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Eating healthy food keeps gray matter 'in pink'

(U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Grace Lee)

(U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Grace Lee)

LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. -- Eating the right foods not only affects a person's physical performance, but also the brain's performance.

Leslie Dana-Kirby, 56th Medical Operations Squadron clinical psychologist, said the human brain is responsible for all thinking, reasoning, memory, judgment and decision-making. It also controls fundamental life functions such as hunger, thirst, sleeping, breathing and temperature regulation.

As well as being the main mechanism critical to the body's survival, the brain is what makes every person diverse.

"The mind is responsible for human emotions," Dana-Kirby said. "I would argue that the brain is the most important of all the human organs, because it essentially makes you who you are."

The food choices one makes can also affect it.

"There's actually a connection between what you eat and how it can affect the brain," said Matthew Keene, 56th MDOS psychiatrist. "Certain foods can raise the levels of a neurotransmitter called serotonin. Serotonin is essentially 'happy juice' and it derives from an amino acid called tryptophan."

To make tryptophan the body does need some protein, but processed carbohydrates is what drives the tryptophan into the brain for conversion into serotonin, Keene said. While any carbohydrate can help the process, processed carbohydrates can push a lot more tryptophan into the brain at once resulting in a boost in mood.

"The boost in mood is very temporary and then comes crashing back down," Keene said. "The crash also causes energy levels to drop as well as mood, sometimes resulting in depression."

The relationship between the food one eats and how it affects the gray matter answers questions as to why some people eat more processed foods than others.

"Because some food addicts are used to constantly having high levels of serotonin, when they actually do have 'normal' levels they feel like they're low, so they binge eat frequently to get that normal feeling back," Keene said.

Additionally, foods provide essential nutrients to the brain.

"Foods provide the necessary energy to fuel intellect power," Dana-Kirby said. "They provide the building blocks for cell production and support and supply some protection against the natural decline in reasoning and memory that occurs with age."

Foods closest to their most natural form are the best to consume, Dana-Kirby said.

"Eat foods that provide antioxidants such as beans, berries and apples," Dana-Kirby said. "For amino acids, eat foods like fish, nuts and eggs and regulate your blood sugar levels by eating healthy carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains."

In addition to healthy foods, basic essentials keep the mentality healthy.

"Treat your brain like you would a good house plant," Keene said. "Get a good night's sleep; give it good food, water and sunlight."

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