Discrimination messes with an important part of your gut and brain

Discrimination messes with an important part of your bodily function, raising risk of health complications, study suggests 

  • People exposed to discrimination were more likely to crave unhealthy foods
  • This could lead to an increased risk of obesity, which is rising in the US
  • READ MORE: CDC data shows record 40% of adults are obese in these states

Experiencing discrimination may change how the gut and brain communicate, leading to cravings for unhealthy foods and an increased risk of obesity. 

Researchers in California asked more than 100 participants of varying races and ages, mostly women, to fill out questionnaires about the level of discrimination they experience in their everyday lives. 

Participants then underwent MRI scans as the research team showed them pictures of junk foods like cake, ice cream, and pizza, as well as images of healthier foods like fruit and salad. The participants also provided stool samples so researchers could measure their gut health.

The team found that showing pictures of unhealthy food to people who experienced more discrimination triggered a larger response in the reward region of their brains, making them reach for sugar and fat-filled foods. 

The researchers believe this could increase the risk of obesity, which health officials say is reaching epidemic proportions in the US. 

In the study from UCLA researchers, participants were shown pictures of unhealthy foods like pizza and burgers, along with healthier foods like salad and fruit

Dr Arpana Gupta, senior study author and co-director of the Goodman-Luskin Microbiome Center at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), said: ‘We examined complex relationships between self-reported discrimination exposure and poor food choices, and we can see these processes lead to increased cravings for unhealthy foods, especially sweet foods, but also manifested as alterations in the bidirectional communication between the brain and the gut microbiome.’

The study, published Monday in the journal Nature Mental Health, included 107 Hispanic, black, Asian, and white participants. The majority of the participants, 87, were women, while 20 were men. 

Fifty-five reported following a standard American diet, which includes excess calories, saturated fat, added sugar, and sodium. Meanwhile, 50 said they followed a nonstandard American diet of healthier foods with fewer calories. Data was missing for the remaining two participants.

The participants were asked to complete questionnaires about the level of unfair treatment they receive on a regular basis. 

Based on their scores, researchers divided them into two groups: ‘high discrimination exposure’ and ‘lower discrimination exposure.’ Participants also provided stool samples to measure their gut bacteria. 

While undergoing MRI scans, researchers observed that people with higher reported discrimination had greater responses from the brain’s reward center, known as the frontal-striatal region, when they saw unhealthy foods, which led to more cravings.

READ MORE: How fat is your state? America’s fattest locations revealed 

Nineteen states now have obesity rates above 35 percent — considered an alarming threshold by officials — which is double the number from just three years earlier. 

Additionally, the study found people who were more discriminated against had higher levels of gut compounds called glutamate metabolites, which are associated with inflammation and oxidative stress, which is an imbalance between antioxidants and harmful compounds known as free radicals. 

These processes can damage cells and DNA, play a key role in aging and lead to increased levels of body fat. 

Based on their findings, the researchers believe discrimination can lead to changes in gut-brain communication, which leads to cravings for comfort food and unhealthy eating. 

The gut-brain connection is a two-way pathway that connects the central nervous system and the enteric, or intestinal, nervous system, forming a relationship between the brain and the gastrointestinal tract. 

The central nervous system, consisting of the brain and the spinal cord, acts as a processing center, coordinating activities across the entire body. 

The enteric nervous system, which controls gastrointestinal behavior, consists of two thin layers containing between 200 million and 600 million neurons that line the GI tract from the esophagus to the rectum. 

The gut-brain connection impacts hunger, fullness, food cravings, digestion, metabolism, and stress levels. Therefore, stress, like facing discrimination, can lead to cravings for unhealthy foods. 

Dr Gupta said: ‘Our results show that a person’s brain-gut crosstalk may change in response to ongoing experiences of discrimination – affecting food choices, cravings, brain function, and contributing to alterations in gut chemistry that have been implicated in stress and inflammation.

‘It appears that in response to stressful discrimination experiences, we seek comfort in food, manifested as increased cravings and increased desire for highly palatable foods, such as high-calorie foods and, especially, sweet foods.

‘These alterations may ultimately cause people exposed to discrimination to be more vulnerable to obesity and obesity-related disorders.’

The study builds on Dr Gupta’s previous research, which suggests the brain and gut respond differently to discrimination depending on the individual’s race or ethnicity. 

In a 2022 study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, she and her colleagues found for black and Hispanic individuals, discrimination was linked to anxiety. Additionally, Asian participants who suffered discrimination were more likely to have behavioral changes. 

The study authors said more research is needed, but this could lead to treatments for discrimination-related stress that target the brain or gut.

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