Food is central to all of our lives. We often talk about food, watch TV shows about food and share food with friends and family. This should not be surprising given the fundamental necessity of food in our lives; we not only need it to survive, but it plays a massive role in our culture, our traditions and, sometimes, our identity.
The old adage “You are what you eat” is more accurate than most people realize. Gastroenterological research over the past decade has increasingly shown that the foods we consume have a deep impact on our mood and cognition, affecting our personal identities and even our decision-making.
In order to really understand how real of an impact food has on our lives, it is important to see the human body as a giant ecosystem. Inside our bodies exists an entire universe of bacteria and microorganisms, all living and contributing to our bodily processes. In fact, our bodies are biomes, housing over trillions of bacterial cells from every inch of skin to the corners of our organs. These bacteria outnumber human cells to a ratio of 10 to one, but it is the input of food, the ultimate source of life for all these organisms, that impacts how we operate on a day to day basis.
Most of these bacteria lie across a portion of the nervous system, interacting constantly with layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lined up across the esophagus to the rectum. From swallowing the food to the process of nutrient absorption, our nervous system is interconnected with the digestive process and it sends chemical signals to the brain when our food is digested. The greatest amount of these vital microbial bacteria reside in the gut. The type of foods that one consumes matters, since this system is connected to the nervous, hormonal and immune systems; a change in such microbacteria can actually lead to a change in biochemistry and thus a change in mood.
During an experiment conducted by scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, two groups of women were divided into sample groups in an effort to discover the impact foods can have on our moods. The subjects were either given yogurt, known to be a healthy probiotic encouraging efficient digestion, or were not given yogurt.
Following the trial period, the yogurt eaters’ gut bacteria changed, leading to changes in brain chemistry. The subjects then reacted more calmly to images and other stimuli than the control group that was denied yogurt. What is most notable is how, when the researchers were able to look deeper at MRIs of subjects who ate yogurt and then reacted to stimuli, the changed makeup of gut microbes led to an entire change in gut chemistry and correlated into modified brain chemistry.
Many brain functions are influenced by what we eat, and there are even specific strains of bacteria that survive on sugar. Such specific forms of bacteria tend to cause feelings of laziness and boredom when we consume high amounts of sugar, and they influence insulin levels and the overall biochemistry of the body, causing a cascading effect in mood and overall cognition.
The way food can affect our mood is an incredible byproduct of the way our biochemistry can be adjusted by simply, say, a bag of Doritos or the consistent consumption of yogurt. While there are thousands of stimuli that impact how we feel on a day-to-day basis, food is one of those factors that we can actively control. To live a healthier life, the least we can do is regulate what we put in our mouths.
Sudhanshu Sisodiya is a freshman in the College. MENTAL MUSINGS appears every other Tuesday.