Gastrointelligence: Why Comfort Food Works

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I’m sure my stomach knows best. Give me a bad day, and my gut tells me to griddle up a grilled cheese sandwich made with whatever is in the fridge: cheddar, provolone, mozzarella–I’ll even take American singles, as long as they’re melted between slices of thick-cut buttered bread. The more the cheese oozes, the better I feel.

Now, in an emerging field dubbed neurogastroenterology, scientists are finding that the stomach knows more than we give it credit for. “The gut can work independently of any control by the brain in your head–it’s functioning as a second brain,” Michael Gershon, professor of pathology and cell biology at Columbia University tells Dan Hurley in Psychology Today. The brain in your gut, called the enteric nervous system (ENS), is made up of 100 million neurons and can work on its own, without any direction from the brain. And it does more than control itself; it can control your mood, Hurley reports.

It relies on, and in many cases manufactures, more than 30 neurotransmitters, including serotonin, that are identical to those in the brain. What’s more, tinkering with the second brain in our gut has lately been shown to be a potent tool for achieving relief from major depression. Even autism, studies suggest, may be wrapped up in the neurobiology of the brain down under.

Certain foods can have a particularly strong effect on emotions, according to researchers in Belgium. So what comfort food works best to bolster our moods? Mashed potatoes? Macaroni and cheese? Mainlined ice cream sundaes? Any of these can work, as long as they contain one key ingredient: fat.

After participants in the Belgian study were fed either a saline solution or an infusion of fatty acids and then listened to neutral or melancholy music, they were interviewed and given MRI scans. Researchers found that the fatty acids activated the brain regions that regulate emotions and reduced feelings of sadness by about half.

“It’s an important demonstration that in a nonconscious way, without knowing whether you are getting the fat or the salt-water, something you put in your stomach can change your mood,” Giovanni Cizza of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases tells Hurley.

So go on and take a little solace in comfort food. As it turns out, those cravings aren’t all in your head.

Source: Psychology Today

Image by Chefdruck, licensed under Creative Commons.

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