How Food Affects Brain Chemistry
Author: Celeste Nachnani
Editors: Nadia Hall, Fahad Hassan Shah, Raayan Dhar
After a long, hard day at work, what might be the first thing you do when you get home and unwind? You might take off your shoes, walk over to the kitchen, and reach for a snack in your pantry. Or, maybe it is Valentine’s Day, and you are buying a gift for your significant other. Would you purchase an edible arrangement of fruits or a heart-shaped pack of chocolates? Like these examples show, throughout many points of our day, we constantly make choices about food. Food is more than just fuel; for some, it is a gift, a way of bonding with others, and a form of therapy, while for others, it may be a struggle and a source of fear. Being informed about your food choices can motivate you to make better decisions about the food you are eating, improving not only the health of your body but also the health of your mind.
Say you end up gifting that box of chocolates to your significant other. What will happen to their brain as they eat it? As the 2011 online article Why Your Brain Loves Chocolate by Bill Jenkins explains, various compounds in the chocolate will cause receptors in their brain to start firing. Tryptophan and serotonin will be released, which are chemicals that help the brain relax. The caffeine in the chocolate, along with xanthines, will stimulate alertness. Another compound, phenylethylamine, will release dopamine, the feel-good hormone that serves as a reward in the brain when it experiences something pleasurable. Anandamide will activate the pleasure receptors in the brain (Jenkins, 2011). These are just a few of the effects of chocolate, which may be what makes it so addictive.
Another component of chocolate (found in especially high levels in dark chocolate) is flavonol, which is a compound in food that increases blood flow to the brain (Jenkins, 2011). A healthy alternative to chocolate that also contains high levels of flavonol is fruit. For instance, apples are high in flavonol and contain compounds that stimulate the production of new brain cells (Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News, 2021). Of course, every food is meant to be enjoyed, although not every food is good in excess. Snacking should be both an enjoyable and healthy experience, so it is important to vary what you eat. That will make not only your taste buds happy, but also your brain and gut.
Researcher Hilke Plassmann, the Chaired Professor of Decision Neuroscience at the INSEAD business school, conveys that eating is affected by more than just conscious choice, such as hormones and bacteria in the gut. As she explains in the 2021 online article The Neuroscience of Eating by Benjamin Kessler, some of these hormones include leptin (which regulates energy reserve) and ghrelin (which slows metabolism). Furthermore, taste alone is not responsible for the release of homeostatic hormones (which control glucose levels and blood pressure) such as dopamine. For instance, a study in 2019 showed that participants drinking a milkshake experience not one, but two, dopamine spikes: one immediately after drinking it and one 15 minutes later (Kessler, 2021). These spikes may be what makes drinks such as milkshakes so addictive. Plassman’s research also shows that bacteria in the gut affects eating. Accordingly, Plassmann supports synbiotic supplements and their ability to positively adjust how people react to food rewards (Kessler, 2021).
Dietary choices have important effects on the makeup of the brain. Eating a healthy diet can result in higher synaptic plasticity of the brain (Ahmad et al., 2021). This means that more connections are being made between neurons in areas of the brain such as the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory. On the other hand, if people participate in dysfunctional eating (not incorporating the important nutrients in their diet), this may lead to decreased functioning in their hippocampus (Ahmad et al., 2021). Furthermore, an unhealthy diet will cause stress hormones to be released, activating the microglia (which are immune cells of the central nervous system) and astrocytes (which are responsible for synaptic plasticity and other functions) at times they should not be activated (Ahmad et al., 2021). Additionally, 95% of the hormone serotonin (which regulates sleep, appetite, and mood) is produced in the gastrointestinal tract, making it even more important to make dietary choices that prioritize gut health (Selhub, 2022).
Knowing the specific effects of certain foods on your body and brain chemistry can make you more informed and incentivized to choose what is best for you. Enjoy food to the fullest, snack with your friends, and have hearty dinners with your family. There is no need to restrict yourself as long as you are going about it healthily.
Ahmad F, Hasan H, Abdelhady S, Fakih W, Osman N, Shaito A and Kobeissy F (2021, August 3). Healthy Meal, Happy Brain: How Diet Affects Brain Functioning. Frontiers for Young Minds. https://kids.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/frym.2021.578214
Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News. (2021, February 12). Studies Find Apple Compounds Boost Neurogenesis, May Improve Brain Function. https://www.genengnews.com/news/studies-find-apple-compounds-boost-neurogenesis-may-improve-brain-function/
Jenkins, B. (2011, February 10). Why Your Brain Loves Chocolate. Scientific Learning. https://www.scilearn.com/why-your-brain-loves-chocolate/
Kessler, B. (2021, August 4). The Neuroscience of Eating. INSEAD Knowledge. https://knowledge.insead.edu/marketing/neuroscience-eating
Selhub, E. (2022, September 18). Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-psychiatry-your-brain-on-food-201511168626