Friday, May 27, 2011

Your Brain on Food

I recently read a fascinating book called "Your Brain on Food," that has changed the way I understand the relationship we all have with what we eat. The author, a neuroscientist, advises the reader to regard anything one ingests (through whatever means) as a drug, because that's how the brain perceives it. Or, more accurately, how the brain responds to it, regardless of whether it's chocolate, nutmeg, coffee, cocaine, or psilocybin. Not that the brain responds identically to all of these agents--they each elicit a unique action--but the brain conducts its business in the same way, whether we've eaten the latest identified superfood, taken prescription drugs, smoked a cigarette, or injected heroin. I found this not only intriguing, but also profoundly instructive.

There was a lot of scientific information to wade through, as much as the author tried to keep it simple--and to be honest, a lot of it went out much more quickly and easily than it went in--but there were a few points that made an impression I'm not likely to forget anytime soon.

For one thing, I'm seeing the brain as a processor, not of data, the way the mind is, but of chemicals. The brain is not an instrument of intelligence (although it functions in a highly organized, brilliantly efficient manner--at unimaginable speed); it's a manager of substances. Everything we eat is made up of a dizzying array of separate compounds, and to the degree that they succeed in crossing the "blood-brain barrier," these compounds impact the way the brain responds (and the way we subsequently feel). The faster a substance can cross this barrier and enter the brain, the greater the impact, because this means that a large dose will be delivered at once.

Whatever substance enters the brain regularly (and especially copiously), the brain comes to recognize and regard as "normal." For example, the brain runs primarily on glucose, so the presence of glucose in the brain is normal. When some time has passed since our last meal, our blood sugar level begins to drop, and glucose starts to become scarce in the brain, so the brain sends us craving messages we recognize as hunger. We respond by hunting down some food--either something sweet, or something that the body can synthesize glucose from. That's all very nice, but the same holds true of other substances that enter the brain in sufficient quantity and frequency--like nicotine, or amphetamine. The brain begins to regard the presence of these substances as "normal," and when they are depleted, the brain will send craving messages that they need replenishing (with no regard, by the way, for our health, safety, finances, relationships, or freedom). This is what addiction is. Once a period of time has passed in the absence of these substances, the brain is fully capable of readjusting to the new "normal," and will no longer send us out to score them.

Here's the main point I came away with: Since everything we ingest acts upon the brain like a drug, we can consider any type of food as one drug or another, with specific effects in the brain. We can become addicted to a food simply by consuming it regularly--to the extent that the compounds in that food cross the blood-brain barrier, these will become "normal," and hence, "needed." Similarly, if we refrain from eating those foods, after a period of withdrawal, their absence will also become normal (and not needed). Essential nutrients are excluded from this formula, because the body actually does need them in order to function properly, and cannot synthesize them, so we must obtain them from our diet, but these are relatively few (9 amino acids, 14 vitamins, 17 minerals, and 2 fats).

Why is this important? Well, think about the implications of having your brain considering the components of certain foods "normal" in exactly the same way as it might, say, cocaine. Those foods might not be all that helpful in maintaining optimum health--they may even be contributing to disease. But the brain is simply reading our continued ingestion of these compounds as just the right thing to do. Freaky, huh? See why I finally understood that the brain is not the seat of intelligence, but rather a processor of chemicals?

This is the good news: We are not our brain, and we don't have to be enslaved to any particular food (as long as we can find those few essential nutrients elsewhere). Just as we can detox from an addictive, destructive drug, we can detox from an addictive, destructive food. All it takes is a little attention to nutritional facts, and the will to live well. And it helps if we're trying to live consciously (the subtler, more fundamental definition of "well").

It may be challenging to switch from destructive food to constructive food, because our mind, which processes data with the same blind indifference as the brain processes chemicals, will be telling us to keep on eating the stuff that's fattening, sickening and killing us. It will be interpreting "tastes good" as "must eat," and "different" as "suspect." But just as the brain becomes accustomed to a new substance that shows up regularly, the mind will get on the bandwagon eventually--if we keep at it. We can, in fact, retrain our desires and our tastes. We don't have to do as we've always done, just because the advertising led us that way. We can uncouple ourselves from all the influences that don't serve us well and decide for ourselves what we want to do (and eat). How cool is that?


  1. Alan, our brain is extremely complicated, because it has so many functions and components and is also the connection, between the mental and physical processes (nutrients, body functions, as we learned in Medical science) but more than 99% of the brain we do not understand yet, because it is also connecting us with the outside and inside world, via our eyes, our feelings, our skin, our metabolism, our desires, our longing, our connection with the energy, that keeps us alive, we have no clue, what our brain is doing, as became clear, after research of near dead patients, with a 100% death brain and they came back to life, to tell us, what happened with their consciousness, after they were 100% clinically officially death, no brain function at all ! In our Medical science, we do not value the importance of food enough, as Hippocrates did and you do. We also do not value the importance of deep relaxation enough, so that we can be clear and focussed and happy and make the right choices, in food and our lifestyle. A great book about our brain is of Servan Schreiber, a very smart French doctor and psychiater , who also wrote a book about the prevention of cancer and he said, that the Medical science should focus much more on healthy food and relaxation and the prevention of disease, because of our wise lifestyle and i agree with him. But the farmaceutical and food companies are not so much interested in our health and wellbeing, but in getting much more of our money, on our expense, because we do not know enough about how they are fooling us and so we all keep buying things, that are not good for us at all, in fast food stores and supermarkets, just because we are misinformed. Keep up the good work, informing and inspiring us to eat healthy and live wisely, thank you Alan, I agree with your view on healthy food !

    Jos van Laar, Health Scientist, Preventive Medicine, Netherlands

  2. Thanks, Jos. I think there is a serious disconnect between the medical profession--which deals almost exclusively with the treatment of symptoms--and the underlying cause of most of those symptoms, which is A)the stress of disconnection and alienation from the self, and B)an overexposure to unnatural, unhealthful foods, conditions and influences.

    It's true, as you say, that the brain does a lot that we don't yet know about, but the way it does what it does is by managing substances--be it acetylcholine, serotonin,or whatever neurotransmitter is responsible for conveying the information neurons need to transmit. It's like the mind's physical body. And the mind is still far from anything the mind itself can comprehend (and may always be).

  3. I must investigate this book. Thank you for the recommendation. My ups and downs through the years with vegetarianism and mindful eating have pointed me in many positive directions, and I was thrilled to meet Sam Graci after reading his first book, The Power of Superfoods. And The Food Connection really gets into the science of how foods affect our mental and hormonal states.
    I always remember him telling us at the seminar, to think about the quality of what we put in our mouths, because we are what we eat, and it will become the quality of our hair, our skin, our eyes... our thoughts.
    I thought your comparison to 'cocaine' was insightful. In The Tao of Health, Sex and Longevity Daniel Ried talks about the dark side within that offers resistance every time we try to talk ourselves into eating something good, and our addictions tempt us otherwise.
    And I find the works of Abram Hoffer, Linus Pauling and The International Society for Orthomolecular Medicine very inspiring and fascinating, much like your post. Thank you for sharing. I look forward to many returns.
    I hope this message finds you safe, happy and healthy.

  4. Good post Alan. I tweeted it from BookPubCo.