Review of "Your Brain on Food: How Chemicals Control Your Thoughts and Feelings,"

By Gary L. Wenk
Oxford University Press, 2014
Review by Leo Uzych, J.D., M.P.H. on Apr 21st 2015
Your Brain on Food: How Chemicals Control Your Thoughts and Feelings,

Your Brain on Food  is a book about the brain, drugs, and foods.  The author, Gary L. Wenk, is a Professor, at the Ohio State University and Medical Center.  In a "Preface", Wenk states forthrightly that the major point he wants to make in the book is that anything a person consumes (including drugs and foods) may affect the behavior of neurons, and, subsequently, how a person thinks and feels.  Wenk further states clearly, in the Preface, that the book is intended not as an exhaustive review of everything known about the topic of food and drugs and the brain, but as a brief introduction to it.

The substance of the book, from start to finish, is notable especially for the instructively informative nature of the discourse presented expertly by Wenk, relating, substantively, to the brain, drugs, and foods.

There is a "Suggested Readings" section, placed structurally after the book's last chapter, providing citations, alphabetized by author last name, for some substantively  germane reading materials.

Some readers, it may be said, may be disappointed by the lack of research referencing of the text's body.

Additionally, there may be concern, critically, that intellectual artist Wenk, although plainly highly adept, nonetheless paints the scientific intricacies of substantive interest with a relatively broad brush.

But overall, the book as composed, substantively and stylistically, is certainly tailored well to fit a universal reading audience.

The text's body is adorned, intellectually, with some didactically very well designed "Figures".

Some quotes, drawn from eclectic sources, populate the textual body.

Here and there, snippets of anecdotal data, culled from some of Wenk's students, are inserted germanely into the body of the text.

As Chapter 1 begins, readers are alerted that the book will explore various drugs as well as a range of foods which, psychoactively, may affect the brain and behavior.  The shared evolutionary history of humans and plants garners Wenk's attention; and likewise, the evolution of the gut-brain relationship attracts the attention of Wenk.

Wenk teaches that the brain craves chemicals it "thinks" it needs to function normally.  To facilitate better understanding of how foods and drugs affect the brain, Wenk identifies several categories:  one category being composed of chemicals (for example, coffee, sugar, and heroin) consumed in high doses with acute dosing; a second category comprised of foods (including various amino acids and high glycemic index carbohydrates) that affect the brain slowly; and a third including slow-acting, lifetime dosing nutrients (such as antioxidant-rich foods and anti-inflammatory plants and drugs).

In Chapter 2, an expansive array of topics are placed under the lens of Wenk's intellectually powerful microscope.  Particularly, the intellectual eye of Wenk revealingly sights:  the metabolic syndrome; blood pH; sugar; omega-3 fatty acids; obesity; endorphins; endocannabinoids; eosinophils; Toxoplasma gondii; caloric restriction; oxygen-free radicals; polyphenols; cinnamon; and chocolate.

Particular drugs or diseases that affect the function of acetylcholine neurons, as Wenk discourses at the start of Chapter 3, may potentially affect brain and bodily functions.  Inside this frame, Wenk looks closely at:  Alzheimer's disease; choline; botulinum toxin; curare; atropine; scopolamine; voodoo; arecoline; muscarine; and nicotine (described by Wenk as the most addictive drug used currently by humans).

Wenk teaches the basic neuroscience of dopamine and norepinephrine, in Chapter 4.  Tentacles of discerning discourse reach to:  amphetamine; ecstasy; ephedrine; khat; mescaline; nutmeg; cocaine; and psychosis.

Hallucinogens garner the rapt attention of Wenk, in Chapter 5.  LSD, psilocybin, and bufotenine fall within the ken, of Wenk.  The area of serotonin  and religiosity is also spotted by Wenk.

Marijuana centric discourse forms the substantive cynosure, of Chapter 6.  Wenk traces some of the historical lineaments of cannabis.  The discourse ranges farther afield to endocannabinoids.  And there is didactic comment about marijuana in the context of treating migraines, and also with regard to the treatment of psychic pain.

In Chapter 7, readers learn that glutamate is the principal excitatory amino acid neurotransmitter; and that GABA is the principal inhibitory amino acid neurotransmitter.  As the chapter unfolds, Wenk substantively adds much flesh to the bones of glutamate and GABA.  The intellectually bright flashlight of Wenk also brightly illumines alcohol, barbiturates, and benzodiazepines.

Neuropeptides are on centerstage, as Chapter 8 commences.  As the chapter progresses, Wenk studies the area of opiates, specifically sighting laudanum, morphine, codeine, and heroin.

The neurotransmitter adenosine rises to the fore, of penultimate Chapter 9.  Caffeinated coffee, described by Wenk as an adenosine receptor antagonist, collects considerable expert comment.  The discussion further encompasses decaffeinated coffee as well as tea.

Finally, in concluding Chapter 10, Wenk gamely tackles the area of brain enhancement.  In the critically blunt judgment of Wenk, no treatments are available currently that can reverse normal aging; it is impossible, in Wenk's view, to enhance the function of a normal brain, as it ages.  Wenk further opines, critically, that, concerning clinical trials pertaining to plant extracts, there is a lack of research unanimity, because of various methodological problems.  Concerning multivitamin-mineral daily supplements, Wenk teaches that numerous studies have found little or no long lasting benefits from taking them.  However, concerning the placebo effect, the conclusion of Wenk is that the placebo effect is real, although it is not understood entirely how it works.

The body of clinical and medical research findings, relevant to the brain, drugs, and foods, continues to grow.

Wenk's intellectually impressive contribution  to this burgeoning field, as embodied in this book, should be quite edifying to lay readers, and professionally very rewarding, as well, to medical scientists and clinicians.


© 2015 Leo Uzych


Leo Uzych (based in Wallingford, PA) earned a law degree, from Temple University; and a master of public health degree, from Columbia University.  His area of special professional interest is healthcare.  Twitter @LeoUzych


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