Doping for the brain: how we learn and think better with “Brain Food”.

The test person sits in a soundproof container on the ground floor of the German Institute for Human Nutrition (DIfE) near Potsdam. On her head she wears a kind of shower cap with 64 flashing electrodes. This measures brain waves. She then takes a dose of dopamine, the happiness hormone, and begins the experiment. The test subject has to solve tasks on a computer because the DIfE researchers want to know how dopamine affects the brain. The results so far are promising. Apparently, the hormone not only increases well-being, but also concentration, memory and the ability to make good decisions.

These insights are just the first step. The Department of Decision Neuroscience and Nutrition research group, led by Charité psychologist Soyoung Q Park, 41, is now investigating which foods are good for the body’s dopamine production. Apparently, the long-chain carbohydrates from vegetables and wholemeal bread, as well as proteins and vitamins C and B 12 contain a particularly large amount of starting products for the hormone of happiness.

“What we eat,” says Park, “has a direct effect on our brains.” In a few years, your research team wants to know exactly what to do before situations such as exams, important meetings, job interviews, the first date, a television appearance, or salary negotiations so that they can achieve maximum concentration, mental sharpness, and power of mind. decision. This varies from person to person and must be determined individually.

Brain food: stimulates the mind

Power diets have been known for a long time in high-level sport, but they are aimed at physical performance. Before competition, endurance athletes top up their glucose stores using a method called “carbohydrate loading.” Basically, it’s all about carb-cracking: Huge mounds of spaghetti with olive oil bite into cyclists ahead of the Tour de France. In the evening, a lean steak for muscle regeneration: lots of protein, little fat. The combination provides up to five percent more power.

That you can empower the mind as well as the body is a new discovery. Scientists are now exploring the ideal “brain food”: foods that speed up the brain. German researchers such as Professor Soyoung Park or the biologist and physician Marco Koch from the University of Augsburg belong to the group of top international experts.

At her inaugural lecture in August 2019, Park explained why she is so involved with “brain food.” Her interest was piqued by a 2011 study by Israeli behavioral scientist Shai Danziger, who found that judges are more likely to parole offenders when they have just finished eating. Before lunchtime almost everyone was sent to jail, after lunchtime two-thirds of criminals got away with suspended sentences. In the scientific literature, this behavior became known as the “hungry judge effect.”

Proteins make you more tolerant

Soyoung Park tried to find out if different foods cause different behaviors. She conducted the so-called ultimatum game experiment. It works like this: subject A receives ten euros and has to share the sum with subject B in such a way that he keeps as much as possible. If B thinks the split is unfair and refuses, neither of them gets a penny.

Subject Bs are usually satisfied with an average of 15 percent of the total sum, they don’t have to do anything for it, just collect it. Most people find that less than 15 percent is a bit wrong and would rather give up their share than give the other person 85 percent.

In the test arrangement, the recipient of the money was offered several dishes before the game. Sometimes with a lot of protein-rich fish and meat, sometimes with little. The clear result: protein makes you more tolerant, which is why test person B was sometimes even satisfied with a euro. Carbohydrates make you less tolerant, 30 percent could be too little and lead to a total loss. Applied to the courtroom, this means that a judge who only eats a few slices of bread at lunch may not be much more merciful to the accused than a hungry judge.

Fast food makes rats stupid

Marco Koch from the University of Augsburg examines the neurobiological processes involved in feeding. The central switching point for nerve impulses and biochemical messengers from the pancreas, liver, and stomach is the hunger and satiety center in the hypothalamus, a region of the brain at the base of the skull. When the stomach is empty, it releases the hormone ghrelin into the bloodstream, informing the hypothalamus that a recharge is needed. As soon as this happens, the fat cells in the body report back with the messenger substance leptin: Okay, we’re full, please stop eating.

According to the 46-year-old professor, this has worked well for thousands of years. Until our diet changed and became more and more energy rich with a high content of sugar and fat.

Our brain can’t handle that. Above all, the artificial food components completely overwhelm him. Does not recognize sugar substitutes that taste up to 500 times sweeter than granulated sugar. They don’t make you feel full.

We keep eating and getting fat. “The number of overweight people is skyrocketing, especially in the US, Mexico and many emerging countries,” says Koch. In Germany, too, 60 percent of all adults are overweight.

There is evidence that obesity affects not only physical fitness but also mental fitness. Fast-food-fed rats show massive declines in cognitive performance, according to Park. That means your brain isn’t working as well.

What to do and what not to do

However, finding the right nutrition for our gray cells is not that easy. Above all, it is clear what we should avoid, because it does more harm than good to the brain and the rest of the body.

Nutritional psychiatrist Uma Naidoo of Harvard University emphasizes that an unhealthy diet also promotes depression and anxiety. She has drawn up a red list of forbidden pleasures. It includes five groups of products that have no place in the menu of the brain:

  1. industrial sugar, for example in lemonades or sweets.
  2. Anything fried. Trans fats increase the risk of brain damage and dementia.
  3. empty carbs, for example white flour. Wholemeal flour is allowed.
  4. Alcohol.
  5. nitrosamines for example in bacon, salami and sausages.

As helpful for the brain, Naidoo recommends a diet consisting of 80 percent high-fiber whole foods, with plenty of vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds. She advises eating colorful and serving all the colors of the rainbow. This guarantees a variety of nutrients. The most important color is still green. Green leafy vegetables contain a lot of folic acid, an important food for our neurotransmitters.

Marco Koch recommends fruit and nut porridge for breakfast. This stabilizes the blood sugar level. Coffee or tea increase agility. Noodles with minced meat create happiness and satisfaction if the portion remains manageable. When it is too big, fatigue sets in. Koch is critical of shakes. There is often so much fruit in them that the sugar level gets extremely high. Green smoothies, on the other hand, are not a problem.

Fish and white meats are recommended. Eggs and milk too. Dietary supplements (vitamins or minerals) are usually superfluous. Only those on a vegan or one-sided diet may need certain trace elements such as zinc and iron, as well as vitamin B12.

“There is no magic formula”

As soon as special mental power is required, for example during exams, there are two classics that are guaranteed to work. If performance has to be called quickly, then good glucose helps. Its advantage: as soon as it is in the blood, it is already in the brain. Its downside: After a few minutes, the booster energy runs out and you’re back on the ropes. Then number two comes into play: trail mix. The sweetness of the raisins quickly breaks down the blood-brain barrier and quickly provides the brain with fuel, while the fatty acids in the walnuts have a long-lasting effect.

“There is no magic formula,” says Marco Koch. For some, an apple is enough to kick-start turbo thinking. Some really need a plate of spaghetti bolognese to get in top shape. Koch himself is a completely different guy. If he knows that a special challenge awaits him, he will lose his hunger. So he doesn’t eat anything.

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