01.08.2021 Nutrition

How food affects the brain

Why do we crave certain foods like chocolate? It’s all in the brain, says Olivier LeJus

Being a child of the ‘70s, I still have a powerful memory of my tentative experimentation with South American magic mushrooms during my misspent youth. This probably explains my interest in a fascinating book called Your Brain on Food by an American neuroscientist named Dr Gary. L.Wenk. His topic is how different foods affect our brain and our mental and physical health, as well as how we age.

Most of the foods we eat, like many popular recreational drugs, come from plants. The ingredients in these plants are very similar to the chemicals used by our brains during mental processing.

Neurotransmitters are produced in our brain from the content of our diet.

Nutrients such as amino acids, sugar and fats are extracted from the ingested food and transported out of the arterial blood into our brain. For example, bananas contain high levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Eating unripe bananas causes diarrhoea because their serotonin content acts on the muscles in our intestines. Yet serotonin also has a calming effect on the nervous system, so ripe bananas are good to eat when we’re stressed.

When the effects of some foreign chemicals are present in the brain for a long time, it becomes accustomed to their presence and these new drugs or nutrients soon become a necessary part of brain function. Basically, the brain starts to crave these chemicals- it thinks it needs them to function normally.When these cravings become constant, we have become addicted. This applies to recreational drugs, tobacco, caffeine, fats, or sugar.

The brain needs sugar in the form of glucose to function.

While the brain accounts for only 2% of our body weight, it requires 20% of our glucose energy to process information.

Without an adequate supply of glucose we lose our ability to process energy and slip into a coma. Our brain loves sugar and we are all addicted to it to some extent. I personally tried to spend a couple of days recently without any form of glucose and apparently I wasn’t much fun to be around.

In fact, the inability to process glucose as we age has been linked to memory problems, including Alzheimer’s disease in the elderly.

Unfortunately, while bingeing on sugar might look like an attractive solution to prevent dementia, it has a terrible impact on other organs, such as the pancreas, and soon leads to diabetic diseases.

What about chocolate?

Maybe we love chocolate so much because it not only tastes great, but it contains chemicals, which can be psychoactive on the brain.

According to Dr Wenk,“chocolate contains fats that may induce the release of molecules that act similarly to heroin and produce a feeling of euphoria”.

Many women seem to crave chocolate before the start of their period when their progesterone levels are low, and their moods are volatile. So chocolate seems to have an anti-depressive effect during that difficult time.

Unfortunately, for a small number of our female population, the ingestion of chocolate can provoke a nasty chemical reaction resulting in rage, paranoia and anger without warning.

According to the diary of English Jesuit Thomas Gag in 1648, women from the district of Chiapas Real organised the murder of a local bishop who forbade them from drinking chocolate during Mass. This alarming behaviour could be explained by the fact that chocolate contains one chemical similar to amphetamine, as well as another one that stimulates the production of adrenaline.When we ingest chocolate, both these compounds are quickly broken down by another chemical (MAO) before they produce any effects. Unfortunately, the level of this mood saving chemical is at its lowest before women menstruate, at a time when they especially crave chocolate.

We can see how difficult it is to distinguish between foods and drugs. Unfortunately, chemicals are a lot like human beings – while they can be totally harmless on their own when they start mixing with the wrong crowd the results can sometimes be deadly.

While attempting to kill someone who stops you from having chocolate is a very extreme reaction, we must remember that our levels of tolerance to any drugs greatly vary between individuals.

Coffee is a taste that we have to learn to like, but once we start feeling its effect we’re hooked. Like ecstasy and cocaine, it stimulates the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which creates a feeling of euphoria.

Not only does it make us feel great, caffeine can also play a role in preventing Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, prostate cancer and diabetes.

Unfortunately, as the liver gradually becomes more efficient at metabolising the caffeine, the daily intake has to be increased to maintain its potency.

The good news is that decaffeinated coffee has the same antioxidant and anti-carcinogenic benefits without increasing the risk of cardio vascular disease. Roasting coffee beans produces oils that enhance the action of insulin in removing sugar from the blood.

So maybe the solution is to start the day with a strong coffee and then switch to decaffeinated for the rest of the day. I’m slowly getting used to the idea, but it will take some time.

Olivier Lejus

Olivier Lejus BHSc.MHSc. is a registered acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist practising in Sydney. A former casual university lecturer and tutor in Oriental medicine with over 15 years experience in clinical practice, Olivier specialises in Japanese- style acupuncture for the treatment of male and female infertility, migraine, pain, and insomnia.www.olejusacupuncture.com