Nutritional Psychiatry is Treating Mental Health Problems with the Right Diet
Dr. Drew Ramsey, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and the author of several books that address food and mental health, is a big fan of oysters. Not because he likes to order them off the menu but rather because they are rich in vitamin B12, which studies suggest may help to reduce brain shrinkage. Oysters are also packed with long chain omega-3 fatty acids, deficiencies of which have been linked to higher risk for suicide and depression.
Given the evident connections between nutrition, the brain, and mental health, Dr. Ramsey has largely pioneered an emerging field of medicine that prescribes food – and the nutrients that we are missing in our diet – to counteract depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. The field is termed nutritional psychiatry and its practitioners, like Dr. Ramsey, together with chef and food coach Samantha Elkrief, counsel patients on how better eating can ease their particular mental health challenges.
You are, after, what you eat.
Bad diet = impaired mental health
It makes sense that any deficiency in the nutrients, vitamins, minerals, proteins, and fats that are essential to brain health would affect its function. This influence extends much further than simple performance (the ability to think quickly and efficiently, for example). It also influences our mental health. It therefore stands to reason that consuming the nutrition our brain needs to function optimally would also improve mental health. Determining the precise pathway this happens for each patient is, of course, the challenge that Dr. Ramsey has taken on.
According to a report by the World Health Organization (WHO), depression is a dominant driver of disability for Americans aged 15 to 44. And it’s Dr. Ramsey’s argument that a poor diet is a major factor contributing to this epidemic. The irony, he says, is that “most Americans are overfed in calories yet starved of the vital array of micronutrients that our brains need, many of which are found in common plant foods.”
The results of a 2017 survey published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that only 10% of adults meet the minimal daily federal recommendations for fruit and vegetables: at least one-and-a-half to two cups of fruit and two to three cups of vegetables per day. Read full report here.
The usual approach to treating mental health issues is a combination of pharmacological, using prescription drugs like antidepressants, and talk therapy. The argument being made by Dr. Ramsey and other proponents of nutritional psychiatry is that the right food choices – mostly, plant-based – are an indispensible component of the treatment approach. Americans change the way they eat all the time: to slim down, lower their cholesterol, and control blood sugar levels, etc. Yet, few pay attention to diet when it comes to the organ that requires the most energy in the body: the brain.
What does a mental health friendly diet look like?
Our understanding of the impact of diet on mental functioning is in its infancy but studies are being conducted around the world on this subject and the outcomes are indicating that plant-based diets are the way to go:
A 2016 American Journal of Public Health study examined more than 12,000 Australians and found that those who increased the amount of fruits and vegetables they ate reported being happier and more satisfied with their life.
Another study of 422 young adults from New Zealand and the United States showed higher levels of mental health and well being for those who ate more fresh fruits and vegetables. Interestingly, the same observations did not extend to those who consumed canned fruits and vegetables.
“We think this is due to the higher nutrient content of raw fruits and vegetables, particularly B vitamins and vitamin C, which are vulnerable to heat degradation,” said Tamlin Conner, a study author and senior lecturer at the University of Otago in New Zealand.
In 2017, Felice Jacka, Professor of Nutritional and Epidemiological Psychiatry at Deakin University, performed one of the first randomized controlled trials to test whether diet could be used to help treat depression. In the study, the participants who were coached to follow a Mediterranean diet (rich in whole grains, legumes, seafood, and nutrient-dense leafy vegetables) for three months reported mood improvements and lower levels of anxiety. Those who received more traditional therapy showed no improvements.
“Our imaging studies show that the brains of people who follow a Mediterranean-style diet typically look younger, have larger volumes [of healthy gut bacteria], and are more metabolically active than people who eat a more typical Western diet,” said Dr. Lisa Mosconi, director of the Women’s Brain Initiative at the Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York. Such brain benefits may be protective against the onset of dementia, she said.
Changes you can make today
According to Mosconi, “there is no one diet that fits all” but there are changes you can make today that will have a definite impact on whole body (and mental) health:
- Eliminate processed foods from your diet. Processed foods are those that have had a series of mechanical or chemical operations performed on it to change or preserve it, for example: frozen pizza, microwaveable dinners, jarred sauces and gravies, deli meats, canned fruits, etc.
- Minimize meat and dairy. Diets high in animal products have been linked to an increased risk in heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, and cancer.
- Eat more whole foods. These are plant foods that are unprocessed and unrefined, or processed and refined as little as possible, before being consumed. They include whole grains, tubers, legumes, fruits, and vegetables. Fresh, fatty fish is also considered a whole food.
It’s important to remember that not everyone is the same and while a particular diet may help improve the mental health of one patient, another might require a slightly different approach. It’s also important to understand that dietary changes and improvements are considered an adjunctive (add-on) to the traditional mental health treatment approaches.
“It’s about slowing down and becoming more mindful, noticing your body and noticing how you feel when you eat certain foods,” says Samantha Elkrief, the food coach who assists Dr. Ramsey.
Fusion Farms is passionate about, and supports the move towards healthy, whole food diets. For more information about Fusion Farms and to become an investor in this opportunity, go to www.fusionfarmspr.com or email Info@FusionFarmsPR.com