Professor Gary Wenk – Surprising Similarities Between Food and Drugs

Read the Transcript

Jonathan: Hey everyone, Jonathan Bailor back with another bonus Smarter Science of Slim podcast. Very excited about today’s show. We have a fellow Buckeye with us. He is a professor of psychology, neuroscience, and molecular virology, immunology and medical genetics at the Ohio State University, Buckeyes and Medical Center. He is the author of Your Brain on Food and he is also the author of a wildly popular Psychology Today blog, Professor Gary Wenk, welcome to the show.

Gary: Thank you very much Jonathan. Thanks for the invitation to be here. I looked forward to it.

Jonathan: Gary you are known for very, very profound work on the impact that chemicals have on our brain, certainly people interested in food have not got into the mix because they say “Food is like chemicals, it must have an impact on the brain.” Can you tell us a bit about your work just from macro perspective?

Gary: Well sure. I got into studying the effects of nutrients on the brain when I was a graduate student, oh so many years ago and essentially I began by looking at things like metals that people are consuming and I have noticed that they had some profound effects on brain function, brain chemistry and so, I have been really since that time continuing with that line of research. I have researched today is an investigation of brain age and I have been trying to find ways to either reverse it, slow it down or at least have some impact that gives people a longer sort of better quality of life into their 50s, 60s, and 70s. That is why I have been focusing so much on using nutrients and treated them as chemicals and trying to find some way to slow the aging process.

Jonathan: I want to cover two things in the remainder of out time together because there is so much we could cover, one is actually what you found in terms of how we can slow down brain age, but before we get there, I wanted to have you on the show because I think you, may be more than anyone else, can speak to what I perceive as a false dichotomy between drugs and food. It seems there may be more similarity there than most people think.

Gary: Absolutely and I would like make analogies between things that people are very familiar with and I have been teaching ‘Drugs and the Brain’ course to undergraduates here at OSU and at other universities where I worked and it helps to point that out, but you got to sneak up on that realization. You just cannot tell somebody they can become addicted to sugar using the exact same brain pathways that they might become addicted to heroin, it is like “oh my God, it can’t be true,” but when you sort of sneak around corner on that logic and you point out to them, let us look at how the things that you are eating are affecting how you feel and that leads to sort of a bigger understanding that food effects how my brain works as any other chemical would in three different ways.

First, food tends to have very abrupt changes on how you are thinking and feeling. For example, coffee for many people is considered a food, for others it is a drug, it is a chemical though and I like to have my students view themselves as a big bag of chemicals and it is like a soup and you have thrown a dash of salt, you have thrown a dash of pepper while you have thrown a dash of caffeine, you have thrown a dash sugar, all those things affect how you feel and your overall health and their effects tend to be very immediate and then I talked about the long sort of intermediate things that they are eating and drugs that that are taking, point out the similarities that sometimes you may find that if you are not getting enough vitamin A or B or something you might not feel well, you might not have the energy.

If you are not getting certain metals or carbohydrates, you might notice you are a little drowsy. If you get too much, you might feel little overly wired. So, everyone has had those experiences with foods. They have also had them with drugs. They know what it feels like when they have been smoking marijuana everyday and how they are little fuzzier as the week goes on or when they stop taking their antidepressant, their SSRI. So, the way the chemicals affect their brain in a sort of period of weeks or months, this is same sort of pattern they see in the way that the things that they are eating affect how they feel from day-to-day as well and then finally, there are the long-term changes that foods and drugs have on us.

For example, we know that men who eat dark chocolate everyday tend to live longer than men who don’t eat dark chocolate, all things being equal. We also know that people who take statins to lower their blood cholesterol live longer than people who don’t. We know that individuals who were smoking marijuana back in the 1960s and 1970s today are not getting Alzheimer’s at the rate they were. We know that people who smoke cigarettes don’t get Parkinson’s disease as often as other people. So, chemical in those plants; tobacco, marijuana, or coffee grains and so forth, beans, and also the nutrients that people are eating day-to-day, they know they are going to effect how they age and by looking at the epidemiology, we can point things out and say ‘see how that chemical and that plant that one person calls a drug, another person calls a nutrient have effects on how you age.’

By looking at the epidemiology and interviewing people, asking them, “Sir you are 100 years old and you’re not demented, what did you do differently?” we are gaining lot of insight in how chemicals that people view as either drugs or nutrients and for everyone that definition is a little blurry sometimes do effect how we age and how our brain changes with aging.

Jonathan: Professor Wenk, in the mainstream, if we knew just how similar “drugs” and “food” are sitting in most peoples mind there is a very clear dividing line, but as you have said and if you dig into the neurobiology that line becomes very blurry, very quickly if we knew on a mass scale how similar drugs and food were, what do you think we would do differently as a society?

Gary: That question is actually quite profound because the basis of that question is why we have certain drugs today that are legal and certain drugs that are illegal. We have all heard the comparisons between marijuana and alcohol and I have had a number of students bring this up that look at marijuana is nowhere near as harmful as alcohol in terms of liver function toxicity and the science unfortunately has nothing to do with society’s laws. The FDA’s view in that particular example is that one chemical, the one from the plant marijuana, is illegal whereas alcohol, we know how dangerous it is, is legal. Their attitude is that once something is out of Pandora’s Box, you can never put it back in.

So, if one day we decided that all drugs, chemicals, foods should only be considered on how toxic they are, how helpful they might be, what would change is that we would have to outlaw alcohol and make marijuana legal. We would have to outlaw aspirin because it is so toxic to the gut; it has many toxic side effects in the liver. We probably have to outlaw chocolate because it has so many psychoactive ingredients in it. Goofy things like this would start happening when we really recognize the reality of how nutrients that we extract from plants that we eat that affect us in ways that we like versus those that affect us in ways that we just simply enjoy like alcohol or psychoactive compounds or affect us in ways that are quite toxic, they are all chemicals, they act in us in ways that are beneficial and harmful depending upon dose and other factors. Well then you have to realign what we are calling safe and make some things now that are legal and available, illegal.

You saw what happened in the ‘20s with prohibition, that didn’t work out. We fear now that if you make something legal, take it out of Pandora’s Box you can never put it back and that’s the FDA’s viewpoint. Another great example is nicotine. The FDA is well aware that it kills many people. It kills approximately in the US 2,000 people a day that’s the same thing that happened on September 11, when the planes flew into the skyscrapers. Well, no one notices all those deaths because they die individually one at a time at local hospitals, not on the evening news. So, if we recognize that tobacco is dangerous and make it illegal which any government, any Republican/Democratic Congress could have done, but if we change the rules and drugs and chemicals and nutrients are only judged on their properties, we have to make tobacco illegal. Well, the FDA won’t do that because we recognize that it is toxic.

We recognize that people are going to die and if everyone stopped smoking today, we would have to move back retirement age by another 6 or 7 years immediately. The planned death related to some uses is built into our culture. So, it would become a mesh, things would become very complicated for a while and the consequences financially would be immense as well. The United States makes a lot of money by selling tobacco to the rest of the world. It is one of our major food exports or chemical exports you could say, so that would change. I think that’s why you have never seen it happen. I don’t think we will see it happen in our life’s time that we will say “Let’s base the decision on the fact that all chemicals can be either good or bad, nutritious or not, let’s only judge them under its safety,” it would make a mess of things.

Jonathan: Gary, that is profound and it just got my head spinning up in jotting notes down and you finally gave legs to something that I have not been able to articulate hopefully up until this point which hopefully, I articulated well, which is people get amped up about, like we know sugar and just all other profoundly horrible things refined added sugar does to people from a neurological perspective as well as from just an endocrinological perspective and then people say well it is a “slippery slope” because if you start regulating sugar what are you going to do next and blah-blah and I was always like, yes that’s bad but it seems like we are already doing that and the reason I was thinking in those terms is may be the question is if we are talking about things that we put in our body, anything you put in your body causes things to happen.

Like if you put it in your body, something happens and we have artificially classified things you put in your body in different categories, but if we were to just say is it reasonable to regulate things you put in your body as a society, we’ve said “yes” and we’ve then drawn an artificial line between this class of things you put in your body is okay to regulate and this class of things you put in your body is not and what is so profound about your research and the research of many other individuals is that as that line becomes blurry that distinction becomes meaningless, like if it is in your body and it is causing neurological changes, that is one class of things, I don’t care how inconvenience it is, let’s quote Al Gore here, ‘that’s inconvenient truth’ and we should probably understand it and live according to it. What do you think?

Gary: I think you’ve actually summarized it beautifully. It is almost “consumer beware” and that’s really the way we do it with most of our over-the-counter drugs. I love to use chocolate as an example because it always surprises people both how beneficial and harmful it can be. After my book came out, I was contacted by a woman who suffers with a relatively rare disorder that most affects women called “chocolate anger” where the aggregate effect, no single compound in chocolate does this, but it is the aggregate effect of all the chemicals in that plant, the cocoa powder, that produces in some vulnerable individuals, so in this case she needs to be aware, an anxiety and anger that in her case has almost gotten her fired a few times.

So what she does this is simply avoid that chemical; to her, it is a powerful drug that is risking her happiness or job whereas for other people it is a wonderful joyful experience. So, you can see that for one person powerful chemical, dangerous chemical, for others very, very different and as I mentioned before for men it is a life-altering drug because you will live longer if you eat more chocolate. It is the same thing with coffee. Coffee, if you drink five cups a day your chances of getting Parkinson’s disease go down 85%, I would call that a drug, but most of us never see it that way. So, you are right, every person is going to have to ask themselves what is the risk of eating or consuming this chemical, be it food or nutrient or drug whatever we want to call it, whatever name we want to give it, it doesn’t matter, what is it going to do to me and so this is why some of the services where they genotype you and tell you, you are going to be sensitive to caffeine or you are not going to be sensitive to be caffeine and so forth, you get information. That’s the future. We are all probably going to know that chocolate is good for me, chocolate is bad for me.

Cigarettes are good for me, they are not. We know that people who smoke cigarettes don’t get Parkinson’s as often. Let me give you a great way to view cigarettes. Cigarette smoke is one of the most powerful, heavy metal chelators that people expose themselves to anywhere in the world. So, if you view it that way, you can take a nice deep breath of cigarette smoke and blow off all those awful toxic heavy metals and “oh my God, give me another puff of smoke because it is going to make me healthier.” That’s true because it does chelate heavy metals and if you happen to be vulnerable to them or you work in an environment where there is lots of heavy metals, you eat them in your diet, you might want to smoke to get them out of your body, but no doctor is ever going to recommend that, but you might decide it is good for you or you might decide that wearing a nicotine patch is good for you because nicotine as a chemical is very neuroprotective.

It rescues cells from things that age them and kills them. We know that, we can prove in test tubes and animals. We can see it in the epidemiology, but no one is going to recommend you go out and smoke some cigarettes unless may be you need the protection that they are going to offer you. So if you begin to view all chemicals, nutrients as just simple things, molecules that once they are in your body, are going to do things you want, things you don’t want, you chose, weigh it against your genetics and then decide what to ingest. That’s the future I think where we stop labeling things. We just take them for what they value or risks that they have.

Jonathan: Gary, it is truly a transformational paradigm and it gets back to also another, it seems like false distinction between their side effects, like there are no such things as side effects, there are just effects. You put something in your body and things happen and that’s not really even controversial, you can study it in the laboratory setting and you can say when I do this, this happens, we understand that. The question as you have said is now; are the benefits outweighing the cost of that substance and it does, it begs, it is transformational because I don’t think any parent would give their child something they knew caused neurological damage, but when we have an industry like a food industry which has absolutely no control.

I am not saying we should comment and regulate everything, but we do not allow the sale of heroin in schools, I think most people would think that that is probably a good thing. If we start to see that there are substances in our grocery store shelves that do things shockingly similar to heroin, and we not only allow but encourage the sale of that in schools, that seems wrong. May be I am missing something, but it seems wrong to me.

Gary: I would agree with you, but there is a lovely “slippery slope” with your example. If we were to outlaw any source of heroin, we would have to ban nursing by all mammals because one of the things we discovered is that those brain heroin receptors are there, so that the very first day a mammal nurses, they take mother’s milk, in their gut and in yours and mine as well, milk protein is converted into an opioid-like heroin compound that gets into the brain of a newborn, not in us, because the blood got barrier, but if you are 1-day-old and you are nursing, you get a lopping dose of heroin which says to your brain “Come back here tomorrow, this nipple is wonderful,” that’s why it is there.

We would never abuse opioid plants, opium if it weren’t for that receptor that evolved in our brains, to partly reward us for nursing. So you can see what are we going to make illegal if we outlaw cows to protect us from their heroin in their udders, life gets little weird. So, this is the challenge we have because these chemicals are so pervasive in nature and why are they pervasive because we share an evolutionary history with them on this planet. So, there are so many things in plants and animals that affect us that are psychoactive that affect our health and either good or bad that it becomes almost mind-boggling to avoid them or find them in the right balance, but as we learn more about these things, we are going to be able to help educate the general population and say you know what this is why when you eat chocolate you become angry or when you eat this, you feel better and so forth.

We are getting to that point, we are unpacking the mysteries, but it won’t be acceptable. People are not going to listen until they realize that everything you put into your body, as you just stated so beautifully, will affect your body and your brain and if you keep doing it, your very plastic brain will adjust to it and say “I love sugar, I want sugar tomorrow, I want sugar the next day.” Fats, the same way and chemical companies that are designing flavors are just they are responding to our demands and related to that last year, it was discovered that we now have on our tongue something we never thought was there, a specific receptor for fat, the taste of fat, we didn’t believe that existed.

Well now that we found the receptor, these flavor companies are going to target it, you are going to be able to taste the fat in fake bacon, the fat in fake pastries unlike you have never tasted them before. All of a sudden, they are going to have mayonnaise that’s fake, that is going to taste like the real stuff and it will go on and on. You can see what is coming in the next year or two. We are going to be blown away by flavors we never thought we could experience on our tongues. Those are just chemicals, but they make us believe that it is fat and it is going to taste creamy and wonderful. That’s where we are going. If you can’t tell that chemicals are nutrients and psychoactive drugs and they are good and bad now, we are going to get a great demonstration during the next year.

Jonathan: Professor Wenk, it is certainly a complicated issue and I think it is very fair to bring up the “slippery slope” and I think it is actually wonderful to look at the slippery slope from both perspective because I think we often times, myself included, jump to… we live in America, we are about freedom and we start to hear about controlling things, etc. We say “oh you are taking my freedom away,” there is a “slippery slope” there. The key thing to understand about slippery slope arguments at least in my experience is you can always argue them both directions.

So yes, there is a slippery slope in terms of regulation, but it seems that we are also experiencing the slippery slope of non-regulation right now, what you just described is amazing and it is an example of the slippery slope of if you go and you ask an 8-year-old, what they put in their body, it is like what they say, what they eat, what they do, the fact that we have 40 million children under the age of 5 worldwide who are overweight, the fact that the incidence of diabetes is now 100,000% more common than it was 100 years ago seems to suggest that the slippery slope of allowing food corporations to do whatever the hell they want to whoever they want, whenever they want, that is also a slippery slope and it seems that it is an unsustainable model, what do you think?

Gary: I think you are right on, it is unsustainable. We have seen now that we have gone too far, but the problem is we are capitalistic society. People will make money by selling you fat, salt, and sugar and our brain evolved to seek out those three things that we abuse the most because high caloric sweet things and salty things do not occur easily in nature, so our evolving ancestors did not bump into them that often. So our brain says “Whenever you find fat, salt, and sugar, I want you to eat all of it to completion” and so this is why smorgasbords and buffets, if we are standing by, we will even eat food, this has been shown recently, that is putrid and is unhealthy looking, if we are defending it from others and if it is sweet.

So our brains pushes to do things our bodies tell us not to all the time and we see that when you are 8-years-old and you cannot make that judgment, you just eat what you are fed and your brain rewards you and says “Thank you for the fat, salt, and sugar; go get more” because that is what our brain has evolved to do, it has huge survival value and it sells a lot of products. If you look at the things that we tell young kids to avoid, it is always fat, salt, and sugar. They are not out there abusing high proteins and starches as much except for maybe french fries, but that is the problem. We have slipped too far in the direction because it makes too many people money. This same thing could be said for alcohol and tobacco.

It makes a lot of money for the US economy and for individuals and we are addicted to it because our brain is addicted to those things because it is how our brain evolved. Same thing is true for heroin, it just isn’t as easy to come by, you don’t find heroin in a vending machine, but you can find fat, salt, and sugar easily and we respond to it using exact same biological pathways in our brain. If you view heroin and sugar in the same sentence, you will realize that you got to treat them both with care and caution, but when I published a blog on this, the Psychology Today blog, some of the responses were that “That’s outrageous; you can’t compare sugar to heroin” because people do not want to hear that. Heroin is a dangerous thing used by bad people and sugar is something that is delicious and cereal but they are the same from the brain standpoint.

Jonathan: Professor Wenk, may be one thing that I found to be somewhat effective because I get the exact same thing is for example, if you want to eat sugarcane, like literally chew on a sugarcane, that’s probably okay and when we talk about, the point I am getting to is, there is dose dependency and when we talk about like heroin and cocaine, we are taking certain substances and concentrating them down into a pharmaceutical form that has a profoundly different effect than if we were to just eat them as they exist in nature and when we, I think, when you and I talk about sugar, we are not talking about like strawberries at like heroin, we are saying when you take sugar and you concentrate it down into pharmaceutical doses then yes it is just like anything else you dose pharmaceutically and isolate, that’s what we are talking about, is that fair?

Gary: It is fair and it is true, we do concentrate them because the idea is that these chemical companies, the drug companies, the flavor companies they want you to have a very ephemeral, but yet profoundly rewarding experience, meaning it hits your tongue, you get a blast of flavor, you have heard the commercials, and then it goes away quickly, so that you want another right away, one is never enough. Yes, that’s why they concentrate it to get that very brief, but very intense stimulation. The comparison is in chocolate, back to that again, people enjoy chocolate, why?

One of the ingredients in chocolate is amphetamine-like compound, another ingredient in chocolate is a marijuana-like compound, which is why you want to make it illegal like away and we know that people if you ate enough it would be a similar experience to eating marijuana or doing some crack or something, but no one ever eats enough of it, you cannot get enough in your body, you would never eat that much chocolate.

The dosage are too low, so we tend to be more tempered, more measured in how many pieces of chocolate we eat, but piece of candy, sugar, something very salty or very fatty, we just keep eating them, like potato chips, “my God that’s a beautiful thing” and especially if you throw some chocolate on it or a little sugar coating like popcorn with salt and sugar on it, people just eat that like it is heroin and so they sell a lot of these kettle corns for that reason because it is the perfect blend of fat, salt, and sugar. Yes, you nailed it. It has been refined to so that the oral experience is just supremely perfect, so that you keep going back for more and more.

Jonathan: Professor Wenk, to empower our listeners, because obviously this is shocking and new information for a lot of people, but just to empower our listeners to make the change necessary to enable their lives and the lives of their children to be as vibrant and healthy as possible, it seems that one of the reasons, for example, most parents don’t give their children cigarettes is because they understand that smoking cigarettes causes lasting damage and if you start smoking cigarettes it becomes harder to stop, so they are addictive and their effects are permanent or close to permanent. Have your studies shown that these edible products display similar characteristics in the sense that it is not just “oh it is a treat and they are kids so they can handle it.” Is it predisposing them to an addiction to craving more of it for the rest of their life and is it leading to or causing damage which is not ephemeral or effects in the body that are negative and are not ephemeral, but are lasting?

Gary: The short answer is yes, but there are those caveats, a lot of that data comes from epidemiological studies, the mechanistic connections where you connect point A to point B, those are tough to do with human children, because you have to wait so long to see the consequences, but we are aware that the brain is very plastic at that age and an imbalance the nutrients in the presence of certain chemicals, many of them can get into brain very easily because the blood-brain barrier is not intact. So, they are more vulnerable, especially during the first two years of life, so we warn new mothers about that or certain things, “Don’t give them too much caffeine, it might make them irritable, don’t give them too much fill in the blank.” One of things that we have noticed as the cause and effect is monosodium glutamate (MSG).

That chemical is actually, I use in the lab as a neurotoxin, it is a very selective chemical tool that will kill neurons and our concern now is that when children eat foods that do tend to contain MSG as a flavor, just as an example, it gets into the brain across the blood-brain barrier and it does damage feeding neurons, neurons in feeding centers and we see that that does lead to obesity. So, that’s a one-to-one connection. We don’t have many of those. What we have from other studies in terms of additives, colorants and so forth is that there seemed to be indirect evidences that they can produce changes in the behavior of the child over the long term.

Sugar is a nice example, the brain can only use sugar for energy, it cannot easily use fats or proteins for energy, so that’s why when you wake up in the morning, you want a donut, you want something that has a high glycemic value like a bagel or bread like on toast or sugar in your coffee. There is a reason that all those coffee shops, Dunkin’ Donuts and Tim Hortons are out there, we want them there. Our brain says “Go get the sugar, it is the only thing I need right now since you have been fasting for the past 8 or 10 hours not eating.”

So that’s why we chose sugar in the morning, that’s why children chose it in the morning, it’s your brain saying “Go get it, I want that particular item,” but it is also addicting because it releases indigenous opioids, it releases indigenous marijuana like compounds and tells you brain “Thank you, we really like that, go get some more,” so yes, we are in a way condemning our young children to a life of obesity by giving them these things when the brain is young, it adapts, is plastic and it gets used to it, it considers the presence of lots of sugar and fat to be normal and when that normal is disturbed, it demands more.

Jonathan: Certainly something we should think about folks because again it is not obviously…food is wonderful and the right kinds of foods are the most glorious thing we can do for our health, but when we start to understand that what we put in our body is just information then that changes things a bit and that’s why we need to take this seriously and that’s why we need people like Professor Gary Wenk to help do the profound research that frankly, Dr. Wenk, I think is transformative and so empowering. So, I do appreciate all the work you have been doing.

Gary: Thank you very much, thanks for having me as a guest.

Jonathan: Professor Wenk. It has been an absolute pleasure and folks if you want to learn about his work, please hop over to Psychology Today. He has a wonderful blog called Your Brain on Food. Again, his name is Dr. Gary Wenk, PhD. His last name is spelled W-E-N-K. He also has a book called Your Brain on Food and he is a professor at Ohio State, so that makes him awesome on top of everything. Dr. Wenk it has been a pleasure and listeners I hope you enjoyed today’s show as much as I did and please remember, this week and every week after; eat smarter, exercise smarter, and live better. Talk with you soon.