Eating regimen can have an effect on temper, conduct and extra – a neurologist explains

During the long voyages of the 15th and 16th centuries, the period known as Age of Discoveryseafarers reported experiencing vision of sublime food and green fields. The discovery that this was nothing more than a hallucination after months at sea was excruciating. Some sailors wept in longing; others threw themselves into the sea.

The cure for this terrifying mirage was not a complex mixture of chemicals, as previously thought, but a simple antidote to lemon juice. These sailors suffer from scurvya disease caused by a deficiency of vitamin C, an essential micronutrient that people get from eating fruits and vegetables.

Vitamin C is important for the production and release of neurotransmitters, brain chemical messengers. In their absence, brain cells do not communicate effectively with each other, which can lead to hallucinations.

As this famous example of early explorers illustrates, there is a close relationship between food and the brain, one that researchers like myself are trying to unravel. As a scientist who studies nutritional neuroscience at the University of Michigan, I am particularly interested in how food components and their breakdown products can change genetic instructions that control our physiology.

Beyond that, my research is also focused on understanding how food can be affect our thoughts, moods, and behavior. While we can’t yet prevent or treat brain conditions with diet, researchers like myself are learning a lot about the role nutrition plays in the everyday brain processes that make us who we are.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a delicate balance of nutrients is key to brain health: Lack or excess of vitamins, sugars, fats and amino acids can affect the brain and behavior both negatively and positively.

Lack of vitamins and minerals

Like vitamin C, deficiency of other vitamins and minerals can also trigger nutritional diseases that adversely affect the human brain. For example, low dietary levels of vitamin B3/niacin – usually found in meat and fish – cause pellagraa disease in which people develop dementia.

Niacin is essential for converting food into energy and building materials, protecting genetic blueprints from environmental damage and controlling how much of certain gene products are made. In the absence of this critical process, brain cells, also known as neurons, malfunctions and dies prematurelycause dementia.

In animal models, decreased or inhibited niacin production in the brain increased neuronal damage and cell death. In contrast, increasing niacin levels has been shown to reduce the effects of neurodegenerative diseases such as: Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s and Parkinson’s. Observational studies in humans show that adequate levels of niacin can protect against this diseasebut the results are still not convincing.

Interestingly, niacin deficiency caused by excessive alcohol consumption can cause the same effects as those found in pellagra.

Another example of how nutritional deficiencies affect brain function can be found in elemental iodine, which, like niacin, must be obtained from one’s diet. Iodine, which is present in seafood and seaweed, is an important building block for thyroid hormone – a signaling molecule that is important for many aspects of human biology, including development, metabolism, appetite, and sleep. Low levels of iodine prevent the production of sufficient amounts of thyroid hormone, interfering with this important physiological process.

Iodine is essential for human brain development; before table salt was supplemented with this mineral in the 1920s, iodine deficiency leading cause of cognitive disability worldwide. The introduction of iodized salt is thought to have contributed to the gradual increase in IQ scores in the past century.

Ketogenic diet for epilepsy

Not all lack of food harms the brain. In fact, research shows that people with drug-resistant epilepsy – a condition in which brain cells fire uncontrollably – can reduce the number of seizures by adopting an ultralow-carbohydrate regimen, known as a ketogenic dietwhere 80% to 90% of calories come from fat.

Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy. When they are not available – either due to fasting or due to a ketogenic diet – cells obtain fuel by breaking down fats into compounds called ketones. Utilization of ketones for energy leads to profound metabolic and physiological changesincluding the levels of hormones circulating in the body, the amount of neurotransmitters produced by the brain and the types of bacteria that live in the intestines.

Researchers think that changes that depend on this diet, particularly the higher production of brain chemicals that can calm neurons and lower levels of inflammatory molecules, may play a role in the ketogenic diet’s ability to decrease the number of seizures. This change can also explain benefits of the ketogenic state – either through diet or fasting – on cognitive function and mood.

Some foods can have a negative impact on your memory and mood.

Sugar, saturated fat and ultraprocessed foods

Excess levels of some nutrients can also have a detrimental effect on the brain. In human and animal models, increased consumption of processed products sugar and saturated fat – a combination commonly found in ultraprocessed foods – encourages eating with desensitization brain to hormonal signals that are known to regulate satiety.

Interestingly, a diet high in these foods too desensitizes the taste system, making animals and humans perceive food less sweet. These sensory changes can affect food choices as well as the rewards we get from food. For example, research shows that people’s response to ice cream in areas of the brain important for taste and gift blunted when they ate it every day for two weeks. Some researchers think this reduction in food reward signals may be increase cravings for more fatty and sweet foodssimilar to the way smokers crave cigarettes.

Diets high in fat and processed foods are also associated with lower cognitive function and memory in humans and animal model and a higher incidence of neurodegenerative diseases. However, researchers still don’t know whether this effect is due to these foods or due to weight gain and insulin resistance thrive with long-term consumption of this diet.

Time scale

This brings us to an important aspect of diet’s effect on the brain: timing. Some foods can acutely affect brain function and behavior – such as hours or days – while others take weeks, months or even years to have an effect. For example, eating a piece of cake quickly changes the fat-burning ketogenic metabolism of a person with drug-resistant epilepsy to one that burns carbohydrates, thereby increasing the risk of seizures. In contrast, it takes weeks of sugar consumption for the brain’s taste and reward pathways to change, and months of vitamin C deficiency to develop scurvy. Finally, when it comes to diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, risk is affected by years of exposure to diet in combination with genetic or other factors. Lifestyle factors such as smoking.

Ultimately, the relationship between food and the brain is somewhat similar to that of the subtle Goldilocks: We don’t need too little, not too much, but enough for each nutrient.

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