As a podcast junkie, I constantly have them in my ears – working out, going for a walk, making coffee in the morning, doing housework, etc. I can’t get enough of a good podcast!
A more recent find was Dr. Mark Hyman’s podcast called The Doctor’s Farmacy (pharmacy with an f) and I’ve listened to nearly all of them since discovering it. You may recall from my post a couple weeks ago that I’m also reading Dr. Hyman’s book, Food Fix.
Imagine my surprise when he had a guest on, Dr. Uma Naidoo, and they opened up my world to a whole new (to me) discipline of nutritional psychiatry. Dr. Naidoo is a psychiatrist, professional chef, and a nutrition specialist – three in one! So if there ever was a person to help us understand food’s effect on the brain, she’s GOT to be it.
But until this episode I hadn’t even heard of nutritional psychiatry so my mind was blown and I went down the rabbit hole, just start calling me Alice.
It’s Not Woo-Woo
Before you jump to the conclusion that this is just another woo-woo type “science” that any Joe Schmoe can call themselves an expert in, let me just stop you right there. There’s actually a nutritional psychiatry department at Harvard School of Medicine.
I won’t argue the legitimacy of higher education institutions and their departments, but the rabbit hole showed me that this is a real field of study that warrants even further investigation.
People have long compared food to drugs based on its effects on the brain, so I found it fitting that nutritional psychiatry examines “our brain on food” playing off the “your brain on drugs” commercials and ads out there.
There has been extensive research into how sugar stimulates the release of dopamine, leading to its comparison to drugs, including its addictive qualities (which are lesser known to the general population I might add – but yes, sugar is addictive).
And just as the effects of food are being heavily researched for our bodies in general (think the food is medicine approach) it makes sense that the same should be done for food’s effects on our brains. Aftereall, if one micronutrient can be the difference in a malady of the gut, why couldn’t one be the culprit for something going haywire in the brain as well?
What’s It Do?
More specifically than “our brain on food,” nutritional psychiatry examines the connection between food and mood, looking at how what we eat impacts everything from anxiety and depression to ADHD and more.
Imagine a world where we fed children food that could curb the effects of ADHD rather than drug them up with yet another “magic pill.” I’m not against pharmacology when it’s warranted, but if there’s a natural food solution, how is that NOT a better alternative?
Or what about the insane rates of gluten sensitivity that’s popped up in the U.S.? Whether it be diagnosed celiac’s disease or just a mild insensitivity to it, everyone nowadays is talking about gluten.
So what if you heard from a nutritional psychiatry practitioner that there’s a link between gluten and anxiety? Would you give a gluten free lifestyle a trial run to see if it helped alleviate some of your anxiety? Or would you continue relying on pharmaceuticals – which by the way, Dr. Naidoo cited a current shortage of anxiety meds due to the pandemic.
Yet another potential correlation is inflammation – which is another buzz word in the food and health industry (or should be if it’s not). Much of our diets these days causes chronic inflammation, whether we’re talking in our guts or other areas of the body like joints.
But what do those inflammation inducing foods do in our brain? Well, it turns out our brains get inflamed just like other parts of our bodies, except instead of them hurting like sore knee, inflammation in the brain rears its ugly head in other ways such as depression, anxiety, ADD, OCD, and dementia – all conditions of the brain that we don’t commonly link to food consumption.
Bridging the Gap
From an anatomical perspective, the vagus nerve connects the gut and the brain so even if you’re still skeptical, there is a legitimate connection. And in my opinion, it’s one that should no longer be ignored.
Just like we’ve depended on pharmaceuticals for our physical health, we’ve become increasingly dependent on them for our mental health as well. It’s another example of treating the symptoms instead of treating the root causes.
I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that we’re eating all-time high amounts of processed foods and finding ourselves in the worst health, both physically and mentally, we’ve ever been. And even though food is likely only part of the picture (in addition to stress management, meditation, physical activity, etc), it’s an important one considering we all MUST eat to survive.