Brain Foods

Brain Foods

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Knowing How Food Affects Mood

Good morning! Time to wake up, roll out of bed, and sleepwalk into the kitchen for a cup of coffee.

Good afternoon! Time for a moderate glass of whiskey or wine to soothe away the tensions of the day.

Good grief! Your lover has left. Time for chocolate, lots of chocolate, to soothe the pain.

Good night! Time for milk and cookies to ease your way to Dreamland.

For centuries, millions of people have used these foods in these situations, secure in the knowledge that the food will work mood magic. Today, modern science knows why. Having discovered that our emotions are linked to our production or use of certain brain chemicals, nutrition scientists have been able to identify the natural chemicals in food that change the way you feel by

Influencing the production of neurotransmitters

Hooking onto brain cells and changing the way the cells behave

Opening pathways to brain cells so that the other mood-altering chemicals can come on board

The following chemicals in food are those most commonly known to affect mood:

Alcohol is the most widely used natural relaxer: Contrary to common belief, alcohol is a depressant, not a mood elevator. If you feel loosey-goosey and exuberant after one drink, it's not because the alcohol is speeding up your brain. The chemical actually relaxes your controls, the brain signals that normally tell you not to put a lampshade on your head or take off your clothes in public.

Anandamide is a cannabinoid, a chemical that hooks up to the same brain receptors that catch similar ingredients in marijuana smoke. Your brain produces some anandamide naturally, but you also get very small amounts of the chemical from (what else?) chocolate. In addition, chocolate contains two chemicals similar to anandamide, which slow the breakdown of the anandamide produced in your brain, intensifying its effects. Maybe that's why eating chocolate makes you feel very mildly mellow. Not enough to get you hauled off to the hoosegow or bring in the Feds to confiscate your candy; just enough to wipe away the tears of lost love. (Don't worry; you'd need to eat at least 25 pounds of chocolate at one time to achieve any marijuana-like effect.)

Caffeine is a mild stimulant that

Raises your blood pressure

Speeds up your heartbeat

Makes you burn calories faster

Makes you urinate more frequently

Causes your intestinal tract to move food more quickly through your body

Caffeine also is a mood elevator. While it increases the level of serotonin, the calming neurotransmitter, it also hooks up at specific receptors normally reserved for another naturally occurring tranquilizer, adenosine. When caffeine latches in place of adenosine, brain cells become more reactive to stimulants, such as noise and light, making you talk faster and think faster.

Tryptophan is an amino acid, a group of chemicals commonly called the building blocks of protein. Glucose, the end product of carbohydrate metabolism, is the sugar that circulates in your blood, the basic fuel on which your body runs. Milk and cookies, a classic calming combo, owe their power to this, the tryptophan/glucose team.

Start with the fact that the neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin are made from the amino acids tyrosine and tryptophan, found in protein foods. Tyrosine is the most important ingredient in dopamine and norepinephrine, the alertness transmitters. Tryptophan is the most important ingredient in serotonin, the calming neurotransmitter.

All amino acids ride into your brain like little trains on tiny chemical railroads. But Mother Nature ? clearly a party animal! ? has arranged the switches so that your brain makes way for the bouncy tyrosine train first and the soothing tryptophan train last. That's why a high-protein mean heightens your alertness.

To move the tryptophan train up the track, you need glucose. That means that you need carbohydrate foods. When you eat carbs, your pancreas releases insulin, a hormone that enables you to metabolize the carbs and produce glucose. The insulin also keeps tyrosine and other amino acids circulating in your blood so that tryptophan train can travel on lots of open tracks to the brain. With more tryptophan coming in, your brain can increase its production of soothing serotonin. That's why a meal of starchy pasta (starch is composed on chains of glucose molecules) makes you calm, cool, and kind of groovy.

Some foods make you more alert (such as meat, fish, and poultry) or calm you down (such as pasta, bread, potatoes, rice, and other grains), depending on their ability to alter the amount of serotonin available to your brain.

Phenylethylalanine ? sometimes abbreviated PEA ? is an amino acid that your body releases when you are in love, making you feel, well, good all over. A big splash occurred in the late 1980s, when researchers discovered that chocolate, the food of lovers, is a fine source of PEA. In fact, many people think that PEA has a lot to do with chocolate's reputation as of the food of love and consolation. Of course, to be fair about it, chocolate also contains the mood-elevator caffeine, the muscle stimulant throbromine, and the cannabinoid anandamide.

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Donah Shine

Head Master

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