HEALTH Food for Thought

Recent research gives new meaning to the old saw, "You are what you eat."

The man from MasterCard is calling daily now about your overdue account. Your wife has announced that her nineteen-year-old tennis pro is more than an athlete, he’s a visionary who could teach you something about your priorities in life. Your boss has a personality disorder that causes him to make you call him “Mr.” even though he calls you by your first name. It’s all so depressing that a Valium or an iced-tea glass full of Jack Daniels seems like the only possible cure.

But there’s another, less destructive antidote for depression that you probably haven’t considered. A cookie.

Before you double over in condescending laughter, consider this: researchers at institutions ranging from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to Texas Tech University, after lengthy experimentation, are moving toward that conclusion. Food, they think, causes chemical activity in the brain that literally affects how you feel and how you think. And a cookie, or pasta, or any carbohydrate causes the brain to create a chemical that has a natural sedative effect.

What researchers have learned in the past few years takes the concept “you are what you eat” a step further. Brain functions ranging from emotion to sensitivity to pain can be affected by the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals in your daily diet, researchers have determined. For several decades, psychiatrists and other researchers have contended that vitamins affect brain chemistry and therefore human behavior. But that theory has not been embraced by the medical establishment. The American Medical Association, which recently published a report on the relationship between food and behavior, says there is still no concrete proof that diet can cause or affect mental or emotional problems.

But researchers are beginning to change perceptions in the medical community. “What has happened,” says Dr. John Crayton, a research psychiatrist at the University of Chicago, “is that the theory [of food affecting the brain chemistry] has been put through some extensive tests using solid scientific methods.”

The result is that what seemed almost laughable to most scientists a few years ago is now accepted by many as a fect. Researchers are now suggesting “cures” like a handful of cookies for insomnia or a plate of pasta for depression. And continuing research suggests that we may be able to fight senility, improve memory, and otherwise affect our brains by what we eat.

“We have had cases in which we have been able to see a measurable twenty-point increase in a patient’s IQ as a result of [changing] that patient’s dietary intake,” says Dr. William Rea, a Dallas physician who has adopted an “environmental” approach to treating patients. “It’s very exciting.”

Food can affect brain functions in two ways, researchers say: through deficiencies and allergies. If a person’s diet is chronically deficient in foods that supply chemicals needed for brain functions, that person can be adversely affected. Carbohydrate deficiencies have been linked to high anxiety levels; a common disease called pellagra that has been found to cause psychotic reactions has been linked to vitamin B deficiencies. Allergies to food or food additives have been proven to cause behavioral reactions such as hyperactivity, anxiety, and even schizophrenia, according to some physicians and psychologists-still far from the mainstream-who are now treating such problems through dietary approaches.

Dr. Joel Butler, a member of the psychology department at North Texas State University in Denton, says there is no question that what we eat can have a profound effect on mental functions. “But the general public and the professional community still don’t widely accept this. Doctors think that because they weren’t taught it in medical school, it doesn’t exist. But they are wrong.”

So far, research into how food affects brain chemistry has focused on the brain’s production of neurotransmitters-chemicals involved in the transmission of electrical impulses in the brain. It is through these impulses that the brain commands body functions, recalls memories, processes information, and performs other functions.

Much of the research centers on a common amino acid called tryptophan. In the early Seventies, researchers Dr. John Fern-storm and Dr. John Wurtman of MIT discovered that feeding rats pure tryptophan caused their brains to produce increased amounts of a neurotransmitter called serotonin. This particular substance can increase tolerance to pain, make people less emotionally edgy, and cause drowsiness. Subsequent experiments involving mice and human beings have determined that what we put in our mouths does affect the amount of tryptophan in our bloodstreams. The tests have led Wurtman, a neuroendocrinologist, and his wife, Judith, a Ph.D. research scientist in the department of applied biology at MIT, to suggest that serotonin levels in the brain can be increased simply by eating a pastry. That sets off a complicated biochemical process, Judith explains. To enter the brain, tryptophan must compete with other amino acids that block it out. But when we eat carbohydrates, our bodies create insulin, which screens out other amino acids and allows tryptophan to enter the brain.

What can tryptophan do? Quite a bit, experiments suggest. In one study at MIT, volunteers were subjected to mild pain by focusing a 100-watt light bulb on their arms. They were asked to rate the pain level at different heat intensities. After being given one dose of tryptophan, the volunteers showed a significant increase in pain tolerance.

An experiment at Tufts University Medical School in Boston showed that people are sleepier after eating a high-carbohydrate meal than after a high-protein meal.

A similar result was recorded in a recent series of experiments conducted by Dr. Bonnie Spring, a psychologist at Texas Tech. Participants were fed a high-carbohydrate, low-protein diet and experienced drowsiness to the point of impaired mental performance.

“Some people have gone so far as to say that carbohydrates will make you happy,” says Judith Wurtman, “but there’s no scientific basis for that.” What carbohydrates will do, she contends, is help you cope. “If you have a phone call that you don’t necessarily want to make or some other task that you don’t want to do, you’ll find it a little easier after eating some carbohydrates.”

North Texas State’s Butler implies that may be an oversimplification.

“It’s a highly individualistic kind of thing,” he says. “Foods that will affect one person one way will affect another person in an entirely different manner.”

The findings of researchers are beginning to trickle down into clinical use. At the Brain Bio Center in Princeton, New Jersey, one of the first clinics in the nation to employ “bio-psychological” treatment methods, patients suffering from anxiety, depression, and other emotional problems are checked for chemical imbalances with hair-sample, blood, and urine tests. Various vitamins and nutrients are then prescribed. Patients clearly have shown results from such treatments, according to Dr. Barbara Aston, a psychologist who’s affiliated with the center. Similar methods are used in various clinics around the country, including an environmental medicine unit at the Northeast Community Hospital in Bedford, Texas.

Dr. William Rea practices environmental treatment methods at the Bedford hospital, often working in conjunction with NTSU’s Joel Butler and other mental health practitioners. Rea tells of a young boy from Lewisville who was referred to the hospital because his hyperactivity was causing problems with his schoolwork. After a screening process that involved fasting and then rein-traducing food groups, it was determined that the youngster was having brain reactions to corn, milk, wheat, chicken, and eggs. “Now the kid is an A student,” says Rea. He thinks the change was brought about by altering the youngster’s diet.

Perhaps the most astounding research at the Bedford hospital involves the possibility of effectively raising a patient’s intelligence quotient through diet.

“We give patients a standardized test of cognitive skills before and after treatment,” Butler says. “And in some cases we have actually recorded a twenty or twenty-five point increase in IQ after treatment.” The dietary treatments did not literally raise the patient’s mental capacity-they raised the patient’s effective mental capacity during the test by alleviating stress or anxiety that could negatively affect test scores. “What you are seeing in those cases is an individual whose thinking has been cleared,” Butler says.

Still, much of the information about diet and how it affects the human body falls into what Dr. Marvin Mengel, an Orlando, Florida, endocrinologist, calls the “so what” category. “I’m sure that certain foods do affect personality in certain ways,” Mengel says. “But as to whether they affect 10 percent of the people or 80 percent of the people, I don’t know.”

Mengel is not convinced that researchers really know either. With the present knowledge, he says it is arrogant to make dietary prescriptions for emotional problems. But the lack of knowledge about how food affects human behavior is an obvious motivation for those who do research in that area.

“The really astounding thing to me,” says John Crayton, “is that we put tons and tons of stuff in our mouths every year, and we actually know very little about what it does to us.”

“What the evidence should point out to the layman,” says Butler, “is that he should play detective with his diet. If he’s experiencing anxiety or depression, it might be worth his while to take a close look at what he eats before experiencing those symptoms and then ask himself if there’s a pattern there.”

Researchers believe we should also be paying more attention to our food cravings. Since eating carbohydrates, according to Judith Wurtman, creates sufficient tryp-tophan levels to cause the brain to manufacture serotonin, researchers have determined that our need for carbohydrates is more than a learned behavior like having a “sweet tooth” or a craving for bread.

It is when the metabolic needs of the brain are not met that mental and emotional problems can result. At least that’s the theory held by some psychiatrists and other psychological researchers studying the brain’s reaction to chemicals. According to a report by Dr. D.C. Campbell in Modem Nutrition in Health and Disease, a group of patients suffering from memory loss, depression, anxiety, and other emotional disorders showed a marked improvement after high doses of B vitamins were prescribed for several months. The B vitamins, Campbell reported, have the ability to convert carbohydrates into neuro-transmitters in the human brain.

Dr. Gideon Seaman, a physician writing in Women and the Crisis in Sex Hormones, reports that birth control pills can cause a vitamin B6 deficiency for some women that may result in anxiety and depression. He recommends dosages of the vitamin or consumption of foods rich in B6 (liver, salmon, brown rice, wheat germ) for women who take the pill and suffer depression.

Other research aims at helping people who suffer from memory disorders or senility. Food research is being designed to increase the amount of the neurotransmit-ter acetylcholine in the brain. Drugs that block acetylcholine have impaired the memories of test volunteers, and drugs with properties similar to acetylcholine seem to improve memory in the tests. Although John Wurtman and his MIT colleagues have discovered that intake of lecithin increases the amount of acetylcholine in the brain, research into memory restoration through diet is far from finished.

Currently, researchers dealing with the relationship between food and the brain are far from suggesting that any “miracle” cures exist. Skeptics within the medical community-and there are many-say the “results” may simply be due to the placebo effect. “A placebo can have a very, very powerful effect,” says Dr. Marvin Mengel. “In cases of extreme pain, a placebo has been shown to have an effect equal to ten milligrams of morphine.”

Most doctors on either side of the controversy agree on one thing: if you think acookie will ease your anxiety, then it willprobably have some effect on your mood,whether chemical or psychological. And ifsomeone is going to experiment with mind-altering substances, no doubt cookies wouldbe one of the safest around.


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