An Interview with Dr. Gary Wenk – Your Brain on Food, Marijuana and Obesity
Dr. Wenk, from my research I see that you’ve had a long and distinguished career. Have you always been interested in studying the brain and drug interactions, or did you have other medical interests before this?
I believe that I might have been even younger than you when I first became interested in the brain. My initial research focus, beginning in about 1976, was on the effects of nutrients upon brain health, particularly with regard to normal aging. Later, I broadened my interests to include age-related degeneration, particularly Alzheimer’s disease, and the ability of nutrients and over-the-counter drugs to affect its progression. Essentially, for the past forty years I’ve studied the ability of foods and drugs to slow brain aging. I did consider becoming a physician but that seemed altogether too boring.
What would you say the most compelling reason was behind you wanting to study the brain and to get into the medical field all together?
Curiosity about how the brain worked. In my opinion, curiosity is the most important personality trait that anyone can bring to science. Scientists always want to know the answer to just one more question, and then another and then another. It never ends. Neuroscience was a totally unexplored area of research when I began my research career. Everything that we discovered was novel, exciting and potentially very important. Sadly, in spite of the efforts of thousands of scientists, we still have no cure ANY brain disease or injury. None at all. The next generation of neuroscientists will hopefully be able to build upon what my generation has discovered to finally cure a mental illness or repair an injured brain.
At what point did you begin to focus on drug interactions in the brain, and particularly on Marijuana/Cannabis?
After testing lots and lots of different experimental drugs I became frustrated with the fact that these drugs never improved function in the aged brain. Many of them offered some benefit to the young brain but nothing ever made my aged animals smarter or improved their brain function in any substantial way. About fifteen years ago I was testing drugs that had anti-inflammatory properties, similar to aspirin and ibuprofen, on our aged animals. Unfortunately, many of these drugs were not very effective because they do not cross the blood brain barrier very well. I ultimately investigated marijuana because it is an anti-inflammatory drug that easily crosses the blood brain barrier. I did not set out to investigate marijuana and I’ve never had any particular agenda regarding drugs of abuse. What I discovered is that a daily low dose of marijuana is very good for the adult and aged brain and very bad for the young brain.
As an accomplished academic, are you finding that research on Marijuana had become more and more accepted as your career has progressed?
No, not all. Marijuana is still scheduled by the DEA so that no one can conduct research on humans to prove its benefits. No one in the US has funding from the NIH to study the benefits of medical marijuana, including me. There are only a handful of scientists in the US who conduct research on the benefits of marijuana in animals. It continues to be quite difficult to obtain sufficient funding to conduct research on the health benefits of marijuana. Most of this research is being done in Europe.
Did you ever run into any legal issues say 10 – 15 years ago in your research when medical marijuana was not as prevalent or as accepted as it is today?
No, because I utilized analogs of marijuana (chemically similar but not actually the real molecule) in my research. During the past decade I’ve only tested compounds that have been invented by drug companies in Europe who are designing molecules that 1) do not exist in the marijuana plant, 2) are not actually cannabinoids, and 3) act to enhance the function of the brain’s own endogenous marijuana neurotransmitter system. In my opinion, these drugs will, ultimately, make it unnecessary to legalize marijuana. I know that sounds surprising. Also, consider this: Tylenol is converted in the body into a drug that stimulates the brain’s endogenous marijuana system. That’s how it reduces pain. Should we outlaw Tylenol?
In the news recently, there has been a lot of talk about inflammation in general and how it can be a root cause for many physical and mental problems. Do you agree with this current trend? And do you feel it is being reported accurately?
Yes, body and brain inflammation is probably the root cause for many neurological diseases, including depression and some mental illnesses. The evidence for this is compelling and overwhelming. For example, it is now understood why obesity is so unhealthy for the brain and body. Fat cells produce and release lots of pro-inflammatory chemicals that slowly leads to illnesses of all kinds.
Along with the previous question (and with anything else trendy) do you think that “super foods” and “natural anti-inflammatory” substances have been promoted too much or even in a dangerous or misleading way (Tumeric/Curcumin for example)
Their claims are consistently overblown in order to sell a product. They are usually either ineffective or harmful or both. Most of these substances never cross the blood brain barrier or are only effective at extremely high doses. Curcumin is a good example. You’d need to eat lots of curcumin almost every day of your life for decades to see a benefit. Taking anti-inflammatory supplements (which can be packaged and sold at a considerable profit) is much less effective than simply eating these same nutrients in their original sources, i.e. fruits and vegetables. Vitamin E supplement is a great example of a useless and expensive product that actually impairs the health of some people taking it. I have discussed many more of these substances in my book, Your Brain on Food. The list is quite long. The best advice I could offer is: don’t bother with supplements or vitamins if you do not have a medically diagnosed reason for taking them.
I read your article “Marijuana or Obesity: Which Is Worse?” And I must admit, I found myself nodding in agreement as I read through the text. To clarify, are people genetically pre-determined to have a “drug” addiction or “food” addiction? Or are you saying that they may be genetically predisposed towards being obese or having a mental illness. It didn’t sound as though you considered marijuana to be a dangerous or addictive drug.
No, everyone is not genetically predisposed to become obese, however we all have a brain that evolved to consume food, as much food as possible, whenever possible, particular really tasty food – three foods in particular are especially powerful: fat, sugar and salt. Why? Because fat, sugar (or sweet-tasting molecules) and salt rarely occur in nature, thus our brain’s evolved in an environment that put high value on finding and consuming these nutrients to completion whenever discovered. For example, every city in the UK that ends with “-wich” such as Greenwich, Northwich and Middlewich, was settled so that the salt deposits could be mined. Fat has a high caloric benefit and satisfies the brain’s need to improve one’s chances of survival. Sugar is the only chemical the brain can use, under normal healthy conditions, for energy. However, some people are genetically predisposed to consume more calories than their body needs and they store this food energy as fat. Their response to food demonstrates a real addiction that is manifested in their brains in exactly the same manner that is seen for drugs such as heroin or cocaine.
People who are genetically predisposed to mental illness will respond differently to some nutrients and drugs. For example, people who are genetically predisposed to psychosis might have those symptoms unmasked by heavy marijuana use, while someone who does not carry any genetic risk of psychosis will not develop psychoses in response to marijuana use. Thus, marijuana, for most people, is not harmful at the doses typically consumed. Also, my research has shown that it is quite beneficial to the aging brain. In contrast, obesity has been clearly shown to produce lots of serious illnesses that increase the likelihood of disease, dementia and death.
In your closing statement “which is worse” and the “answer will be determined by the genetic cards you were dealt by your parents” – could you please further explain what is meant by that statement? Are there not far more people with an obesity issue in this country than those that have a marijuana addiction and have had that problem uncover mental illness?
That statement meant that your genes play a very big role in determining whether you will become obese or addicted to a drug. The fact that so many people (mostly Americans and people around the world who consume our diet) are overweight is due to the powerful reinforcing effect of food. Our brains evolved to reward us for eating. It keeps us alive and allows us to pass on our food-loving genes. Marijuana is addicting; pharmacologists compare its addictiveness to coffee. In contrast, nicotine is about as addictive as heroin. The real question is “Why is nicotine legal and marijuana not?”
Based on your research, as well as your recent appointment in the state of Ohio by Governor Kasich – could one assume that you feel the War on Drugs (or at least on Marijuana) has been a failure?
The war on drugs was doomed from day 1 for all the reasons that I’ve discussed above. Our brains evolved to induce us to consume fat, salt and sugar; all of the Drugs that humans abuse are craved by the brain because those drugs mimic the effects of these foods (particularly fat and sugar) in our brain. That was why I titled my book Your Brain on Food, rather than Your Brain on Drugs. There is no difference in the way that our brains become addicted to donuts, chocolate, heroin or coffee. The brain likes them all and will encourage you to consume as much as possible. The War on Drugs could never have been any more effective than a War on Food because our brains cannot tell the difference.
When our society decides that it wishes to release marijuana from Pandora’s Jar, knowing that there will be consequences and that it can never be forced back in (recall the disaster associated with alcohol prohibition in the past century), then marijuana will be legalized and widely available.
To end, I’d like to ask a bit more of a fun rather than serious question. For young people today, could you please rank the following from most harmful to least harmful:
Least harmful – Consuming low doses of Marijuana/Cannabis on a daily basis after age 20. Before that the cannabis might interfere with neuroplasticity.
Most harmful in a shortest period of time – “binge drinking” on a daily basis
Harmful, but it will take longer to notice – Eating/Consuming an unhealthy diet devoid of natural/whole nutrient dense foods and nothing but processed and fast foods on a daily basis.
For more information about Dr. Wenk, please follow the links below. Also linked in the article is the Amazon page for his new book Your Brain on Food , which will take you to other titles by the author as well.