Recently, I was invitated to give a TED talk on the topic of how foods and drugs affect brain function and aging. The video can be found at this URL or you can read on for an overview of the main ideas presented.  (youtube.com)

Food and drugs are chemicals and their combined daily actions in our bodies influence brain function and how fast we age.  Their effects come about in one of three ways: short term, intermediate and long term.  Their short term effects occur within minutes to hours after consuming them.   One of the best examples of a drug that masquerades as a food with short term consequences upon brain function is coffee.  Coffee is complex blend of chemicals whose actions upon the brain are dose-dependent and show tolerance with continued daily dosing.   Coffee enhances the function of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine and allows us to pay attention and learn more efficiently. 

Many foods and drugs produce short term effects by enhancing the function the neurotransmitter dopamine.  Indeed, everything that we love to abuse enhances the function of this chemical in the brain, including amphetamine, cocaine, marijuana, caffeine, sex, alcohol, chocolate and FOOD!  Yes, food is just as addicting as any of these other chemicals.  The neurological mechanisms that underlie and addiction to cocaine are identical to those that underlie an addiction to chocolate.  Our brain rewards us for eating high-calorie foods with a squirt of dopamine into our frontal lobes.  This is why everyone enjoys a nice quart of ice cream or lard-laden foods when we’re feeling down.

The long term benefits of the food we eat depend upon the fact that food provides the body and brain with calories.  Calories come from the energy derived from the electrical bonds between carbon atoms that make up the food we eat.  After consuming this energy we’re faced with the problem of how to discard from the body the left-over carbon atoms.  The solution is to inhale a lung full of oxygen and exhale some carbon-oxygen molecules.  Unfortunately, the left-over oxygen atoms we’ve inhaled are incredibly toxic and produce harmful byproducts that injure our tissues, produce widespread inflammation and cause us to age.  We have three choices to prevent the consequences of eating and breathing.   First, we could breathe a lot less – not really an option.  Second, we could consume fewer carbon bonds, i.e. calories.  Third, we could consume foods that protect us from the oxygen we’re inhaling; we call these chemicals anti-oxidants.  Anti-oxidants can be found in colorful foods, indeed, it’s the color in these foods that are the anti-oxidants that will protect us from the villainous oxygen. 

Many different foods and drugs contain chemicals that can protect us from the consequences of breathing.  These include coffee, marijuana and chocolate.  All three contain anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidants chemicals that protect us from the consequences of eating and breathing.  Five cups of coffee, one puff of a marijuana cigarette and eight ounces of dark chocolate every day should be part of everyone’s daily dietary regimen.  [But only if you live in certain states!]

© Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D.  Author of Your Brain on Food (Oxford University Press)

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