“The body…is the subconscious mind”. From Molecules of Emotion by neuroscientist Candace Pert PhD.

The nutrients in food help create and sustain your flesh, blood and bone. What may be more of a challenge to imagine is how your food choices can affect and alter your moods, perhaps your cravings for substances, rewards and experiences – even what you assume to be the nature of your personality.

Have you ever had a ‘gut feeling’, an intuitive prompt that seemed to come from deep within the body? Science can now corroborate the perceptual pathways and messengers shared by gut and brain. The gut comprises the small and large intestine, from where soupy food leaves the stomach to where bowel motions exit the body. Although the quality of your food is obviously important, even more significant is how well you digest, absorb and metabolise that food. The finest diet is not usable by the body until it is sufficiently broken down by enzymes and other digestive juices into core nutrients: glucose from carbohydrates, amino acids from protein, fatty acids from fats, vitamins, minerals and water. These are the raw materials your physical factory must have for all building, repair, protection and energy requirements.

As soon as your meal is reduced to these life-sustaining constituents then they are absorbed through the wall of the small intestine and sent to the liver. The liver takes these building blocks and directs the creation of a variety of structures from skin, hair and nails to blood, hormones and antibodies.

Because survival depends on the transportation of nutrients, the 7 metres of small intestine is minutely coiled and folded. If fully stretched out this organ is larger than a tennis court and has a sausage skin-like wall or membrane only one cell thick. All this helps maximise the surface area and ease of absorption.

However the size and permeability also leave the area vulnerable to attack by pathogens (viruses, bacteria, parasites and fungi) and inflammatory agents such as allergens, or otherwise inadequately digested food molecules. So seriously does the body view these potential assaults that more than 70% of the immune system is situated along the gut. A major attack on, or chronic low-level weakness to the intestinal wall will deteriorate the resources of the immune system. Similarly, frequent call-outs of the immune defense forces – perhaps to pathogens, or toxic environmental agents such as cigarette smoke, or chemical fumes from cleaning agents and toiletries – will result in worsening gastrointestinal health.

Whatever the initial cause, an inflammatory cascade ensues that affects both systems and the entire brain/body network. For more on how to protect and repair these systems see the GOOD HEALTH SOLUTIONS’ report: How To Thwart Fungal, Yeast, Viral, Bacterial & Parasitic Invaders – and Build Strong Immunity.

Molecular Sex

Throughout most of the twentieth century, the brain and its extension – the central nervous system – was thought of as an electrical communication network. Only since the 1970s has the vast and more ancient chemical brain become more observable.

The surround to each of your 100 trillion cells is studded with tiny receptors. One neuron or nerve cell may have millions of them. These function like sensors and scanners. Sitting along the cellular membrane they vibrate and wait alertly for chemical messages conveyed by ligands. These diffuse through the fluids surrounding the cell and fit into receptors’ keyholes. When the ligands dock then the chemical information they carry can enter the cell and redirect its function. This ‘mating’ process is very selective and the receptor will ignore all but the ligand it is designed to accept.

Ligands are divided into three chemical types. One of the first studied was neurotransmitters. These small molecules – such as serotonin, dopamine, and histamine – are produced in the brain from amino acids to convey information from one nerve cell to the next. Another group – steroids – includes cortisol and the sex hormones testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, which are all initially produced from cholesterol. The third type and constituting about 95% of all ligands are peptides. In the ancient development of the species, peptides were made inside cells long before there were neurons. Like all receptors, peptides are made from necklace-like strings of varying amino acids.

Neurotransmitters carry basic ‘on’ or ‘off’ instructions and yet even these have revealed a sizeable impact on mind, mood and health. Too little calmative serotonin and it is difficult to be happy, to get to sleep, to experience relaxation rather than pain in muscles. Too little stimulating dopamine and there is poor alertness and zest, interrupted sleep, and clumsiness rather than good motor control.

Peptides can function like neurotransmitters and move from neuron to neuron, but they also swim great distances through blood, brain fluid and extracellular space triggering even more complex reactions. Since breakthrough research in the early 80s, receptors and their ligands are regarded as the body’s critical mechanism for intelligent communication between neurological, endocrine, gastrointestinal and immune systems – and as a biochemical trigger for emotions.

Eat, Drink and Be Merry – Or Miserable

One of the first receptors studied was the opiate receptor, a responsive keyhole for such drugs as heroin and morphine. First isolated from pig brains was a ligand that specifically fit the opiate receptor and created a similar effect to morphine. It was termed ‘endorphin’ meaning an endogenous (self-produced) form of morphine.

A map of opiate receptors in the brain shows their concentration in areas associated with pleasure, emotion, pain and sense perception. There are also opiate receptors elsewhere in the body including on immune cells lining the gut. Like pharmaceuticals and street drugs, could foods also stimulate opiate receptors and a compulsive, even destructive urge towards intake?

Remember that the proteins in your food need to be broken down into individual amino acids. These can then be reassembled into whatever form of building material the body requires. The initial breakdown requires the action of enzymes – also made of amino acids. If digestive enzymes are low then the long chains of amino acids may only be reduced to short chain forms of peptides. Such undegraded proteins (incompletely digested) will pass through a weakened intestinal wall and onto the open motorway of the bloodstream. They can then cross into the brain and chemically orchestrate how you think and feel.

A healthy intestinal wall will not allow such intruders to pass and sends these rogue peptides for excretion through the urine. But consistent stress, pathogenic invaders, poor nutrient and enzyme levels, or unaddressed food sensitivities all encourage ‘leaky gut’ or increased intestinal permeability. Undigested molecules are viewed as dangerous invaders and can stimulate an immune response. This can be identified by the presence of antibodies that your body makes in defense against these peptides. Other reactions are not allergen-specific and cannot be measured by standard blood tests. A hair analysis from a qualified lab (be wary of wannabes) can provide a more accurate evaluation. Contact this office for a test.

Two sources of dietary protein that have the most research in regards to triggering opiate receptors are: dairy products and gluten-containing grains (wheat, rye, barley and oats). Some people are not able to adequately digest these foods and the resulting peptides affect the release of neurotransmitters, cognition (memory and learning) and mood. They may briefly reduce pain, stimulate pleasure and (by the release of dopamine) elevate alertness and a sense of reward. Such exorphins (opioids from outside sources such as food) create a pattern of food cravings and compulsive intake. Some people say they don’t have cravings but that may be because they are already ingesting their preferred ‘drug’ several times each day! When there is a state of unaddressed health issues, the brief ‘high’ of opiate receptor stimulation encourages a strong urge for repetition. Like a heroin fix for an addict, intake brings illusory reprieve but at long-term cost.

Foods As Drugs

Most adults are low in lactase, which is the enzyme needed to break down lactose or the natural sugar in milk. In addition there are numerous problematic proteins in cow’s milk such as casein. Casein breaks down into the aptly named casomorphine, which has opioid properties. Evidence of antibodies to casomorphines has been found in the brainstem of breastfed infants, revealing the transfer from mother’s milk to blood to brain. Two other opioid peptides in milk have been found to be histamine releasers – encouraging symptoms of reddening, swelling and inflammation such as associated with hay fever and rashes.

Wheat, rye, oats and barley contain various classifications of protein including prolamines and glutelins. These grains also contain a number of opioid residues such as gliadinomorphine and gluteomorphine. For some infants and adults (especially those with coeliac disease), a prolamine – gliadin – can flatten the millions of finger-like villi lining the small intestine. Villi are meant to contain digestive enzymes and without them few essential nutrients can be absorbed.

Christchurch gastroenterologist, Dr Rodney Ford, estimates that one in ten New Zealanders have some form of gluten intolerance. Some individuals will have no antibodies to gluten evident but present with conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, which remedy with the removal of gluten from the diet. Unfortunately, even with pressure from a growing number of specialists, standard blood tests currently consider only a narrow range of verifiers as proof.

The consequences to leaky gut and undegraded proteins have been associated with numerous neurological, developmental and behavioural problems in both children and adults, including epilepsy, autism, ADD, Down syndrome, poor motor control, depression and schizophrenia. For instance, several studies have found peptides with opiate activity in the urine of a high percentage of autistic children. What is incontrovertible is that diet can produce opium-like compounds that interfere with brain function and cause abnormal transmissions to the rest of the body.

How Can Ancient Staples Be Harmful?

Simple foods like bread and milk have many positive sentimental associations for most New Zealanders. In many – especially European – traditions these have been honoured as healthy basics for centuries. The modern supermarket versions may seem similar, but are they really?

Since the industrial revolution food has had more of a commercial priority than a nutritional one. Hunter-gatherers used to eat annually from a range of over 200 foods. Most urban-ites now partake largely of only 10. Farmers would commonly grow several varieties of local grain for their own use, now wheat predominates internationally. Historically there were once hundreds of types of wheat while now there are three dominant strains worldwide. These have been bred and engineered for the highest gluten content possible to ensure fluffy, high-rising products. No longer are bread dough and cake batters lengthily fermented, which makes them more digestible. Instead a long list of additives ups the speed, storage time, profit margin – and compromised digestive function.

Grains, and the grass that milking cows dine on grow on land heavily treated with agrochemicals. Dairy herds are treated with hormones to accelerate weight gain, milk production and keep lactation to a convenient industry schedule. Milk isn’t fresh, seasonal or naturally fermented. Instead it is heated over high temperatures that damage its proteins and fats, destroys its enzymes and diminishes its vitamins and minerals. Homogenisation further breaks down molecules in a way linked with a greater likelihood of inflammatory passage through the gut wall. Then natural constituents such as fat may be extracted, and other high-tech components added according to trendy concerns, rather than a true appreciation for wholesomeness. Modern foodstuffs are as distant from their original predecessors as our lifestyles are compared to ancient forbears. In contrast however, biologically we are virtually identical.

‘The natural world’ describes not just an occasional holiday destination but an inseparable matrix within which we are designed to live, eat and thrive. People on special diets are not odd. It is the modern diet that is the bizarre and dangerous oddity.

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