While many see food for how it impacts our waistline, it should also be recognized for how it affects our mental health.
“The gut and the brain originate from the same cells in the human embryo. Even as they separate to grow into their organs, they are connected by the vagus nerve, which is like a superhighway for chemical exchange,” explained Uma Naidoo at the 2022 Food Revolution Summit.
Naidoo is a board-certified psychiatrist, professional chef and nutrition specialist. She is the director of nutritional and metabolic psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, director of nutritional psychiatry at MGH Academy, and serves on the faculty at the Harvard Medical School.
Summit host John Robbins noted how Naidoo grew up absorbing yoga, meditation and homemade meals, along with an Ayurvedic tradition of looking at the body and mind as a whole.
Now, the medical community is embracing the link between diet, weight and disease.
The central tenet of nutritional psychiatry is to take advantage of food that supports brain health and healthy well-being based on scientific evidence.
Naidoo said that even the term “gut feelings” are cognitive functions we can’t express because they bypass our normal ways of knowing. Our gut microbes respond to our emotions, as well.
In the face of burgeoning mental health problems, there is a shortage of therapists and mental health clinicians. But Naidoo maintained that we could help ourselves, too.
“We need to rethink our understanding of cognitive health. How we eat affects inflammation in our gut and brain. We need to be starting sooner, not when we’re older. The one thing we can control is how we eat,” she said.
A 2013 study of 80,000 people in Britain revealed a direct correlation between positive mental health and those who ate lots of fruits and vegetables. They had a lower incidence of anxiety or depression. Phytonutrients and greens, especially sulforaphane-rich vegetables rich in fiber, nourish the gut and the brain.
Particularly inspiring was a study among 70- to 90-year-olds that showed they were cognitively 11 years younger due to eating more than a serving of greens a day.
“The research shows this repeatedly,” said Naidoo. She stressed eating various fruits and vegetables to support different cognitive functions. The more biodiverse the sources, colors and textures, the better, as this helps the microbiome thrive. It’s also the best way to nurture vitamin production and boost immunity.
Hyperpalatable foods have disrupted our tastebuds and have been engineered to make us crave more of them. How can we step back from those and replace them with fresh whole foods instead? It’s a process.
Brightly colored berries, beets, and greens are rich in fiber and phytonutrients. The red color of tomatoes comes from lycopene, the purple in grapes from anthocyanins and orange from carrots from carotenoids; these are all powerful and support overall health.
There is a link between folate deficiency and depression, so eat dark leafy greens, beans, peanuts, sunflower seeds, fresh fruits and whole grains. For omega-3s, she recommended algal oil supplements to replace fish oil.
Choose brain-smart snacks that protect your mental clarity. For focus, eat a banana with a handful of walnuts or pecans, a bowl of berries with ripe avocado or raw veggies with a hummus dip.
Add spices for a brain boost. Keep washed lettuce and spinach in the fridge to make a salad or roasted spinach crisps (20 minutes in the oven with spices). DIY granola using raw nuts, dried unsweetened coconut and extra-dark pieces of raw natural chocolate. Add it to a chia pudding, or eat a handful as a snack.
Magnesium from food like dark leafy greens, avocado or dark chocolate aids mental health. In a government survey of 14,000 adults, those who ate dark chocolate had a 70-percent reduced risk of depression. Researchers did not find the same effect in those who ate the same amount of milk chocolate, which isn’t chocolate but a candy bar. Real raw chocolate is rich in magnesium and serotonin. It is also a source of prebiotic fiber and cacao flavanols which support gut microbes and overall health.
Robbins observed that your taste buds change when you move from eating candy bars to real food like dark chocolate. You no longer need a whole bar to get your fix; a small square of the real thing would do. We learn to appreciate food differently when our tastebuds are no longer hijacked.
He offered an excellent analogy: “Tastebuds being hijacked is like being in a city with bright lights; you can’t appreciate the sky. But when you move out into the country and see the stars, you can see the beauty of the sky.” This analogy between artificial and natural lights and the artificial flavorings we’ve become accustomed to is spot-on.
In her book “This is Your Brain on Food,” Naidoo wrote about how dark chocolate, pistachios, almonds, walnuts, apples, pomegranates, coffee, onions, and certain spices such as fenugreek and saffron can boost libido because they are rich in oxytocin.
In a medication-heavy society, recognize that many drugs affect libido. Cut back on the non-health-promoting food, add more of the healthier ones, and see how it affects you.
There are sound long-term health effects of coffee in moderation. “It’s what we add to it like dairy, artificial sweeteners, and sugar that take away the benefits of caffeine. It’s still not for everyone, so be body-aware of what you can tolerate,” added Naidoo.
For sleep issues, helpful foods are tart cherries and food rich in melatonin like barley, rolled oats, grapes and pomegranates, walnuts, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, asparagus and broccoli. They calm your body down for sleep. Tryptophan from chickpeas is another good source and chamomile tea.
Avoid having coffee too late in the day and alcohol, as both disturb sleep. Alcohol helps you relax short term and maybe fall asleep but makes you wake up quicker and have trouble staying asleep. Naidoo said it disrupts sleep architecture and makes the body feel uncomfortable.
For those with anxiety, fiber is your friend. Foods rich in fiber break down slowly in your body and even out blood sugar (except if you have bipolar disorder).
Mood swings are linked to unstable blood sugar levels. Eating a whole-food plant-based (WFPB) diet won’t make you crash, as it regulates your levels.
Mushroom consumption helps alleviate depression, regardless of socioeconomic factors. Cut back on fast food and processed food and lean into WFPB food.
There are strong links between diet and mental health. Nutritional psychiatry offers a promising new approach to treating and preventing mental illness.
Said Naidoo, “We have to destigmatize mental health problems with slow and steady steps towards eating healthy whole foods. People don’t realize the power they have at the end of their fork.” —CONTRIBUTED