Neuroplasticity, Behavior, and Dietary Intake — Rewiring the Brain for Better or Worse
What we think, do, say, and eat has the ability to change our brain processes and structures — a process called neuroadaptation (see Diet and Brain and Diet and Cognition in the CNP Research Libraries). These adaptations can influence the long-term rewiring of our brain circuitry. In this post, we explore two different actions that many of us engage in that can influence the development of neuroadaptations in our brain. Becoming aware of these actions can support us in influencing these adaptations to work in our favor.
Within psychology and neuroscience, the term “neuroplasticity” is used to describe how the brain changes and adapts in response to experience. Dr. Micheal Merzenich, a neuroscientist at The University of California in San Francisco explains it like this: “Your experiences, behaviors, thinking habits, thought patterns, and ways of reacting to the world are inseparable from how your brain wires itself.” (Science explains what happens to someone’s brain from complaining every day, 2020).
“Your experiences, behaviors, thinking habits, thought patterns, and ways of reacting to the world are inseparable from how your brain wires itself.”
Let’s explore an example of how what we say and do can result in changes to our brain — take, for example, the act of verbally complaining. Although everyone complains now and then, when we express dissatisfaction or annoyance about something frequently, we can fall into a habitual pattern that results in neuroadaptations in our brain and the rewiring of our brain circuitry.
A study from Stanford University found that just 30 minutes of complaining or even just hearing someone complain, could result in changes to the brain’s structure and function (Pisano, n.d.). As Donald Hebb, a Canadian psychologist known for his work in neuropsychology, states, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” This means that the more you complain, or think negatively, the more you strengthen those synapses between neurons, creating a vicious cycle that can be hard to break (Pisano, n.d.).
“Neurons that fire together, wire together.”
Given that our brain reinforces pathways that are often used (whether supportive or not), do we have any influence in encouraging more positive neuroadaptations and making neuroplasticity work in our favor? In 2017, Dr. Barbara Fredrickson and her colleagues at the University of North Carolina showed that people who meditate daily tend to have more positive emotions than those who do not. Interestingly enough, meditation has also been shown to strengthen the insula — the part of the brain responsible for Interoception (Sharp et al., 2018). Within Nutritional Psychology, interoceptive awareness plays a key role in developing our ability to monitor our internal states in relation to the foods we eat (more about this can be found in Introduction to Nutritional Psychology Methods (NP 110).
Just like evidence reveals the impact of frequent complaining on our brain, evidence shows that eating a Western-style dietary intake pattern influences changes to both brain structures (Jacka et al., 2015) and functions (Stevenson et al., 2020). One such area is the hippocampus (Attuquayefio et al., 2017) which is the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory.
The western-style dietary pattern results in changes to brain processes and structures in numerous areas of the brain.
While consuming highly palatable foods (those high in salt, sugar, and/or processed oils) can result in neuroadaptations that negatively influence brain function and structure, consuming unprocessed nutrient-dense and diverse foods daily, like fresh (or even canned or frozen) vegetables, fruits, high-quality proteins and healthy fats (the kinds found in olive oil, avocados, and nuts), can result in the opposite — a processed called neurogenesis* which involves the proliferate of new neurons and other resident brain cells (Poulose et al., 2017) (Otsuka, et al., 2021).
As we can see, both psychological and dietary factors can influence our brain structure and function, and the resulting neuroadaptations can influence our functioning positively, or negatively. At the end of the day, it is up to us as individuals to steer them in a favorable direction, whether that be through consciously choosing a nutrient-dense diet, maintaining a positive mindset when life events don’t go our way, or engaging in mindfulness techniques.
*Dietary components such as curcumin, resveratrol, blueberry polyphenols, sulforaphane, polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), and diets enriched with polyphenols, have been shown to induce neurogenesis in adult brains (Poulose et al., 2017)
Attuquayefio, T., Stevenson, R. J., Oaten, M. J., & Francis, H. M. (2017). A four-day Western-style dietary intervention causes reductions in hippocampal-dependent learning and memory and interoceptive sensitivity. PloS one, 12(2), e0172645. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0172645Fredrickson, B. L., Boulton, A. J., Firestine, A. M., Van Cappellen, P., Algoe, S. B., Brantley, M. M., Kim, S. L., Brantley, J., & Salzberg, S. (2017). Positive Emotion Correlates of Meditation Practice: A Comparison of Mindfulness Meditation and Loving-kindness Meditation. Mindfulness, 8(6), 1623–1633. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-017-0735-9
Jacka, F. N., Cherbuin, N., Anstey, K. J., Sachdev, P., & Butterworth, P. (2015). Western diet is associated with a smaller hippocampus: a longitudinal investigation. BMC medicine, 13, 215. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-015-0461-x
Otsuka, R., Nishita, Y., Nakamura, A., Kato, T., Iwata, K., Tange, C., Tomida, M., Kinoshita, K., Nakagawa, T., Ando, F., Shimokata, H., & Arai, H. (2021). Dietary diversity is associated with longitudinal changes in hippocampal volume among Japanese community dwellers. European journal of clinical nutrition, 75(6), 946–953. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41430-020-00734-zPisano, T. (n.d.). Complaining is Bad for your Brain! M1 Psychology. https://m1psychology.com/complaining-is-bad-for-your-brain/
Poulose, S. M., Miller, M. G., Scott, T., & Shukitt-Hale, B. (2017). Nutritional Factors Affecting Adult Neurogenesis and Cognitive Function. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.), 8(6), 804–811. https://doi.org/10.3945/an.117.016261
Science explains what happens to someone’s brain from complaining every day. (2020, July 8). Power of Positivity: Positive Thinking & Attitude. https://www.powerofpositivity.com/complaining-changes-brain-anxious-depressed-research/?fbclid=IwAR0fXxg_NqwWZQAz_d3SkPO3EeE8hTdHnOgdOdFS5WW2o7toZpuwTN55x_k
Sharp, P.B., Sutton, B.P., Paul, E.J. et al. Mindfulness training induces structural connectome changes in insula networks. Sci Rep 8, 7929 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-26268-w
Stevenson, R., Francis, H., Attuquayefio, T., Gupta, D., Yeomans, M., Oaten, M., & Davidson, T. (2020) Hippocampal-dependent appetitive control is impaired by experimental exposure to a Western-style diet. Royal Society open science, 7 (2).