Food is everywhere around us. We cannot escape the fast food chains on every corner and commercials on tv and radio. We are bombarded with images that tell us we want food. We are so conditioned to eat, we stop noticing whether we are truly hungry. Food is tempting. Our brains are hardwired for certain tastes. We naturally prefer sweet, salty and fatty foods because those foods are typically high in calories and biologically we equate that with energy. Sour and bitter flavors are found in toxic food sources in nature, so we often avoid them.
Food also acts on our neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are necessary for brain function and food has a dramatic impact. These chemicals are actually created by amino acids and the vitamins and minerals found in food. The connection between food and the chemicals in our brain is powerful. This is particularly apparent for serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine
- Serotonin is primarily responsible for mood balance. Low levels result in increased sensitivity to pain, depression, insomnia, aggressive behavior, poor temperature regulation, food cravings, appetite dysregulation and weight gain. Refined carbohydrates like sugar can create metabolic changes that allow more tryptophan to enter the brain. This can spike the amount quickly and lower it quickly as well which contributes to the “crash” felt after eating sugar or other refined carbohydrates. Whole grains allow a timed release of tryptophan due to the fiber and increased time needed to break the food down. Other food sources include brown rice, cottage cheese, meat, peanuts and sesame seeds.
- Dopamine is the pleasure and desire chemical in our brain. Areas of the brain impacted by dopamine are termed the “pleasure center” and are the areas of our brain stimulated by addictive substances. In addition, dopamine aids in heart and immune function, circulation, coordination, movement, libido and metabolism. High fat and sugar foods are shown to light up the pleasure center just like drugs.
- Norepinephrine in addition to mood stabilization is also responsible for ambition, motivation memory storage and metabolism. Foods that aid in production of norepinephrine and dopamine include almonds, avocados, bananas, dairy products, lima beans, game meats, poultry, soy beans, walnuts, eggs, oats and sesame seeds.
High fat and high sugar foods are appealing. These foods are termed hyperpalatable because the break down quickly. They can cause brief spikes in feel good chemicals which just reinforces the emotional eating cycle because the effects are not lasting. They may taste good, but research continues to emerge regarding mood and fast food. It is becoming more apparent that fatty foods, in addition to the physical health complications, are linked to depression. Whole grains, fruits and vegetables are all recommended for health, but they also help to boost mood, promote energy and improve sleep. Just something to chew on!