"The food you eat can either be the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison.'' - Ann Wigmore
Welcome to the blog! Here you will find weekly writings and articles (released Monday mornings) on various topics centered around the important relationship between neuroscience and nutrition.
For the very first post, let’s start with the basics of how the brain and gut are connected. This will lay the foundation for later weeks to come. When most people think about where their food travels once they swallow it, their stomach easily comes to mind. But don’t make the amateur mistake of stopping at the stomach and forgetting about the brain. Within our brains, there are 12 essential cranial nerves required for our basic understanding of sensory information and movement. Only one of these crucial nerves actually leaves the brain and guess where it goes? The gut. Therefore, there is a direct connection between our gut and our brain, allowing for millions of nerves and neurons to travel easily between the two. This is important because the chemicals produced in our stomach can directly, and immediately, affect our cognitive functioning.
Throughout the day (and night), our brains are constantly metabolically active. Even though the brain is on average only 2% of an individual’s body weight, it requires about 20 – 25% of our metabolism in order to function at a basic level, such as spending a lazy day filled with little to no activity. So what happens when we are running around to classes all day, studying for tests, spending time with friends, and being crazy busy students/parents/employees/humans? Well for starters, our brain uses more energy, which means we need more energy to be entering our system for fuel. Believe it or not, there is actually a population of olympic level chess players that use such high level cognitive functioning for extended periods of time, and they have to hire nutritionists to help them battle inevitable weight loss. Fun fact – chess players can burn up to 6,000 calories by just sitting!
While most of us will probably never be competitive chess players, the overall principle is still important. When we learn new material or study, our brain is essentially creating connections between neurons. While I could go deep into the neuroscience of how this actually works, most people would probably get bored and give up, so instead I will do my best to explain how our brain learns in plain English that anyone can understand.
Imagine your brain as a large room filled with millions of people that don’t know each other. Humans naturally want to create relationships between one another so they begin talking to each other and creating friendships based off of things that they have in common. Each individual is essentially forming their own network; they become close with others and find mutual interests. This scenario goes great for the first few hours and people are strengthening their networks, except as the day goes on, no one is fed lunch. Despite the lack of fuel in their bodies, they are expected to keep up the same energy as before and must keep trying to form these connections between others. But we all know what it feels like to be exhausted and hungry, and as you can imagine, most people start to get tired and uninterested. Even when they push themselves to keep going, they don’t remember much about their peers, thus the overall friendships they make are not as strong. In essence, everyone is worn out and needs fuel to function as well as they started in the beginning of the day.
The same thing happens in our brains. When we study or learn new material, our brain is working to make connections, aka synapses, between neurons. As we revisit material and work with it in new ways, these synapses become stronger (i.e. when we spend time with our friends in different scenarios, we become closer). Thus, the more time our brain spends manipulating material and studying, the stronger these connections between neurons get and the more automatic the relationship between concepts becomes. In a trivial example, if I asked you to list the names of presidents of the United States along with presidents of Russia, unless you are from Russia, you will most likely have an easier time with the former. This is because we have had more exposure the United States presidents – they are in the news, most of us learned about these historical figures in history classes, etc. This increased exposure to the United States presidents over time created a stronger synapse, or connection, in our brains between the two. The same process happens for anything we are studying – the more exposure we have to the material in different environments, the more likely we are to have stronger synapses in our brains and the easier we can remember the material.
Does the earlier scenario of everyone trying to make connections sound familiar? How about trying to sit and study in the library all day long without eating enough calories? Our brains are pretty incredible in how we are able to learn and study, but they don’t work for free. Brains require energy to learn. If we want to get the best results, we have to treat our minds nicely. Just like the people in the experiment could not form as strong relationships without fuel, we cannot study/work as efficiently in the library (or whatever task it is we do regularly) without constant fuel. Our performance and productivity levels start with food we eat, but not just any food. Our bodies require substantial protein, fats, and carbohydrates to be efficient. In the same way that we cannot just eat double stuff Oreos all day, we also cannot just eat vegetables, cut our carbs, or any other crazy diet that the media may be advertising. We need a constant replenishment filled with a variety of different nutrients to be efficient.
I will dive deeper into the science behind different food groups and how they affect our brains in a later article, but here is a quick summary of what’s to come. To begin, when we eat “fat free” foods, we are only shortcutting ourselves because our brains require good fats from food to create stronger synapses/connections between neurons as well as maintain the structure of neurons. Similarly, we cannot function adequately without a constant source of carbohydrates. When our bodies break down carbohydrates, we get smaller molecules of glucose. You can think of glucose as the brain’s currency for energy; without glucose, we may negatively impact memory and cognitive abilities. And finally, when we eat protein, our brains release higher levels of important neurotransmitters including dopamine and norepinephrine, which are essential chemical messengers. Make sure to get these core nutrients in, and your brain will thank you later.
I hope that by now I have at least convinced you in some form or fashion that the science behind nutrition is not only interesting but important. Food is complicated and there is no doubt that our brains are even more intricate and confusing. Stick with this weekly blog to help you understand the essentials behind how our brains operate based on nutrition. See you next week.
Betsy Blitch, 2/16/20