In recent years, the relationship between nutrition and mental well-being has been gaining considerable interest. Whereas in the past, common disorders such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, and OCD would be treated with medication, today study shows there is much evidence to suggest that diet can play a major preventive role.
Dr Uma Naidoo, MD, is a nutritional psychiatrist, whose book, “The Food Mood Connection,” outlines the many ways diet can contribute to good mental health. The major biomechanism that runs through all her diagnoses is the gut-brain axis and the preponderance of inflammation that certain substances—primarily sugar and gluten—cause. The gut bugs are not getting the right foods they need to thrive, and consequently, dysbiosis is set up—they are not able to form the necessary short chain fatty acids and butyrate.
She emphasizes the importance of not simply giving up certain foods that can trigger symptoms, but rather incorporating whole foods into the diet. Processed vegetable oils, as found in cheap fast foods, are another major cause of inflammation, flipping the ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 fatty acids. Better to use avocado or extra virgin olive oil. Incorporating more fiber, such as beans or berries, into the diet is also important as it helps keep insulin steady, avoiding the sugar crashes associated with anxiety highs and lows. Caffeine can drive anxiety, though it’s more a case of the amount that counts—generally no more than 400 mgs. of caffeine (which is about three 8-oz. cups/237 mL of brewed coffee per day) is good.
“Some kinds of fasting can cause low blood sugar leading to panic attacks. Everyone’s physiology is different—skipping meals can cause some people to feel nervous or jittery due to the drop in blood sugar. The brain can interpret feeling hungry or thirsty, or even cold, as anxiety, but what the body is actually asking for is to be fed,” suggested Naidoo, in an interview with Tom Bilyeu.
Naidoo does not prioritize any one particular diet, though she definitely considers the Mediterranean diet to be particularly beneficial when dealing with depression and anxiety. It’s basically a diet rich in healthy fats, such as avocado and virgin olive oil, protein from chicken and seafood, and also beans, nuts, legumes, and whole grains. It’s not necessarily perfect, but a good guideline. For example, there are studies which show that consumption of trans fats is associated with aggression.
As regards red meat, it’s all to do with sourcing. Grass-fed beef is the key. Most commercially produced beef has been grain fed to bump it up and is treated with hormones, such as natural estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and their synthetic versions, which then affects the Omega 6, a type of fatty acid that plays a crucial role in brain function and in normal growth and development. It helps stimulate skin and hair growth, maintain bone health, regulate metabolism, and maintain the reproductive system. Study shows that the hormone residues in meat result in adverse effects on human health, such as disrupting human hormone balance, causing developmental problems, interfering with the reproductive system, etc.
Naidoo’s approach is not to enforce the elimination of certain foods completely, but to take a measured, step-by-step approach. A gradual way to start changing things up is to focus on prebiotic foods as they are easy to include. Prebiotics are found in many fruits, vegetables, and whole grains: like apples, bananas, berries, tomatoes, artichokes, asparagus, garlic, leeks, peas, beans, barley, flaxseeds, and more.
By balancing your gut bacteria, you’re also taking care of your immunity, fighting the inflammation which also drives mental health diseases. Brain states that produce mental illness also tend to activate inflammation. And inflammation is equally capable of producing depression, anxiety, fatigue, and social withdrawal. Fermented foods such as kefir, miso, and kimchi also contribute to gut health, as does “eating the rainbow”—in other words, incorporating as many different colors of fruits and vegetables as possible into the diet. Be careful though not to ruin a salad full of healthy greens by adding store-bought dressings, as the majority of these commercial salad dressings contain unfavorable amounts of sodium and sugar, unnatural additives, unhealthy fats, and excess calories—all things to avoid if You aim to optimize your health.
A quick word on supplements. People are often deficient in magnesium which is associated with high levels of depression and anxiety. Magnesium is found in a wide variety of foods—especially nuts, leafy green vegetables, legumes, and whole grains—but supplements can also offer benefits, particularly for people with low magnesium intake. The symptoms of magnesium include loss of appetite, fatigue and weakness, pins and needles, sleepiness, and abnormal heart rhythms.
Another useful supplement is Vitamin D. Study shows that Vitamin D deficiency can also affect people’s mental well-being. The symptoms of vitamin D deficiency include fatigue, bone pain, muscle weakness, muscle aches or cramps, and mood changes, like depression.
Something to watch out for
Understanding food labeling is also vital. We often don’t realize how much hidden sugar there is—there are some 200 different names for sugar! Carry a photo of a list of additives around when shopping and try to avoid them, but don’t be too overly cautious as they aren’t as scary as some may say. Just understand them better—that’s the key.
Another culprit is glutamate, the infamous G in MSG, which has been found to worsen conditions like OCD. Since MSG can be found in foods such as parmesan cheese, oyster sauce, and even miso (an otherwise healthy food that is good for the gut), it’s important to recognize its possible side effects, just as with sodium.
What would a cognitively optimized diet look like?
Turmeric would be Naidoo’s number one go-to, combined with black pepper to activate the curcuma, making it more bioavailable. Also, as mentioned before, using extra virgin olive oil in cooking. The gentle heat used for “Sofrito” (a base mixture of onions, garlic, celery, and sometimes chilli peppers) makes the oil’s polyphenols more available.
Onions and garlic are great prebiotic foods. Prebiotics are foods that promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut. Also, spices such as cinnamon, saffron, ginger, and herbs like rosemary and sage have been shown to protect cognition. The antioxidant, lutein, is of great benefit. Juniper berries, fresh peppermint, sage, thyme, parsley, celery seeds, certain types of hot and sweet peppers, artichokes, and Mexican oregano are all lutein rich. So, if you’re struggling with brain fog, these are an easy addition to the diet, as well as being sodium and sugar free. Speaking of sodium, it gets a bad press. Naidoo advises moderation, but unless you have an underlying medical condition such as high blood pressure, it’s down to our individual constitutions as to how much or how little we consume.
Naidoo encourages people to find out for themselves what foods help with their own problems (rather than being handed a prescription) and put the person in the driver’s seat to understand the pros and cons of their decisions.