the ocean any less cold. 

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