A good diet is a basic tenet of good physical health. And it’s a basic tenet of good mental health as well. In fact, as I’ll explain in a moment, you can improve your depression risk by up to 60 percent by making a few simple changes to your diet.
It seems American psychiatrists are finally starting to take note of the all the good research on nutrition and mental health. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) annual meeting in July included a session about the best foods to support mental health. Dr. Drew Ramsey, assistant clinical professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons, led the session.
We all know a good diet supports body and brain function. And the body and mind are connected. So it makes perfect sense the foods that support good physical health would also support good mental health.
According to Dr. Ramsey, “Food is a very effective and underutilized intervention in mental health.” He continued, “…patients have more resilient brains by using whole foods…by getting off processed foods, off white carbohydrates, and off certain vegetable oils.”
Of course, you would never hear this advice from the mainstream. The only “solution” they offer patients struggling with depression is to take an antidepressant drug. But this “solution” does very little to actually help the patient–and all too often it causes more harm than good.
In fact, earlier this week I told you about the many terrible side effects of using selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) antidepressants alone [insert hyperlink to 8/11 DD] and in combination with NSAIDs such as ibuprofen. [insert hyperlink to 8/13 DD]
Plus, remember the infamous Harvard study on depression from 2002? In that study, researchers found neither SSRI drugs nor dietary supplements worked better than placebo for depression. But the “placebo” received by everyone in the study was 14 hours of counseling by a skilled mental health professional…and they did experience some improvements.
That Harvard study always reminds me that talking and listening to the patient is more effective than handing out any pill, whether drugs or supplements. And you don’t have to conduct formal psychoanalysis either. Apparently just talking about anything important to the patient helps.
In fact, in another recent study, just discussing diet with a counselor for six hours over the course of two years decreased depression scores by 40 percent in elderly patients.
Thankfully, many experts are beginning to recognize the psychiatry of food.
A paper published earlier this year in the British journal Lancet Psychiatry attested: “Although the determinants of mental health are complex, the emerging and compelling evidence for nutrition as a crucial factor in the high prevalence and incidence of mental disorders suggests that diet is as important to psychiatry as it is to cardiology, endocrinology, and gastroenterology.”
Plus, a 2014 meta-analysis of clinical trials showed dietary interventions improved depression comparable to antidepressant drugs in half the studies.
Now, back to the APA session…
Dr. Ramsey and his co-presenter took a stab at explaining human biology and evolutionary biology to support the importance of diet to mental health.
They loosely cited some archaeological and fossil records as evidence that early humans started with gathering wild plants and small animals. Then, about two million years ago, with the advent of fire and hunting, humans began incorporating more meat into the diet. They said adding more meat contributed to the development of a more advanced human brain. (Removing meat from the diet can have the opposite effect, as I’ll explain in a moment.)
At about the same time, humans began digging up root crops, like bulbs (wild garlic and onions) and tubers (like wild carrots), which all go very well together with meat dishes.
The researchers at the APA session made another good point about the importance of seafood to the human brain. They said the earliest human ancestors in the African Rift Valley lived close enough to the seacoast to have reliable access to seafood.
Of course, early modern humans emerged during the Ice Age on the northwest coast of Europe, where they clearly took advantage of seafood. In fact, as recently as 100 years ago, anthropologists observed healthy indigenous peoples on the northwest coast of North America who didn’t farm at all. They gleaned most of their nutrition from marine foods such as fish and seafood.
Indeed, oysters, and other mollusks are very ancient marine creatures. And they’re very high in nutrients, including B vitamins, which are commonly deficient in vegan or vegetarian diets. The human brain needs vitamin B12 for neurotransmitter functions. It also supports healthy myelin, which insulates nerve endings.
Of course, oysters and other kinds of seafood also provide abundant natural cholesterol and omega-3 fatty acids for our brains, which are composed of 60 percent fats.
Humans only began cultivating and consuming agricultural products–such as grains, legumes (beans), and dairy–about 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. The history books call this an advancement of civilization. But I could disagree. Archaeologists found evidence that human health and nutritional status declined and growth became stunted among populations who adopted agricultural foods compared to hunter-gatherer ancestors.
Clearly, the government’s advice to cut out cholesterol and fats from the diet was a disaster for our health–both physical and mental. And mainstream medicine still pushes the disastrous cholesterol-lowering drugs, which poison normal metabolism.
Plus, many Americans–when they tried to follow the government’s advice to cut fats and cholesterol–ended up with a diets filled with processed grains and sugars, which lack nutritional value.
They also ended up eating too little protein and not enough meat. Some even go to the extreme to adopt vegan/vegetarian diets. I confess, when forced to listen to the arguments of vegan/vegetarian zealots, I have often had to wonder about their mental health. I now feel better having back-up from these psychiatric experts.
Unfortunately, many people who try to follow a vegan/vegetarian diet end up following a high-carb diet–which usually amounts to a high-sugar diet and is unhealthy for all the same reasons. Indeed, pregnant women who follow vegetarian diets run the same risk of suffering from anxiety as those women who follow high-sugar diets.
I do respect ethical concerns about the treatment of animals. But it’s hard to make the case for vegan/vegetarian diets based on that ethical argument alone. The human body simply needs the bioavailable nutrients found in meat and seafood.
A number of studies link the Mediterranean diet–high in fish, olive oil, nuts, and wine–with mental health benefits. In fact, recent studies show adults who follow the Mediterranean Diet most closely for four to five years had a 40 to 60 percent reduced risk of depression.
Of course, evidence shows the Mediterranean diet benefits the heart and circulatory system as well. And it improves mental focus, energy, and self-confidence. Indeed, a healthy diet is the first step in this virtuous cycle.
My colleague Don McCown is the Director of the Center for Contemplative Studies at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. He just visited with me in New England to work on our next book together. He shared a quip about what causes mental health and illness, “It’s more about what’s out there, than what’s in here.”
In other words, you can accomplish a great deal by understanding interpersonal and social factors without having to conduct abstract internal psychoanalysis. Plus, what you put “in there” (in your body) is an important factor too.
In the October issue of my Insiders’ Cures newsletter, you’ll learn all about the specific foods and nutrients that can help you avoid depression and anxiety. If you’re not yet a subscriber, now is the perfect time to get started so you don’t miss this special report.