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Low MAO and bad behaviour

A while back, a friend of mine told me that her ten-year-old son was having behavioural problems at school. He’d become increasingly irritable, moody, tearful and sensitive, culminating in a fight with a class-mate. It was a worrying development, particularly since he was usually a friendly, relaxed, cheerful kid.

At their house, while thinking on the problem, I noticed that my friend was giving her son more ice-cream than before. I pointed it out to her and she said that since her son’s infant food allergies were gone, he was enjoying the ability to eat dairy. I asked what he’d been eating on the day he’d had the fight. She said they’d had garlic sausage for lunch. I wondered; were these foodstuffs connected to his problem behaviour? Particularly since he had a history of food intolerance? After a bit of work, I came up with a possible solution. Here it is:

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We humans are good at eating and digesting a wide range of food. We’re omnivores, from omni meaning ‘all’ and vorare meaning ‘devour’ as in ‘voracious’, but our bodies need to be careful what they let into our bloodstreams. If certain food molecules enter our bloodstreams, they can cause problems all over our bodies and, in particular, in our brain. Among the different classes of molecules that the body tries to keep out, or at least isolated in the gut, are a group of molecules called amines. There are lots of different types of amines but, most importantly, they include certain molecules that have a big effect on your brain. For example, there is a sub-group of amines called tryptamines. These include serotonin, which your brain uses to keep you in an awake and positive state of mind, and melatonin, which your brain uses to put you in a comfortable sleeping state of mind. These are good amines, because we need them to make our brains run properly.

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Tryptamines like serotonin and melatonin are present in your cells, in your brain and in your blood. Your body carefully manages their amount and changes it during the day to help you wake up, stay awake and fall asleep. They help us lead happy, calm lives, but tryptamines like serotonin and melatonin are only good for us if their levels are carefully managed. If just a teaspoon of tryptamines entered your bloodstream, it would be a disaster; they would play havoc with the delicate balance of tryptamines in your body and your brain would be completely overloaded. Normally, we never eat a tryptamine sandwich, so this problem rarely arises, but there are other amines that can turn up in food and they do affect your mind.

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For example, when animal proteins, like meat or milk, decay and break down, they form amines such putresine, named after putrescence or ‘rotting’, cadaverine, named after cadavers or dead bodies, and histamine, used by your body to trigger swelling (for example when you get an insect bite). Unlike amines like serotonin and melatonin, these amines do not help your state of mind at all and can put you in an extreme and very unpleasant mood.

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To stop these powerful amine molecules entering your bloodstream and affecting your body and brain, your stomach and intestines contain a special enzyme that breaks down any amines it finds. This enzyme acts as a guard, stopping those troublesome amines getting through into the bloodstream and causing havoc. This guard enzyme is called mono-amine oxidase or MAO. The ‘oxidase’ part is because it neutralises the bad amines by oxidising them (which also happens when things burn). That is how it knocks out those bad amines; it adds oxygen to the amine molecules, neutralising their power to affect the body and brain. In this way, M.A.O. keeps our brains and organs safe from dodgy amines. As a result, many people can eat food - including meat, cheese and milk - and not worry that the powerful amines in those types of food will affect their state of mind. They can relax and not worry because the MAO in their digestive system is patrolling around and knocking out any amines that it finds.

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The problem is, some people don’t make enough MAO to catch all the amines in their digestive system. If these people eat food that is high in these bad amines, the amines can escape the MAO guards and slip into the person’s bloodstream. They then make their way to the person’s brain and liver, skin and other organs and cause all sorts of problems, from itchy skin (the histamine) to bouts of aggression, mood swings and even hallucinations. Because of this, if someone knows that they don’t produce enough MAO to knock out all the amines in the food they eat, they need to be more careful about what they eat. Most importantly, they should not eat meat and dairy that has been processed to last a long time. Foods of this sort will contain a lot of amines because the proteins in all meat and dairy decay over time into smaller molecules, some of which are fine, some of which aren’t. This process of decay cannot be stopped, except by freezing.

For example, any cured meat (like sausages or pemmican or bratwurst etc) will be high in amines. Cheese will also be high in amines because it is milk that has been treated to last a long time. In fact, all meat and dairy that isn’t eaten very fresh will have amines, since the breakdown and decay of its animal proteins occurs as soon as the foodstuff is no longer in or part of the living animal. It’s really just a question of how bad the amine level gets. Ideally, therefore, someone with low MAO levels should avoid all preserved meat and dairy.

This doesn’t mean that someone who is low in MAO should feel they’re not normal. As human beings, we’ve spent most of our history eating very fresh meet and no dairy; that’s our natural diet. It’s only recently, with the development of agriculture that we’ve tried to preserve meat and consume cow’s milk. It isn’t an ideal solution for us, but it’s been a very useful protein and calorie supply when there hasn’t been any fresh meat around.

My friend was very interested in what I'd found. She immediately changed her son’s diet, limiting ice-cream and giving him freshly cooked meat whenever possible. His behaviour at school changed quite dramatically. At the next parents’ evening, several of the teachers commented to her how much more relaxed her son had become. There were no more reports of fighting and it was clear to all concerned that he was a much, much happier lad.

I was very pleased that my article had helped her and her son. Interestingly, a lot of the information I’d found about low MAO and behavioural problems came from Australia. It struck me that one possible reason for this might be that many Australians are descended from poor British people transported for minor crimes during the 18th and 19th centuries; a draconian and cruel policy. If a lot of those people had been suffering a combination of low MAO levels and consumption cheap, poorly preserved meat, it would have turned them from relaxed, easy-going people into hyper-sensitive, aggressive people prone to outbursts of violence. A whole group of vulnerable people that had done little more than suffer the consequences of a bad diet had been imprisoned and sent, in miserable conditions, half-way around the world.

How widespread is this problem nowadays? How many children are getting into trouble simply because their diet is frying their brains? Why don't school kids have a mandatory M.A.O. test? Why isn't this problem in standard literature about improving children’s behaviour? Although Western nations have made huge developments in health-care, the foodstuffs many people eat, particularly those on low incomes, haven’t changed that much. Do kids diagnosed with ADHD have an M.A.O. test to check that it’s not a factor in their symptoms? I’m not an expert in any way on amines in the body but one child now seems to be benefitting from a diet low in preserved meats and dairy. Because of that, and the possibility that others might benefit from the information too, I’ve posted this article.