Food and Your Brain
We’re all familiar with some of the ways different foods affect our bodies, such as how dairy products can help build strong bones, or how a diet high in sodium can lead to high blood pressure. Yet, we rarely consider how eating impacts our brains’ functions, including how we learn, age, think and feel. A new book by Dr. Gary Wenk of The Ohio State University called “Your Brain on Food: How Chemicals Control Your Thoughts and Feelings” explores some of the many ways foods and spices can have profound effects on the most complex and remarkable organ in our body.
Supporting the Feeding Tube
Nearly all animals have some sort of feeding “tube” (the digestive tract in our case) which allows foods to be ingested, broken down, and digested, together with some way to remove waste products. In almost all cases, the brain is next to the entrance of this feeding tube. It should be no surprise, then, that our brains are located next to our mouths, allowing us to best see, smell, and sense the food we eat – the most necessary component for survival.
Our brains are one of the most power-hungry organs in our body, consuming most of the calories made available after digestion. Its high-energy demands also make it very sensitive – a 10-minute cut to the brain’s energy supply can cause permanent damage. Clearly, we are creatures designed first and foremost around the goal of eating.
Food as a Drug
Dr. Wenk points out some popular drugs that are often thought of as actual foods, such as coffee, tea, cocoa, and alcohol. Moreover, he argues that the distinction between nutrients and drugs is becoming increasingly blurred, and suggests that anything taken into our bodies should be considered a drug.
For example, consider something Wenk calls a very powerful drug – sugar. Our brains require sugar (glucose) to operate and generate strong cravings after blood-sugar levels drop in the time following our last meal. This helps explain why we crave sweets and simple sugars such as donuts or bagels after waking up in the morning. These cravings are the same sorts of cravings the brain produces following the absence of any substance it is accustomed to. As he says in his book, “if you wish to experience the truly overwhelming and powerful nature of drug craving, just stop eating for a full day.”
Our sugar cravings are rewarded with a good feeling as our bodies release dopamine and a form of opiates. In addition, the sugar helps produce neurotransmitters that assist with memory and learning.
Unfortunately, what’s good for the brain isn’t always what’s good for the rest of the body. As we know, sugar provides “empty calories”, which can easily lead to overeating, obesity, and pancreatic conditions.
Nutrients found in commonly consumed foods can also affect the brain. Nuts, eggs, and milk contain the amino acid tryptophan, which is used by the body in order to produce the serotonin neurotransmitter. A deficiency in this can lead to depression and sleep problems.
Other foods, such as chocolate, coffee, and fava beans can trigger small releases of dopamine, which produces a feeling of pleasure.
Spices such as nutmeg, saffron, cinnamon, and anise contain psychoactive compounds similar to mescaline, which can cause hallucinations and feelings of euphoria in high doses.
Have you identified any foods that affect your thoughts and feelings?
Calorie Count co-founder Erik Fantasia and his girlfriend, Heather Curtis, are currently traveling through South America as part of a trip around the world. You can follow their adventures online with Facebook and their blog.