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Our brain is, what it eats

Unser Hirn ist, was es isst: "Our brain is, what it eats"

This documentary looked at research on real changes to the brain and consequently our experience, when eating particular food. In other words, nutrition and neuroscience. It was interesting so I wanted to discuss the most intriguing points, and put in my own two cents.

Our bodies are still programmed to what they were in the pre-historic ages. This means that features of our body that used to be useful, in the modern society are detrimental. For example, we are programmed to crave high-fat and high-sugar food. This makes sense at the time, as food was sparse and eating high-calorie food, when it appears once in a blue moon, is essential. Unfortunately, our brain still sends out a rush of dopamine ('a feel-good neurotransmitter') when we eat these types of food, encouraging us to eat them.

Evolution, huh? The gift that keeps on giving…

In the present, this in turn increases the likelihood of it becoming a habit by positive reinforcement. Like other pleasurable activities, this is what makes it so irresistible. Repetition, excess and biology is a deadly combination.

Food is abundant in today's society, most food is usually too sweet and full of the bad type of fat. It is pretty hard to escape it as it permeates every walk of our life. But what about the brain? We focus primarily on what junk food does to our waistline, but not how it changes others parts of our body, like the brain.

'Are mental health, mood, brain capacity also at the mercy of junk food?'. Research shows that there is an actual, tangible effect on our brain and in turn how we act, feel and are.

Here is some new research that is beginning to tell us the profound effect of food has on the brain…

Brain built during pregnancy

During her work in the University of Melbourne, Professor Jacka studied nutrition and the brain. In a particular study, she measured the intake of food by pregnant mothers, including junk food, healthful food and fibre (taking into account many factors). The outcome she measured was the emotional health of their children. The results:

"Higher intakes of unhealthy foods during pregnancy predicted externalizing problems among children, independently of other potential confounding factors and childhood diet" (Jacka et al., 2013).

In other words, more processed food during the pregnancy of the mother led to more emotional and behavioural problems in young children. This includes anger, aggression, sadness and anxiety. This clearly demonstrates a link between mood problems and nutritional quality. Our high fat and sugar food, our deficient diets, has direct impact on our mood. Called it! My inclination for doughnuts clearly explains my amazingly short temper.

Omega-3 and mental health

The brain and nervous system uses lipids extensively. Omega-3 is one of the essential nutrients that we need to eat ourselves as the body cannot produce it. "Brains lacking omega-3 had their neuron cell structure altered". Neurons are the powerful machines that are integral to the brain. With a diet deficient in omega-3, neuron properties were reduced and therefore they become less efficient. On the other hand, increased omega-3 (which becomes part of the neuron membranes), makes the neurons at the top of their game, like a car with regular MOTs.

Omega-3 can actually modulate the processes involved in the physiology of anxiety and depression. In other words, in the pathways that cause these mental health problems, it has a positive effect in bringing back the balance in the brain (Larrieu & Laye, 2018). Seriously. Omega-3 is literally changing the physiology of your brain back to how it should be. It's the imbalance that can be a contributing factor to mental health problems. Even more incentive for fish-lovers like me.

Can food alter thoughts and decisions?

Dr. So-young Park at the Institute of Psychology (University of Lübeck) asked the question of whether diet can influence thoughts and decisions. This sounds unbelievable and futuristic, like a sci-fi film. But she has proven that the food we eat subtly changes neural communication and brain chemistry. In her study, those who had a higher ratio of protein in their meals were more tolerant of unfair decisions. On the other hand, increased sugar led to them being more uncompromising. How did this happen?

"Specifically, with a greater protein intake, participants' plasma tyrosine levels were elevated, which resulted in a more tolerant participants’ response toward unfair offers" (Park & Schmid, 2018).

Tyrosine is one of the amino acids, that makes up that feel-good neurotransmitter and protein dopamine. With increased dopamine levels, it changed the participant's behaviour. Food for thought anyone?

Let food be thy medicine…

This new research in nutritional neuroscience is just the tip of the iceberg. But it does tell us something. Although, we don't understand the full picture, we should not underestimate the effect of diet on our brains. Although we tend to fixate on our weight, the impact of junk food has wider implications.

"Let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food" - Hippocrates

In other words, eat food as your medicine otherwise you'll be eating medicine as your food…

Sources: 'Unser Hirn ist, was est isst' (documentary), watched on the European culture TV channel: ARTE (www.arte.de). Addicted to Fat: Overeating May Alter the Brain as Much as Hard Drugs (www.scientificamerican.com/article/addicted-to-fat-eating/). Jacka, F. et al. (2013) "Maternal and Early Postnatal Nutrition and Mental Health of Offspring by Age 5 Years: A Prospective Cohort Study", Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 52(10), pp. 1038-1047. doi: 10.1016/j.jaac.2013.07.002 (www.jaacap.org/article/S0890-8567(13)00449-8/pdf). Larrieu, T. and Layé, S. (2018) "Food for Mood: Relevance of Nutritional Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Depression and Anxiety", Frontiers in Physiology, 9. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2018.01047 (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6087749/). Park, S. and Schmid, S. (2018) "Reply to Raison and Raichlen: Why does nutrition impact social decision making?", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(7), pp. E1332-E1333. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1722569115 (www.pnas.org/content/115/7/E1332).

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