If you’re a chocoholic like me, you are no doubt familiar with the pleasure it provides. It can mellow us out, soothe us and even induce a bit of euphoria. So you may be as surprised as I was to learn that it can also trigger some pretty scary rage, paranoia and anger.
I’m not making this up. I heard about it from Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D., an Ohio State professor of psychology & neuroscience & molecular virology, immunology and medical genetics. I was talking to Dr. Wenk about his book, “Your Brain on Food”, in which he discusses how it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell the difference between the drugs our brains need to function optimally and the food our bodies need to do the same.
Dr. Wenk isn’t suggesting that we all ought to be on medication – he’s just pointing out that the natural chemicals in food can have profound, effects on the brain and therefore on our moods and behavior.
Apparently, the most notable example of chocolate rage occurred in 1648 when the women of Chiapas Real arranged for the murder of their bishop who forbade them to drink chocolate during mass (a bit more obvious and perhaps a lot more distracting than tweeting in church).
Chocolate isn’t the only food with psychoactive effects that Dr. Wenk discusses in his book. But before we look at some of the others, I would be remiss if I didn’t remind you that in addition to how it affects our brains, chocolate also increases blood vessel flexibility and contains the same heart-healthy natural chemicals found in red wine and green tea. What’s more, the kind of fat it contains – stearic acid – doesn’t raise cholesterol.
Here’s a rundown of foods known to have important effects on the brain and body:
Sugar: Our brains need sugar (in the form of glucose) to function normally. Dr. Wenk explains that if the brain doesn’t get its usual supply (say, after you haven’t eaten for a while), you begin craving something sweet.
Coffee: You already know that caffeine is a stimulant, but coffee also contains antioxidants, substances that that combat the health-damaging effects of unstable molecules called free radicals. And Dr. Wenk notes that it also may have beneficial effects on the brain: drinking five to six cups of coffee daily over time seems to protect men (not women) from Parkinson’s disease; two or three cups a day may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. And for unknown reasons people who drink a lot of coffee daily tend to live longer than those who don’t
Turmeric: This spice flavors curry and colors American mustard yellow. Villagers in India who eat a lot of curry have the lowest rate of Alzheimer’s in the world, a fact suggesting that it may be good for the brain. Turmeric also has been found to ease symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, osteoarthritis of the knee, and has shown cancer protective properties in animal and laboratory studies.
Garlic: A natural antibiotic and antiviral agent, garlic can help you head off a cold or sore throat, and some research shows that it can help lower cholesterol and high blood pressure.
Ginger: With natural anti-inflammatory properties, ginger may help reduce symptoms of arthritis. Ginger tea, ginger ale or candied ginger can settle an upset stomach.
Cinnamon: Some studies have shown that cinnamon can help lower blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes, although findings are contradictory.
Tea: All types have anti-oxidant properties (agents that combat the health-damaging effects of unstable molecules called free-radicals), but less processed green tea has more anti-oxidants than the black tea we’re accustomed to drinking and has been shown to have cancer protective properties in some studies.
Cayenne pepper: Also an anti-oxidant, cayenne pepper gets its power from the capsaicin it contains. This spice may have anti-cancer properties; capsaicin cream is used to ease post-surgical pain.
CONNECT THE DOTS:
You can learn more about chocolate’s effect on the brain from this San Francisco Examiner report. For information about herbs and spices that may have health benefits go to the website of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and, for information about herbs and spices that may have cancer preventive powers go to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.