Yesterday, as I was rushing through a local grocery store that was one the verge of closing up for the day in pursuit of something to eat the remaining days of Easter, I was taken off guard by a craving for bread that came out of nowhere. I could feel that my body wanted some starch, preferable in the form of whole-grain rye bread. I’m not one to resist when I feel that my body really wants or needs something, so naturally, I headed towards the bread-section of the store; a section I don’t normally visit.
I was lucky (or unlucky, depending on how you look at it), in that 1 rye-containing whole bread was left in the holiday-depleted store. I grabbed and paid for the bread and headed on home. Later in the day, when I got home after having been out at night, the starch/rye-craving was still with me, so after I’d finished eating a regular meal in the form of a meaty salad coupled with a variety of cooked veggies, I took out and ate some of the bread I’d gathered on my foraging trip earlier in the day. I ate quite a bit, but not more than what it’s normal for a typical male of my size to eat in a day. Together with the bread, I had some dairy.
When I woke up this morning, I could feel that something was “off”. I felt sluggish. It almost felt like my brain was slightly drugged. I wasn’t surprised by this, seeing as I pretty much always feel that way after I’ve eaten significant quantities of grains and/or dairy foods, particularly if the foods in question are rich in either gluten or casein proteins; however, it did get me thinking. I immediately started thinking about a paper I came across not so long ago that details the brain-stimulating properties of bread and other similar grain-containing foods. Also, I remembered a talk I’d had with a good friend of mine last night about what separates the original human diet from other diets…
What happens in the brain following the consumption of bread?
To begin with, let’s have a look at the paper that I started dwelling on in my bread-stimulated state this morning. The paper I’m talking about is entitled Bread and Other Edible Agents of Mental Disease and was published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in 2016. This paragraph nicely summarizes what the paper is about:
… in all of us, bread (1) makes the gut more permeable and can thus encourage the migration of food particles to sites where they are not expected, prompting the immune system to attack both these particles and brain-relevant substances that resemble them, and (2) releases opioid-like compounds, capable of causing mental derangement if they make it to the brain. A grain-free diet, although difficult to maintain (especially for those that need it the most), could improve the mental health of many and be a complete cure for others. (1)
As you know if you’re a regular reader of this site, I’m not a fan of grains. I do acknowledge that some people, such as certain hard-training athletes and sick, immunocompromised individuals, may benefit from regularly eating some grain-containing foods; however, in general, I favor diets that contain little or no grains over diets that are heavy on grains. Part of the reason is that I – just like the researchers who penned the above paper – am concerned about the way grains affect our brain health and cognitive function. In particular gluten-containing grains such as wheat, which is especially rich in troublesome, brain-stimulating compounds, are problematic in this regard. Rice is not as big of a threat, as it isn’t as powerful with respect to its concentrations of opioid peptides; however, just like all other grains, it’s extremely rich in starch.
I don’t despise starch, but I certainly don’t think it’s a good idea to take in very large quantities of it on a regular basis. This is particularly true if one leads a sedentary lifestyle. Starch is no different from the other compounds we ingest in that the effects it has on our bodies depend on our evolved ability to digest, assimilate, and metabolize it. A starch intake that is either much lower or much higher than the intake level that our biology “expects” is likely going to be suboptimal from a health perspective.
The human brain, which is the product of a lengthy evolutionary process, did not evolve on a grain-heavy diet. It appears that natural selection hasn’t gotten around to restructuring it so that it thrives on the diet that prevailed following the Agricultural Revolution (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). This isn’t really surprising, seeing as the brain-stimulating effects of cereal grains didn’t severely impair the fitness of our postagricultural ancestors. The diet-induced selective pressures that have been imposed upon the human genome in the time that has passed since the Agricultural Revolution simply haven’t been strong enough to elicit the types of changes that are required for the human brain to operate at peak capacity on a grain-dense diet. That said, it’s important to point out that not all grain-containing foods are equally bad. Whole-grain, gluten-free traditional sourdough bread is obviously in a very different league than refined wheat bread.
The brain of the typical modern man is constantly stimulated by neurostimulatory compounds found in modern foods
If bread only made up a very small portion of the diet of the typical modern man, I wouldn’t have been particularly concerned about the fact that it contains substances that may undermine our brain health and cognitive function; however, seeing as it’s a staple component (i.e., the staff of life) of the diet in many parts of the world, I do feel that a red flag should be raised. I certainly think that we, as a society, would be wise to put more effort into elucidating how the food we eat affect our brains, seeing as our brains are the tools that we use to conduct our affairs. We need them to function well. If they don’t, we’re not able to release our full potential.
Bread obviously doesn’t pack the same power as narcotic drugs; however, it does appear to dull the senses somewhat. It stimulates our bodies in evolutionarily unprecedented ways. This is something it has in common with many other foods that have recently been brought into the human diet and brings us over to the discussion I had with my friend yesterday – the one I mentioned in the introduction to this article. The central point of that talk is that post and pre-agricultural human diets differ markedly with respects to how they affect our brains.
A substantial number of the foods that have been brought into the human diet over the most recent millennia contain compounds that are known to potently stimulate our brains. These foods include, but are not limited to, cheese (a dense source of addictive casein protein), coffee (which is rich in caffeine), chocolate (a source of neurotransmitters found in cocoa, such as anandamide, which is known to bind to cannabinoid receptors in the brain, eliciting feelings of happiness and bliss), and beer (which is made from grains, and also contains ethanol).
It appears that a substantial part of the modern human population is walking around in a somewhat “drugged”/stimulated state. Foods such as cheese, beer, chocolate, and bread are obviously not as addictive or potent as drugs such as morphine; however, they certainly aren’t harmless. I should know, seeing as I’ve fallen prey to some of them myself. For example, several years back, I was basically addicted to dark chocolate. I ate one, and sometimes even two, bars every day for a while; a habit I found very difficult to give up, because I’d started depending on a steady influx of brain-stimulating cocoa into my system.
I’m not at all surprised that a lot of people find it difficult to give up bread, chocolate, cheese, beer, and the like. I very much question the idea that the stimulating effects these foods have on our brains are somehow beneficial. I think we, as a society, would be wise to reassess our approach to nutrition and significantly reduce our consumption of foods that contain compounds that are capable of “hijacking” our brains.