The Secret to the Ellusive Healthy Brain Is in Your gut.
Enter the new kid on the block: nutritional psychiatry.
It’s a version of: “This is your brain on good food.” A healthy gut equals a healthy brain.
Scientific research continues to validate the theory that our gut is a critical factor in determining our mental and physical health, and a healthy diet can prevent depression. Conversely, a bad diet consisting of processed and fried foods with trains fats, can promote chronic inflammation, thought to be one of the causes of depression.
In other words, put crap into your body and get crap out. All fuel (food) is not created equal.
Trillions of microorganisms, collectively known as our microbiome, occupy our guts, aka, esophagus, stomach, and intestines. These microorganisms make molecules that can lower the production of serotonin if we’re not eating the right stuff.
And a low serotonin level can lead to depression.
Serotonin is a molecule most commonly believed to be a neurotransmitter, but it is also referred to as a hormone. Yes, it’s a bit confusing, but bear with me. Where it is released determines its name. It is a neurotransmitter in the central nervous system and a hormone in the periphery. By periphery, we mean a location in the body around the central nervous system.
Either way, it’s serotonin and is responsible for the two-way communication that takes place between the central nervous system and our gut. It is the“feel-good hormone” that determines our mood. If our brain uses it up too fast or doesn’t produce enough, it can result in depression, anxiety, and panic disorders.
This is why Prozac is so effective. As a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI), it blocks the absorption of serotonin in the brain, and the longer the serotonin lasts, the better you feel.
What the Experts Are Saying
Drew Ramsey, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, a farmer and author of: “Eat Complete,” “The Happiness Diet,” and the e-course “Eat to Beat Depression,” states that our brains continue to grow through adulthood making new cells and healthy food is vital.
He says that when we think of cardiac health, we think of strengthening the heart. Therefore, when we think of mental health, we need to think of strengthening the organ responsible for it-our brains.
With depression, “serotonin is linked to the good bacteria in our gut.”
And good bacteria is linked to good food.
Professor Felice N. Jacka is a worldwide leader in diet and mental health disorders. She is a nutritional epidemiologist, Director of the Food and Mood Centre at Deakin University, Victoria, Australia; and founder and president of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research.
She has been publishing articles in medical journals on the relationship between diet and mental health since 2010.
In her book, Brain Changer: The Good Mental Health Book, she provides a summary of nutrition and mental health research conducted over the last decade. All signs point to the right diet having a direct, positive effect on your brain.
An editorial recently published in the international medical journal Nature backs-ups the mental health benefits of a good diet. The journal places its approval rating on the fact that a group of researchers in Belgium verified the results of previous findings in a clinical trial. Clinical trials involve the use of human subjects and are the gold standard in research.
To quote the author:
“This is some of the strongest evidence yet to show that a person’s microbiota can influence mental health.”
You can read the original study in Nature Microbiology.
Lisa Mosconi, Ph.D., a nutritionist and associate director of the Alzheimer’s Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, with over 100 published articles, has proposed a specific diet for brain health: the Mediterranean-style diet. This diet regulates inflammation and supports the good bacteria.
For more information, you can read her book, “Brain Food: The Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Power.”
But first, what is the Mediterranean diet?
The Mediterranean-style Diet
The Mediterranean diet consists primarily of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, fish and poultry — even a glass or two, maximum, of wine a day. The bulk of the diet consists of plant foods, olive oil, fish, poultry, beans, and grains. It is low in trans fats and free from refined oils, and highly processed meats and foods.
Red meat consumption is minimal.
This diet is nutrient-dense, complex, regulates inflammation, and supports the good bacteria in our guts.
Fair warning, the Mediterranean Diet is not low in fat. Fat is encouraged, but only wholesome varieties like the monosaturated types from olive oil and polyunsaturated omega-3s found in certain fish and shellfish. Avocadoes are also a great source.
Unlike trans fats, omega-3s are considered healthy fats and do not cause inflammation. Another added benefit is that you lose more weight following a Mediterranean regime than a low-fat diet.
But wait, that’s not all.
Of interest, there are two other components to this diet:
1/ an active lifestyle
2/ relaxing during meals and interacting with people face-to-face, no phones, social media, or television.
Yes, the diet is a lifestyle change as well. For me, it will be one of the more challenging components, that is, unless eating with cats counts as an interaction.
Pills or Food?
The answer is both.
If you’re on therapy and seeing a doctor or other mental health provider, continue to do so.
None of the research suggests that you discontinue your current therapy for depression, anxiety, or any other type of mental illness. However, it doesn’t hurt to upgrade the fuel you put in your body, especially if your current diet consists of what is commonly called “fast foods.”
The foods in the diet are simple, inexpensive and can be purchased at most supermarkets. It’s just a matter of shopping in a different aisle. You can invest in recipes, but it’s not mandatory.
Begin gradually by adding some foods, like fish, and cutting down on others like red meat. Try beans and snacking on fresh fruit. Little changes mean a lot.
PLEASE: Stay on any meds. and talk to your doctor.
Drugs that treat depression are one of the miracles of modern medicine. Severe depression leaves you in the pits, and Prozac has lifted many out of them. It has helped many people I love and certainly would have improved the quality of my mother’s life.
I am excited about the prospect of treating depression through diet and will be testing it to see if it can alleviate my occasional bouts of depression.
I am hoping it will deliver and the science certainly supports it.
The diet alone may alleviate your symptoms, or it may not. So tread carefully.
One thing is for sure; you’ll enjoy what you eat.