Next time you're tired but need to cram for that 8 a.m. exam the next day, try eating some chocolate.
For centuries, people have known that food can affect your mental and emotional health. Think of comfort foods like apple pie and mashed potatoes. Research has shown that there are several scientific reasons behind one's desire to consume massive amounts of chocolate after a stressful day.
The brain produces chemicals called neurotransmitters that trigger action, speech, thought and emotion. The types of food people eat alters the production and activity of these neurotransmitters. After repeated experiences with certain foods, people often relate specific items with sensations like comfort, alertness or passion.
"These chemicals do not compel a person to eat [certain foods], but they intensify the urge," said UT psychology professor Devendra Singh.
This knowledge, conscious or subconscious, triggers that insatiable inclination to dive head-first into the pantry.
Found in milk, cake, candies and the mind of every dieting person in this country, chocolate is a food demanded equally for its taste and emotional-healing properties. Americans, after all, eat about $5 billion worth of chocolate every year, the equivalent of 11 pounds per person.
The calming effect of a pint of rocky road ice cream lies in the neurotransmitter anandamide, a cannabinoid chemical that attaches to specific brain receptors. This part of the brain also catches similar chemicals found in marijuana smoke and creates a mellow, calm feeling.
"There are few other foods that evoke the sort of sensory response that chocolate elicits," writes cooking instructor and consultant Carole Kotkin in her article, Chocolate - The Original Comfort Food. But in order to replicate a marijuana-like high, a person would need to devour 400 ounces of chocolate, or 25 pounds, according to an article on www.Dummies.com.
If eating one's weight in chocolate doesn't sound appealing, there are other, more moderate, ways of eating that can improve a person's mood and mental state.
Protein sources such as fish, chicken and red meat can increase alertness. During digestion, protein-rich foods are broken into amino acids, and some of those amino acids increase production of neurotransmitters known to increase energy levels and alertness.
On the other side of the dietary picture, high-carbohydrate foods such as bread and pasta will trigger the release of insulin into the bloodstream. This causes an increase in serotonin levels in the blood. What does serotonin do? It's the neurotransmitter that reduces pain and produces a sense of calm.
So if you have a packed day of classes and need your mind to be sharp, enjoy a grilled chicken salad, and keep an eye on the amount of carbs on the daily menu.
Cravings for sweets and carb-dense foods can be explained by science, Singh said.
"There are chemicals in the brain which increase cravings for carbohydrates, fats and proteins," Singh said.
The fluctuation of these cravings comes anywhere from stress to natural body alteration. For example, when women begin their periods, estrogen increases, and a subsequent combination of chemicals causes yearning for sweets like chocolate, brownies and ice cream, she said.
Coffee also ranks near the top of the list of Americans' favorite comfort food, and 5,688 Starbucks coffee shops around the world illustrate the global demand for caffeine. Caffeine stimulates the brain, causing an increased heartbeat, higher blood pressure and more trips to the bathroom. More importantly though, that double shot of espresso inhibits the tranquilizing effects of the neurotransmitter adenosine. So instead of your brain screaming to go back to bed, you're bright-eyed and prepared to deal with morning traffic on Interstate 35.
Differing from the effects of caffeine, alcohol, a mainstay of many a college student's weekend, is a depressant. The longing to crawl into a bottle of vodka after a long week results from a feeling of lack of control, and alcohol relaxes and relieves tension.
Singh pointed out one reason why carb-happy women may not crave that cold beer at the end of a day as much as their male, meat-eating counterparts.
"Typically people who eat a lot of carbohydrates do not crave alcohol the way people who eat proteins do," she said.
Alcohol impairs some functions of the brain such as reasoning, memory, vision, reflexes, behavior, speech, coordination, self-restraint and judgment. Dummies.com emphasizes that drinking slows signals "that normally tell you not to put a lampshade on your head or take off all your clothes in public."
Stressed and depressed? It may not be the three exams you have looming or your significant other calling it quits - your body may be lacking one of the B vitamins. Vitamins B1, B2, B6, niacin and folic acids have all been linked to mental health. Studies have found that four out of five people with clinical depression have deficiencies in these vitamins. Foods rich in these vitamins and nutrients include dark, leafy greens, avocados, tuna, yogurt and milk.
Other important minerals that have mood-affecting properties are magnesium and selenium. Lack of magnesium, found in bananas, leafy greens and almonds, can lead to personality changes and poor concentration. Studies have also shown that selenium, a mineral found in protein sources, grains and nuts, can lessen anxiety and irritability.
Now that science confirms that comfort foods actually are comforting, should Blue Bell replace Prozac to help with depression? Will police units come equipped with devices to test the amount of chocolate, instead of marijuana, in a driver's system? Probably not. But for the college student who wants to combat stress, depression, anxiety and increase overall levels of happiness, eating the right foods may be the way to go.
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