September 20, 2013
Is Your Brain an Enemy or a Friend?

Last week we discussed how sugar negatively affects the body. High amounts of sugar leads to increased free radical damage, decreased antioxidant production, increased advanced-glycation-end-product production, and increased inflammation in the body. These resulting factors contribute to neuropathy, retinopathy, cardiovascular disease, renal failure, and other disease states. If we know that sugar is bad for us then why do we keep eating it?

Because it feels good.

Yup, we continue to damage our body because sugar makes us feel good. Isn’t that lame? We know that what we are doing to our body is not good, yet we continue to consume foods that slowly destroy us. This demonstrates the power our brain has over us. We are going to dig deeper into this, but in order to do so we will first need to discuss some brain science. We are going to break this down to some gross simplifications so if you happen to be a neurologist please bear with me. Now… are you ready for some brain science?

Our brains are very complex. Even though science does not know everything about the brain, there has been a lot of research and we do understand many ways in which the brain is organized. For our purposes, we are going to divide the brain into two sections: the good brain and the bad brain.

The good brain refers to our forebrain, or prefrontal cortex, which is our rational and thinking brain. This is the part of your brain that can finish logic puzzles, choose between dark and white meat, and also plan a vacation. It is your conscious thinking brain! The bad refers to the hind brain and more specifically to us the nucleus accumbens.  The picture above is pointing to the hind of the brain but the real location of the area we need to discuss is deep within the brain. Also, this bad brain is not really bad. It is actually the part of your brain that houses your survival instincts. But for our conversation and in the realm of consuming sugar we will consider it the “Bad Brain.” The nucleus accumbens (NA) is deep within the brain and is part of the hind brain. This is where your instincts, emotions, and survival mechanisms are located.

The nucleus accumbens is the reward center of the brain. Activity in the NA is what causes you to feel anxiety, pleasure, reward, and craving. We are almost to the sugar part of this conversation, but first we need to chat about two neurotransmitters (brain chemicals): Dopamine and Serotonin.

Dopamine is everywhere in the brain. In the NA it is responsible for giving you a “gotta have it” feeling. Whenever you feel motivated to act, or you feel the anticipation of a reward, that is dopamine. When you are hungry or thirsty and you feel a strong desire to find food and water, that is dopamine. It is a very powerful motivator and can move you to action!

Serotonin is also everywhere in the brain, but in the NA it is responsible for providing the feeling of relief. This rewarding feeling is when he get after chugging a glass of cold water when you are thirsty. When you taste the best cheesecake ever, and your mind explodes, that is serotonin.

Dopamine helps you focus. Serotonin helps you relax. Lots of dopamine can make you feel anxious and serotonin is needed to balance this out.  Let’s take all this information and move into the real world.

Let’s say you are hungry. You have not eaten breakfast, you only had a small latte, it is already past lunch time and you are starving. You brain perceives hunger as a stressor so it increases dopamine in your NA. This moves you to action. The elevation of dopamine makes you anticipate the reward of eating. You brain is thinking, “Oh, gosh, I am so hungry. A burger would taste so good right now. Carrots are lame, I need a cookie. Get that salad out of my face, I need a brownie.” These thoughts and motivations move you to action and you start to search for food. You eyeball the cookies on a table across the room and you consume them. As you eat them, your brain increases the serotonin into your NA giving you a feeling of reward and relief. Jeez, don’t those cookies taste amazing. I mean, you were so hungry and now your brain is thanking you for finding such a delicious treat. Mmm mmm mmm.

This emotional feeling of awesomeness and satisfaction is the reason why we often choose to eat sweets even when we know they are bad for us. It is a very powerful emotion. Think of a food that is a weakness for you. Is it ice cream, brownies, Cinnabon, pie, or something of the like? I bet it is surely a hyperpalatable food full of sugar, fat, and salt. There are some foods that we cannot control how much we eat because our brains make us feel so dang good for eating them. It seems like our ability to choose a healthier option is overpowered by our emotional need for food. Actually, it is a need for relief and satisfaction.

You are NOT a slave to your brain. We have briefly discussed how sugar relieves and satisfies you when you feel hungry and where in the brain this takes place. Next week we will continue this conversation to discuss the brain in great depth. Next week, we will discuss the survival system in the brain and what this means for your decisions and your health.

If you happen to come across a food that looks and tastes good, take a moment to think about how you feel the moment before and after you eat it. Also, right before you take a bite, stop for a moment and wait a few seconds… and let that feeling simmer. After consuming said food, take a moment to think about how you feel. Was it rewarding?

Stay healthy.

Written by Clark Masterson

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