What we eat affects our body chemistry. I’m sure that this statement comes as no surprise to those who follow integrative medical blogs. Research abounds on the negative health effects of processed foods, especially in the area of Trans fats. Trans fats are biochemically manipulated unsaturated fatty acids. They are found primarily in chemically altered foods, such as anything packaged, frozen, taken out, or in candy, cakes, and cookies. “Partially hydrogenated” oils are one common term used to describe the presence of these oils on food labels. The easiest way to avoid trans fats are to eat fresh, organic foods which require time and preparation (vs. instant gratification and “Nuking”).

Although the result of this form of mass food production is longer shelf life and more convenient fast foods, the “food” is devoid in essential nutrients and phytochemicals and in their place exists harmful fillers, additives, food dyes, colorings, sugar, and artificial sweeteners. These chemicals not only cause nutrient depletion, but also create a cycle of addiction from an imbalance in the satiety, absorption, and digestive cues in the body. The result is a nation of obese Americans fed on addictive and chemically laden food. We are truly a nation of “sick, starving fat people.”

Dr. Amen and colleagues recently concluded that a high Body Mass Index (BMI) wasn’t just a health risk, but a brain risk.  Specifically, his study linked obesity to changes in brain patterns. In those with a higher bmi, there was less blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, a portion of the brain connected to executive function, planning, and impulse control. There was also less nutrient circulation to the anterior cingulate gyrus, the gear shifter. Furthermore, the authors concluded how other studies reported that adipose tissue was linked to inflammation, an underlying factor in many chronic diseases.

The results of this study must be interpreted as an association and not causative. We are not able to determine whether premorbid problems in the prefrontal cortex lead to increased impulsivity and subsequent obesity or whether being overweight or obese directly causes brain changes. Both scenarios may be true. The fact that we used a healthy brain group and specifically excluded ADHD or other behavioral disorders argues against the premorbid hypothesis, but other studies have shown an association between ADHD and obesity (8,9). Still other authors report that adipose tissue directly increases inflammatory cytokines which may have a negative effect on brain structure and function (15).

The previous quote is enough to make this clinician and integrative health care practitioner pause and think, “are most of our chronic diseases linked by the everyday choices of what we put in our mouth?”

A recent study published on PLoS reported on the link between trans-fat food intake (TFA) with inflammation, depression, and cardiovascular disease.  The study looked at how pro-inflammatory cytokines not only affected specific brain chemicals such as tryptophan (a precursor to serotonin), Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), and other brain neurotransmitters, but also caused an increase in LDL levels of cholesterol, a cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk factor.

Thus, since depression is associated with modifications in proinflammatory cytokines and also with endothelial cell signaling cascades alteration [50] (endothelium is responsible for the synthesis and secretion of BDNF [45], [51]), some detrimental biological modifications caused by TFA with respect to CVD risk could also be responsible for a harmful effect of TFA on depression risk. To our knowledge, the association between TFA and depression risk had not been reported before. Our results support a relationship between fat subtypes and depression which may parallel the well known effects of the quality of lipid intake on CVD risk [23]

If these determental internal, systemic, and mood effects of processed foods isn’t enough to get one to reconsider the Twinkie, ho-hos, and diet coke diet, Dr. Mark Hyman, MD, may convince some through their external effect.  Specifically, Dr. Hyman explains how both diary and sugar can lead to acne through their impact on insulin, hormonal, and inflammatory pathways (interestingly enough, there’s even a hormonal shift from raw, organic milk):

Many have suggested a diet-acne link, but until recently it has not been proven in large clinical studies. Instead dermatologists prescribe long-term antibiotics and Accutane, both of which may cause long-term harmful effects. In 2009, a systematic review of 21 observational studies and six clinical trials found clear links. Two large controlled trials found that cow’s milk increased both the number of people who got acne and its severity. Other large randomized prospective controlled trials (the gold standard of medical research) found that people who had higher sugar intake and a high glycemic load diet (more bread, rice, cereal, pasta, sugar, and flour products of all kinds) had significantly more acne. The good news is that chocolate (dark chocolate that is) didn’t seem to cause acne.

The dietary pimple producing culprits–diary and sugar (in all its blood sugar raising forms)–both cause spikes in certain pimple producing hormones. Dairy boosts male sex hormones (various forms of testosterone or androgens) and increases insulin levels just as foods that quickly raise blood sugar (sugar and starchy carbs) spike insulin.

This leads to the question; is it a genetic disposition and a resultant biochemical imbalance in neurotransmitters that causes one to reach for foods to self-medicate resulting in weight gain?  Or, does one who is chronically ill and obese become depressed because of the inflammatory cytokines effects on hormonal pathways, leading to neurotransmitter imbalances? Also, where does an environmental cue fit in? In his book, Love and Survival, Dean Ornish concluded that isolation is the number one risk factor, independent of all other factors, to cardiovascular mortality. The ever ending story of what came first, the chicken or the egg.

Regardless if one eats junk because of a neurotransmitter imbalance or if a neurotransmitter imbalance is the result of an unhealthy diet, biochemical support through a healthy diet, lifestyle changes, and nutrients to treat the underlying cause of inflammation, all should be part of the treatment. Furthermore, functional neurotransmitter tests can aid the clinician to support patients so that they have the “willpower” to trump the urge to walk down the Twinkie and ho-ho aisle. Finally, individuals need to be treated as such, and biochemistry is different in everyone. This means that the latest and sexist nutrient in the media isn’t going to be the cure-all to treat a symptom, it is only in treating the cause that true healing can occur…more on this next blog.

**the author reports no association with Twinkie or ho-hos.


For references and Link on Brain Health and Statins, click here