Happiness. While the word was coined by the English in the early 16th century to describe a state of being “greatly pleased and content,” the pursuit of happiness transcends geography, culture and time.
2,500 years ago, Confucius, Buddha, Socrates and Aristotle all shared insights remarkably similar to our modern understanding of happiness. The founding fathers of the United States enshrined happiness as a fundamental right in the Declaration of Independence back in 1776. And in recent years, even the United Nations recognized the global importance of happiness, declaring March 20th the International Day of Happiness to recognize the “relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals.”
Our business is built on the simple concept that happiness drives the bottom line performance of select companies in the consumer goods sector. How? By the consumers’ repeat purchases of certain products that trigger a desired emotive connection. Items like coffee, chocolate, spirits, luxury goods or everyday “aspirational” items, including beauty products and apparel, provide the emotional boost consumers seek. Certain companies that provide these “happiness” products enjoy the advantage of resilient consumer demand regardless of market conditions, and this shows in long-term financial growth.
But is happiness purely an emotional reaction or is science also involved? When a consumer indulges in a habitual treat like a steaming cup of coffee or a mouth-watering piece of chocolate, what is it that actually induces the associative feeling of happiness? More importantly, could these everyday indulgences be doing more for consumers than just making them feel good?
Professor Gary Wenk of The Ohio State University and the author of Your Brain on Food is a leading researcher on the effects of drugs on brain function. He classifies anything you put into your body, including food, as a drug.
FUSE recently caught up with Prof. Wenk to ask him about the science behind three perennial Consumer Alpha™ favorites – coffee, chocolate and alcohol.
FUSE: Your research focuses a lot on coffee and chocolate. What is it about these two foods that make them so interesting?
Coffee and chocolate are two drugs that make us feel really good, because they tap into virtually every reward system our brain has evolved. They are both also linked to many potential health benefits, making them valuable beyond just the initial “feel good” factor.
I like talking about chocolate because it is an excellent example of how difficult it is to differentiate food from drugs. The cocoa powder used to produce chocolate is rich in many potentially psychoactive chemicals that contribute to the pleasurable sensation of eating it. Are these chemicals the reason that we love chocolate so much? The answer is, of course, yes.
Chocolate contains fats that induce the release of certain chemicals. These chemicals function similarly to heroin to produce a feeling of euphoria. German researchers noted that taking drugs that block the actions of these opiate-like chemicals also prevents the pleasure associated with eating chocolate.
Chocolate also contains some estrogen-like compounds, a fact that may explain a recent series of reports showing that men who eat chocolate live longer than men who don’t indulge. Unfortunately, the effect was not seen for women. This is likely because women have an ample supply of their own estrogen, at least until menopause.
However, all is not lost when it comes to the physiological benefits of chocolate for women. Studies show that chocolate may provide an antidepressant effect in the days preceding a woman’s menstrual cycle. Chocolate is also an excellent source of magnesium salts, a deficiency of which causes “chocoholism” – a common condition in post-menopausal women. 100 mg of magnesium salt, about 20 grams of dry cocoa powder, is sufficient to remove any trace of this condition in affected women.
Now let’s discuss coffee. I’ll start by telling you that caffeine is the most widely consumed psychoactive substance in the world. Caffeine produces arousal and makes us more attentive and vigilant. The caffeine in coffee and tea also stimulates the brain’s endocannabid (EC) system. This unique communication system, named after the marijuana plant Cannabis sativa, affects how a person feels, moves and reacts.
Coffee itself contains many healthy chemicals such as potassium, niacin, magnesium, and a host of antioxidants. Drinking coffee lowers uric acid levels in the blood, which is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes and some cancers. It also appears that coffee may alter the way we metabolize and distribute our fat.
One of the challenges though, in documenting the health benefits of coffee drinking in humans, is that we have complex diets. Coffee drinkers are often also smokers, and also tend to consume more calories, eat less fruit and have a more sedentary lifestyle than people who drink tea.
FUSE: You have often been quoted as saying the “brain powerfully rewards us when we eat sugar and fat.” In what ways?
Fat and sugar rarely occur in easily accessible forms in nature, yet our brains and bodies benefit greatly from them. When our evolutionary ancestors happened upon these nutrients, they instinctively ate them until they could eat no more. Our brain inherently understands the importance of these nutrients, and over time has evolved responses to reward us when we consume them.
Your brain needs sugar (usually in the form of glucose) to function normally. The billions and billions of neurons require a constant supply of sugar to maintain their ability to produce energy and communicate with other neurons. They can only tolerate a total deprivation of sugar for a few minutes before they begin to die. So when you eat something that contains sugar, your brain sends out a feel-good message basically saying “good job, keep it up.”
Fat is an excellent source of calories which your body burns to produce the energy needed for basic functions.
When you go into a caloric deficit, you may experience a number of negative side effects, including fatigue. This is your brain’s way of telling you something is wrong. Yet beyond being an excellent source of energy, fat also makes food taste good. We actually have a protein on our tongue that detects fat. When the brain receives notice that you’ve consumed fat, it congratulates you by giving you the positive feelings of satisfaction and euphoria.
FUSE: Your research indicates a link between coffee and Parkinson’s disease. What is the relationship between the two?
Coffee drinking (or consuming caffeine from non-coffee sources) has been associated with a significantly lowered risk – by about 85% – of developing Parkinson’s disease. This neuroprotective effect requires about five to six cups of coffee per day for many years, and appears to be mostly beneficial to men. The exact mechanism underlying this particular benefit of caffeine is unknown. However, recent research from my laboratory and others suggests that caffeine has anti-inflammatory actions that protect valuable dopamine neurons – the loss of which is directly related to Parkinson’s disease – from being destroyed.
FUSE: You’ve noted a positive correlation between alcohol, especially beer, and the delayed onset of Alzheimer’s disease. How does that work?
An early epidemiological study discovered a significant, although small, inverse correlation between beer drinking and the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease. While the true mechanism of the benefit is unknown, we do know that alcohol elevates levels of HDL cholesterol (the “good” kind). Since beer is often consumed in larger quantities than other alcohol, HDL levels correspondingly increase, too. Research has demonstrated that people with high levels of HDL cholesterol are 60% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.
More recent studies published since my book came out suggest that alcohol, in any form, is beneficial. So I wholeheartedly say it is a good idea to drink alcohol, be it beer, wine or spirits. In moderation, of course!
FUSE: Your book notes that tea leaves, coffee and cocoa beans all have benefits for brain function. Why?
Tea leaves, cocoa beans and coffee all contain flavonoids. Flavonoids are metabolites found in plants. On their own they are generally not nutritious, but they are believed to be responsible for triggering the beneficial effects of many foods in the body. Over six thousands flavonoids have been identified; they are extremely common in nature. Flavonoids, even in low concentration levels in the brain, induce neurons to become more plastic (capable of forming new memories).
Another general health benefit of flavonoids is their ability to offer protection from oxygen – hence their classification as antioxidants. Eating flavonoid-rich foods every day, like red wine or dark berries, provides many overall health benefits that in turn indirectly benefit the brain.
The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter where flavonoids come from, just that you consume flavonoid-rich foods as often as possible.
FUSE: You believe that caffeine (from any sources) offers significant health benefits. Would you elaborate?
Whether it comes from coffee, tea or cola, caffeine brings a lot to the table. First and foremost (and probably of most immediate importance to the person drinking it), caffeine sets free the activity of dopamine neurons. This dopamine releasen is what causes those feelings of euphoria and bliss you get with every sip.
Regular caffeine use (250 mg twice daily – approximately three 8 ounce cups of coffee) has also been linked to a reduced risk of cardiovascular events in patients with longstanding Type 1 diabetes. Consuming large quantities of caffeine (five to six cups of coffee per day) has also been linked to lower incidence of Parkinson’s disease. At high altitudes, caffeine delays exhaustion and increases endurance by mobilizing fatty acids.
Now let’s narrow the focus to coffee, a truly amazing drug!
The coffee roasting process itself generates significant amounts of the chemical niacin. Two to three cups of espresso can provide half your recommended daily allowance of this necessary vitamin, and may be responsible for lowering cholesterol.
Coffee is also rich in phenols, which have antioxidant and anticarcinogenic properties. Trigonelline, one phenol example, has been associated with the prevention of tooth decay. Other phenols found in coffee have been linked to the prevention of Type 2 diabetes, the lowering of blood glucose levels and the reduction of the brain inflammation that is believed to underlie the risk of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.
Testosterone production has been positively associated with coffee consumption, too. This may explain why drinking at least one cup of coffee per day is associated with a higher prevalence of sexual activity in elderly women and a higher potency rate in elderly men.
Research has discovered other interesting relationships to coffee. A study of 87,000 registered female nurses found a strong inverse relationship between coffee intake and risk of suicide. In another study, the combination of coffee and exercise has been show to elicit a higher rate of fat breakdown than exercise alone.
Anecdotally, people who drink substantial amounts of coffee tend to live longer than those who don’t. So how can you go wrong with coffee?
Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D. is a Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience & Molecular Virology, Immunology and Medical Genetics at the Ohio State University and Medical Center, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for distinguished contributions in the field of neuropharmacology, neurodegenerative diseases and neuroinflammatory processes and the author of Your Brain on Food: How chemicals control your thoughts and feelings, 2nd Ed (Oxford University Press).