Researchers have established that processed food is addictive, can make you extremely unhappy and will prematurely kill you. Is there a chance that food manufacturers been able to deceive the world about these facts? Dr. Robert Lustig has written a new book, “The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains,” in which he explains how and why this occurred.
He is perhaps most well-known for his brilliant research into sugar and obesity, and his previous book, “Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity and Disease,” was a New York Times Best Seller. Lustig is an emeritus professor of pediatrics in the division of endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco, a member of the Institute for Health Policy Studies, and he’s also completed a master’s in public health law.
Tryptophan, which is the precursor for serotonin, is one of the rarest amino acids in our diet. But it’s a mistake to think the answer to depression is as simple as taking tryptophan to boost serotonin. The reason for this is because most of the tryptophan is converted to serotonin in your gut, and it does not freely travel into your brain. Lustig explains:
“Tryptophan is the only amino acid that can be converted into serotonin. Tryptophan is the rarest amino acid in our diet. Eggs have the most. Certain poultry and other avian species have some [tryptophan]. There’s very little in vegetables. Obviously, carbohydrates have virtually no tryptophan whatsoever.
It’s actually pretty hard to get tryptophan into your body to start with. Take processed food on top of that, then it’s even harder because it tends to be tryptophan-depleted. [Moreover], 99.9 percent of the tryptophan you ingest either gets turned into serotonin in the gut for your gut’s purposes, or it goes into your platelets to help your platelets help you clot. [So] very little tryptophan actually gets to the brain.
Top that off with the fact that tryptophan has to share an amino acid transporter with two relatively common amino acids: phenylalanine and tyrosine, which, by the way, are the precursors for dopamine. You can see that the more processed food you eat, the more dopamine you will make because you will have the precursors for that.
They will actually crowd out the ability to get tryptophan across the blood-brain barrier … Yet, serotonin is the nidus of contentment, of happiness. It explains why diet is so problematic … ”
Many try to bolster their happiness through certain food choices, but this actually does not work, and Lustig provides compelling arguments that the foods you crave drive up dopamine and drive down serotonin. Rather, it’s experiences that make you happy. People can make you happy. You can make yourself happy. In his book, Lustig outlines a number of different strategies to become happier.
“Ultimately, the goal is [to increase] your serotonin,” he says. There are four ways to boost your serotonin, and they’re all free. They’re also things your grandmother likely told you to do. First and foremost is making human connections.
“Turns out that Facebook does not count as connection. When we’re talking about interpersonal connection, we’re talking about eye-to-eye,” Lustig says. “The facial emotions of the person you’re talking with activate a set of neurons in your brain called ‘mirror neurons,’ which are the drivers of empathy and specifically linked to serotonin.To be able to generate a feeling of empathy, which ultimately turns into contentment/happiness, you actually have to connect. You can’t do it over the internet. You can’t have a connection with ‘anonymous.’ It just doesn’t work.”
On the contrary, social media generate dopamine, associated with pleasure, and hence can drive addiction. The main problem is that when dopamine goes up, serotonin goes down. So, online communication is actually a major causative factor of unhappiness.
Lustig also elaborates on how companies — both food manufacturers and electronics companies — capitalize on the biology of dopamine versus serotonin to get us addicted to their products. There’s even a book on this topic written by Nir Eyal, called, “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.”
Dopamine Versus Serotonin
It’s important to realize that the dopamine (or reward-generating) pathway is the same no matter what your source of pleasure is. It can be a substance, such as nicotine, alcohol, heroin or junk food; or it can be behavior, such as internet surfing, shopping or pornography. The problem, in a nutshell, is that dopamine is an excitatory neurotransmitter, and in excess is neurotoxic.
When dopamine is released, and the neuron on the other side accepts the signal, it can damage that neuron. Over time, excitatory neurotransmitters can cause cell death. To protect itself from damage, the postsynaptic neuron employs a self-protective mechanism — it downregulates its receptors.
By having fewer receptors, the dopamine cannot do as much damage. So, each time you get a “hit” or rush of dopamine, the number of receptors decrease. As a result, you need increasingly larger doses or “hits” to get the same rush. Eventually, you end up with tolerance, a state where even a large dose produces no effect. Once the neurons start to actually die off, you’re a full-blown addict.
“The point that you need to know is that it takes three weeks for the receptors to repopulate. The cravings can go on for upwards of a year when you’re addicted. This is a long-term process that sometimes requires medical intervention and medical management by physicians who understand addiction medicine,” Lustig says.
Serotonin, on the other hand, is not an excitatory neurotransmitter. When it acts on the serotonin-1a receptor (the “contentment” receptor), no damage occurs. Hence, happiness does not lead to addictive behavior. Keep in mind that dopamine downregulates serotonin, so it’s basically impossible to achieve happiness (related to serotonin) through pleasure-seeking behavior (related to dopamine).
One of the cheapest pleasures that stimulates dopamine is sugar. Many reach for sweet junk food when they feel down, thinking it’ll help them feel better, but neurochemical science reveals this simply cannot happen. Add the stress hormone cortisol to the mix, which downregulates the serotonin-1a receptor, and you have a recipe for both addiction and depression. “That’s what we’re seeing throughout all of civilized society, not just in America, but around the world,” Lustig says.
There are three other ways, besides connecting, that boost serotonin and happiness. The remaining three of the four C’s are:
1. Contribute: Meaning the act of contributing to something greater than yourself; making a contribution to society. “You can get happiness and contentment from your job, but there are certain criteria that have to be met,” Lustig says. “Most people, unfortunately, have a boss who is not contributing to their happiness. The workplace is not usually the best place to achieve meaningful contentment.”
2. Cope: Lack of sleep, insufficient exercise and multitasking are all causes of unhappiness. Sleep is extremely important for healthy serotonin production. Here, avoiding exposure to electronic screens is important, as blue light inhibits melatonin production, thereby making sleep more elusive. Electronics will also disrupt your sleep and deteriorate your health by exposing you to unnecessary microwaves, discussed in this recent article on depression.
3. Cook: If you cook, you’re likely going to increase your tryptophan, reduce your refined sugar intake, and increase your omega-3 fats (anti-inflammatory) and fiber. Overall, this will result in improved gut health, which has tremendous impact on your mood and mental health.
“Numerous investigators … have shown that your gastrointestinal flora tell your brain what they want through signals that go through the bloodstream, and potentially even neural ones as well. If you do not feed your bacteria, you cannot get happy. Eating real food you prepare yourself is super important,” Lustig says.
The High Cost of Added Sugar
Processed fructose, mostly in the form of corn syrup, has become a major contributor to the $3 trillion health care budget in the United States, and there’s clear data linking sugar consumption to de novo lipogenesis — a disease process associated with fat accumulation in the liver, causing insulin resistance, hyperinsulinemia, metabolic syndrome and associated diseases. That includes Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, lipid problems, cardiovascular disease, cancer and dementia.
“We have the mechanism by which this occurs. In fact, our paper in Gastroenterology1 demonstrates that if you take sugar out of the diet of children with metabolic syndrome and substitute starch — calorie for calorie exchange, glucose for fructose exchange with no change in calories … — in 10 days, you can reverse metabolic syndrome.
You can reverse the insulin resistance. You can reverse the liver fat. You can reverse the burden on the pancreas. Basically, all of the metabolic perturbations go away. This is the smoking gun,” Lustig says. “In addition, we have a paper in BMJ Open2 which models what could happen in terms of health care expenditures and disease rates if we reduced our sugar consumption by 20 percent, which is what taxes would do.
Or if we reduce sugar consumption by 50 percent (which is what the United States Department of Agriculture suggested we do), for nonalcoholic fatty liver disease alone … the United States, over the next 20 years, could save $103 billion, just on that disease alone. Ultimately, this is where the money goes. This is why health care will be defunct. This is why Medicare will be broke by the year 2026 …
We have to deal with health. Health is going down the tubes. There’s no amount of health care that can fix what’s wrong with our diet, unless we fix the diet first … The bottom line is we are in trouble. But you can’t fix a problem until you recognize what the problem is. This book, ‘The Hacking of the American Mind,’ demonstrates how the science, how the biology, ultimately has influenced not just our health, but in fact, our policy.”
A Solution: Eat Real Food
As mentioned, a big part of the happiness equation is to increase serotonin by optimizing tryptophan. However, the dilemma is that most of the serotonin produced in the gut is used there locally. It does not enter your brain. Lustig explains:
“There are many diversions for tryptophan away from the brain. It can be metabolized in the intestine itself. It can be metabolized in the platelets. It can be turned into kynurenine, which is a secondary metabolite in the liver. It may not be transported across the blood-brain barrier because of phenylalanine and tyrosine taking up the aromatic amino acid transporter.
In addition, of course, your serotonin neurons must be functional. There are things that will kill off serotonin neurons, including party drugs. For instance, MDMA, or Ecstasy, is a famous dopamine and serotonin killer … Once you’ve lost those serotonin neurons, it’s pretty hard to get any sort of happiness signal.”
So, how do you boost systemic tryptophan? One of the keys is to eat real food, and to make sure you include high-tryptophan foods, the highest of which is egg whites. You also need omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA, which is a component of every cell in your body. More than 90 percent of the omega-3 fat found in brain tissue is DHA.
“Omega-3s are probably the single most beneficial thing you can put in your body. They are anti-inflammatory. They are anti-Alzheimer’s. They increase membrane fluidity. Therefore, they increase neuronal distensibility, which means it’s less likely that any given neuron will die,” Lustig says.
“The problem, of course, is that when we took the fat out of the food, we took ALL the fat out of the food. It’s been a real chore to get the medical cognoscenti to turn around on this. I do want to do a shoutout to the American Heart Association, because they have now debunked their long-standing cholesterol-fat hypothesis.
They now recognize that saturated fat was not the demon they made it out to be, and that there are seven classes of fats, and that you actually have to consume omega-3s. You have to consume monounsaturated fats. In fact, you do have to consume some saturated fat because it’s a major component of membranes.”
Mercola, J. (2017). How Corporations Took Over Our Bodies and Brains. [online] Mercola.com. Available at: http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2017/09/10/processed-foods-health-effects.aspx [Accessed 11 Sep. 2017].
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