Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Food for thought is an oft-heard maxim - the food that we consume affects the state/health of our mind/brain.

"The foods we eat, and many of our most popular psychoactive drugs, come from plants or animals. The ingredients in these plant and animal products are very similar if not identical to the neurotransmitters our brains and bodies use to function normally. This is why the contents of our diets can interact with our neurons to influence brain function, and it highlights a very important principle: The chemicals in the food that you eat will only act upon your brain if in some way those chemicals resemble an actual neurotransmitter or otherwise interact with a biochemical process in your brain that influences the production, release, or inactivation of a neurotransmitter.

"Many plants contain compounds that should be able to enhance your brain’s performance. For example, potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplants contain solanine and α-chaconine, substances that can enhance the action of acetylcholine, a chemical in your brain that is vital to memory formation. Your mood might be enhanced slightly by eating fava beans because they contain L-DOPA, a precursor to the production of dopamine, the reward chemical in your brain. Whether these food-borne compounds actually affect your brain depends upon how much you consume and your own personal physiology. This might explain why some people find it quite rewarding to eat potatoes or eggplants.

"Dairy products in particular contain a protein known as casein, which enzymes in your intestines can convert into beta-casomorphin. In newborns, that beta-casomorphin can easily pass out of the immature gut and into the developing brain to produce euphoria.

The pleasurable feeling produced by this opiate-like compound in newborn mammals after their first taste of their mother’s milk is believed to encourage the infant to return again and again for nourishment. Thus, being able to experience the euphoria induced by this opiate-like chemical has life and death consequences for the newborn child. Adults do not experience this euphoria after drinking milk due to the presence of well-developed blood–gut and blood–brain barriers. Perhaps if a glass of milk provided us with the euphoria of opiates and the pain relief of morphine, then dairy cows would only be sold on the black market!"

Much more pertinent is humanity's oldest anxiety-reducing agent: ethyl alcohol.

"Uisce beatha, meaning “water of life,” was the name given by Irish monks in the 6th century to a drink they prepared, a drink that today we know as whiskey. The drink was a surprisingly excellent source of nutrition, although absent some essential water-soluble B-vitamins.

The first documented distillation of alcohol was the conversion of wine into brandy during the Middle Ages at a medical school in Salerno, Italy. Once again, the new beverage became known as Aqua vitae, Latin for “the water of life.” Brandy became the primary distilled liquor in Europe until the middle of the 17th century when the Dutch perfected the process of distilling liquor and flavoring it with juniper berries to make gin.

Alcohol enhances the widespread inhibitory action of the neurotransmitter GABA and acts as a depressant on the central nervous system. For this reason, in the 19th century, alcohol was widely used as a general anesthetic. Unfortunately, the duration of its depressant action on the brain was too long and could not be controlled easily or safely. The effective dose for surgical analgesia using alcohol is very close to its lethal dose. Therefore, it was possible to induce sufficient anesthesia for a cowboy to remove an arrow from his leg, but it was unlikely that the unfortunate cowboy would survive the operation. If the arrow did not kill him, the operation certainly could. Of course, prior to the 20th century, this was generally true for many medicines and therapies.

"To conclude, because of your shared evolutionary history with the plants and animals on this planet, when you consume them you risk having their chemicals affect how you feel and even how you think. The degree to which they influence your cognitive functioning depends upon how easily they can achieve an adequate concentration in your brain. As you’ve read, this depends upon how much of each chemical is contained in your diet, your age and physical health, and the status of your blood-gut and blood-brain barriers."

No comments: