Behavior results from the complex interplay between genes and environment. Our genes predispose us to how we act and feel, by influencing how our brain develops and functions. This way, certain genetic variants in our genome increase the risk of developing mental health problems (while others may decrease this risk). Whether someone actually develops a mental health disorder or not, depends on many other factors in our environment, such as stressors and experiences. Nonetheless, studying these genetic risk factors for mental health conditions is an important aspect of understanding these disorders.

As an example of such research, we have now identified several genetic risk factors that contribute to cocaine dependence. For this we combined genetic data from a lot of studies, including more than 6000 individuals. What’s even more interesting is that we found that the genetic variants that are related to cocaine dependence are correlated with the genetic risk factors for other conditions such as ADHD, schizophrenia and major depression. What this means is that certain small variations in DNA increase the risk for not just cocaine dependence, but actually several psychiatric conditions. Probably, there is a common biological mechanism that underlies all these conditions. Thanks to our genetic research, we are now only a small step closer towards unraveling these mechanisms.

We also wrote a blog post explaining our research findings. You can read it here: https://mind-the-gap.live/2019/07/04/cocaine-dependence-is-in-part-genetic-and-it-shares-genetic-risk-factors-with-other-psychiatric-conditions-and-personality-traits/

The original publication can be found here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278584619301101?via%3Dihub

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Probably the best known example on how the brain and mental health are linked to nutrition and our gut, and the one that we can all identify ourselves with, is stress. We all know it: studying 24/7 for an important exam, pressure in the job or even a house full of work. We have no time to think and – no – we definitely don’t have time to cook. But at the same time we are constantly hungry, craving for a snack. The fastest solution? The next best, nicest looking, edible piece of food we can find.

But why do we change our dietary habits during stress and what happens in our body? What are the consequences and what can we do to avoid this impulsive eating behavior?

A study from Yau and Potenza in 2013 states that about 20% of the population do not change their eating behavior during stress (good for them), while about 40% decrease and another 40% increase their caloric intake. But besides simply increasing the amount of food we consume, we also tend to choose more pleasurable and palatable food when we’re stressed. This usually leads to the consumption of unhealthy and calorie-dense foods, which unfortunately results in gaining weight (at least for most of us).

Stress can have many different causes, ranging from physical stressors like severe illnesses to emotional stressors such as the loss of a loved one. So far, it is known that acute and severe stressors tend to suppress appetite, which results from our evolutionary conserved ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction (Adams und Epel, 2007). On the other hand, lighter – but therefore often chronic – stressors (occurring on a daily basis) seem to increase our appetite, especially towards energy-dense foods. These two roughly categorized types of stress activate two different systems in our body, causing different stress responses:

  • Acute stressors activate the sympathetic adrenal medullary system
  • Chronic stressors activate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal [HPA] axis (Torres & Nowson, 2007)

The sympathetic adrenal medullary system induces the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline. These are the ones increasing our heart rate right before we have to give a talk in front of a huge audience, while they, at the same time, reduce our drive to eat or even make us want to throw up… On the opposite side, the HPA-axis, activated by daily stressors, leads to the release of cortisol. And, cortisol can have some unwanted effects.

This hormone is known to stimulate our appetite by affecting our reward system, in a very similar way as alcohol and drugs affect this system. In the case of chronic stress, chocolate or chips can have the same effects as drugs: they make us feel better for a short amount of time. This “positive” feeling, that might reduce our stress level for a few moments, reinforces the consumption of sweets later on, thereby resulting in some kind of dependence. But as in all cases of addictions, this repeated stimulation of the reward system can lead to an adaptation, eventually increasing this compulsive behavior.

Knowing now that in some strange ways it is our body that makes us crave burgers and pizza in times of stress, what can we do to avoid gaining weight?

Well, the first thing is: listen to your body and try to understand what is going on. Ask yourself why you are stressed and if there is anything you can do to reduce it, like taking more breaks during the day. If this is not possible, try to find other ways to compensate: take walks, do more exercise, find something else that makes you feel better at the end of the day, besides that tasty chocolate donut and popcorn. Before snacking, hesitate and ask yourself if you are really hungry or just eating because you feel like it. And if you absolutely can’t resist, try to substitute the chocolate bar with healthier snacks, like dried fruits or nuts.

But finally, keeping all that in mind, don’t forget that food is not always your enemy and there is no problem with eating what you desire as long as it is in moderation.

REFERENCES:
Yau, Yvonne H. C.; Potenza, Marc N. (2013). Stress and Eating Behaviors. Minerva Endocrinol, 38(3): 255–267. Link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24126546

Adam, Tanja C.; Epel, Elissa S. (2007). Stress, eating and the reward system. Physiology & Behavior 91, 449–458. DOI: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2007.04.011

Torres, Susan J.; Nowson, Caryl A. (2007). Relationship between stress, eating behavior, and obesity. Nutrition Volume 23, Issues 11–12, Pages 887-894. DOI: 10.1016/j.nut.2007.08.008

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Cigarette smoking may give immediate pleasure but is dangerous for your health. Smoking may be seen as a way to deal with feelings like anxiety and stress and may be viewed as a way of coping with everyday life. Smoking a cigarette may also be used as a reward, and as part of a celebration of big and small victories. But what happens to your mental well-being if you quit smoking?

Smoke cessation is one of the best things, if not the best, you can do for your health! Smoking is ranked as the second leading cause of death by a body called “the Global Burden of Disease 2017 Risk Factor Collaborators”.1 Quitting smoking lowers your risk of cardiovascular diseases and your risk of cancer. 2 But does this come at a price concerning your mental health – how is that impacted by quitting smoking?

A systematic review of 26 studies assessing mental health before and after smoking cessation found that quitting was associated with mental health benefits. 3 Assessment of mental health were made both in the general population and in clinical populations, including persons with physical or psychiatric conditions. In the included studies, the assessment of mental status at least 6 weeks after cessation was compared with the baseline assessment. Smoking cessation was associated with improvements in levels of anxiety, depression, stress and psychological quality of life. The authors point to clinicians to recommend smoking cessation interventions also among smokers with mental health problems.

There are several aides to be used by smoke quitters. These span from brief advice to nicotine replacement therapy. How do you get help for smoking cessation? Talk to your doctor about it! And don’t give up if you fail at a quit attempt! Each attempt will bring you closer to the status “former smoker”.

REFERENCES:

  1. Collaborators GBDRF. Global, regional, and national comparative risk assessment of 84 behavioural, environmental and occupational, and metabolic risks or clusters of risks for 195 countries and territories, 1990-2017: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017. Lancet 2018;392:1923-94.
  2. https://www.who.int/tobacco/quitting/benefits/en/
  3. Taylor G, McNeill A, Girling A, Farley A, Lindson-Hawley N, Aveyard P. Change in mental health after smoking cessation: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ 2014;348:g1151. https://www.bmj.com/content/348/bmj.g1151

 

 

 

 

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We know that high-energy food (rich in refined sugars and fats) is addictive and can lead to an eating addiction and obesity. Addiction is a very severe disorder with chronic and relapsing components. People who suffer from addiction show compulsivity, persistence to seek the reward (food), and high motivation to overconsume in some cases.

Food Addictions in People and MiceTo study eating addiction, we have developed a mouse model that shows persistence to eat, high motivation for palatable food and resistance to punishment in obtaining the food. We have tested these three characteristics in several genetically identical animals and selected two extreme groups: Mice that are vulnerable to eating addiction and mice that are resilient to it.

Mice have more than 25,000 genes in their genome, and they can be turned on or turned off (‘expressed’ or ‘not expressed’) depending on certain needs or circumstances.

We are now investigating the activation status of a certain type of genes, the ones encoding the so-called microRNAs that are very important as they are involved in regulating the function of other genes. An alteration in the status of one of these genes can have numerous downstream consequences.

In particular, our studies highlighted several microRNA genes that are involved in multiple brain functions, like synaptic plasticity (variation in the strength of nerve signaling) or neuronal development. Now we will test these alterations in patients to try to find convergent abnormalities.

All this work is being done at the Department of Genetics, Microbiology & Statistics (Universitat de Barcelona) and at the Neuropharmacology lab at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, both based in Catalonia.

Co-authored by Bru Cormand, Judit Cabana, Noelia Fernàndez

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Food is addictive. It has been an addiction that has kept mankind alive for thousands of years. Today, hunger is no longer a problem in the developed world; it is quite the opposite. According to the World Health Organization, worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975. Obesity has reached epidemic proportions globally, with at least 2.8 million people dying each year as a result of being overweight or obese.

In order to maximize the nutritional value, humans are hard-wired to prefer foods that have either a high sugar or fat content. The amount of energy obtained from food is measured in kilocalories (kcal) per gram. Fats have the most energy (9 kcal) and carbohydrates (sugars and starches) have the same amount of energy as proteins (4 kcal). However, these nutrients differ in how quickly they supply energy. Sugars and starches have the advantage of being converted into energy faster than fats and protein. Protein is preferentially used for building and repairing different tissues, not as an energy source.

Once a beneficial adaptation of preferring fast digesting or the most energy-rich nutrients, has now become a risk factor for both physical and also mental health (1), making it an inevitable research focus.

In a recent study at the Yale University School of Medicine (2) it was determined that people not only favour fatty or sugary foods, but place the highest value on those that combine both. Participants (tasked to make monetary bids on different food items) were ready to pay the most for cookies, chocolate, cake and other treats that had both high sugar and also fat content. Equally familiar, liked and caloric fatty (e.g., cheese, salami) or sugary foods (e.g., lollipops) were assigned lower values.

Based on surges of activity, brain scans revealed that foods high in both fat and sugar were more rewarding than foods rich in only one category of nutrient.

Unexpectedly, it was also observed that participants were very accurate at estimating the energy density (kcal) of fatty foods, but poor at estimating the energy density of sugar-containing foods.

Once rare, but nowadays common and abundant treats high in both fat and sugar are most rewarding and therefore can very likely contribute to overeating. In addition, it has turned out to be difficult for people to assess the amount of calories in foods with a high sugar content. These findings taken together can help to understand and also hopefully find new treatment options for people struggling with obesity.

  • Hoare E et al (2015) Systematic review of mental health and well-being outcomes following community-based obesity prevention interventions among adolescents. BMJ Open 2015;5:e006586. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2014-006586
  • DiFeliceantonio et al (2018) Supra-additive effects of combining fat and carbohydrate on food reward. Cell Metabolism 28, 1–12. doi:10.1016/j.cmet.2018.05.018
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