Have you been suffering from depression and/or other mental health issues, but even with treatment and medication, you just cannot find your way out of the gloom?
We’re already in the month of May, and May is the month of Mental Health Awareness; the perfect time to talk about keeping our mental health and well-being in good shape.
Having that said, did you know that the food that we consume impacts our gut health; therefore, what we eat also impacts our brain?
Our food and our mood have an interesting connection you’d love to discover, and one serious connection is that the risk of depression actually increases with poor nutrition.
So join us on this episode as we learn what foods we should keep and what needs to be eliminated from our tables in order to keep a positively running mental health.
Dr. Adrienne Youdim is a board-certified Internist and is the host of the podcast Health Bite. She specializes in medical weight loss and nutrition, and she is aiming to transform the weight loss narrative into one that is both empowering and compassionate – inspiring people to live more physically and emotionally fulfilling lives through evidence-based strategies that actually show results.
In this episode, Dr. Adrienne explains how our food impacts our brain health as she enumerates what foods should we keep on our table and what we should let go of.
What you will learn from this episode:
“Just be intentional about feeding yourself. Make time for yourself, cook for yourself, and care for yourself. This act of self-care can be healing in it itself.” – Dr. Adrienne Youdim
Improve your mental health with our newest offer, the highly sought-after Mood Pack!
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“If you're suffering, first of all, know that you're not alone. Secondly, please get help. Medical therapy, talk therapy, counseling, seek out the treatments and support that you need in order to be well.” – Dr. Adrienne Youdim
“The food that we consume impacts gut health, and impacts our brain.” – Dr. Adrienne Youdim
“These things go hand-in-hand. The things that are not good for your body at large are not good for your brain health and are not good for your mood.” – Dr. Adrienne Youdim
Ways to Connect with Dr. Adrienne Youdim:
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Hey there, Health Bite podcasters. Welcome back to Health Bite, the podcast dedicated to providing you with small, actionable bites towards greater physical, mental, and emotional well-being. I'm your host, Dr. Adrienne, and I'm so glad to be here with you on this first week of May.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and it feels incredibly important to talk about mental and emotional well being right now.
As we will discuss on today's episode, our mental health and well being has never been so affected as it is right now and in this moment, and while medication, psychotherapy, and other medical interventions are necessary, and quite honestly, life-saving in some cases, there are practices that we can engage in that can be just as essential to our emotional and mental health.
Today, we'll be focusing on food and mood.
This episode is going to be incredibly informative and actionable, so grab a pen and your notepad, and let's dig in.
ESPECIALLY FOR YOU: SOME OF THE ALARMING TRENDS IN MENTAL HEALTH, ESPECIALLY WHEN THE PANDEMIC STARTED
Mental health has actually been on the rise for over the past two decades, but really, it has increased over the past two years, particularly depression and anxiety.
Now, depression is characterized by feelings of low and sad mood. Also, people describe a feeling of apathy or lack of motivation, lack of enjoyment, and a decrease in energy levels. Depression can also have acute symptoms, more dangerous symptoms, such as feelings of hopelessness, despair, and thoughts of suicide. These symptoms can be mild or they can be significant, impacting quality of life, including sleep, focus, concentration, appetite, the desire for social interaction, and the ability to carry out daily activities.
So, here's some statistics.
During this pandemic, the number of people who reported symptoms of anxiety or depression tripled in the United States. Globally, anxiety and depression increased by 25% and piqued to 43% of adults during the pandemic. Young kids and young adults have been disproportionately affected, particularly at risk of suicidal thoughts and self harming behaviors. Women have also been more severely impacted, as have people with pre existing health conditions, such as cancer, heart disease, asthma. These people were more likely to develop symptoms of mental illness and mental health disorders as well.
And finally, substance abuse, which is closely linked to mental health and emotional well being, has also increased over the course of the pandemic. In fact, substance abuse, or rather, substance use, increased 15% in the United States during the year of 2020. In one study published during the first six months of the pandemic, it was shown that alcohol consumption increased by 14% as compared to the year prior, and by 17% in women. But what's worse and more alarming is that the incidence of heavy drinking during this time escalated by 41% in women.
This is actually a really important topic and one that's gotten a lot of traction when I've discussed it on social media, particularly in my Instagram videos, and so I think I'm going to record a podcast on alcohol use in the near future. So, stay tuned for that.
So, some alarming trends, and there are many reasons for these trends in mental health.
As we know, uncertainty, loss, isolation, loneliness – all of these were happening during the pandemic, but our food practices did not help. And in fact, studies showed around the globe that overall consumption of fruits and vegetables declined, as did consumption of other healthy foods, like fish, yogurts, lean meats; these were all reduced, while sweets, pastries, ice cream, fast foods, fried foods all increased. And this matters, as we're about to discuss, because the risk of depression increases with poor nutrition.
But first things first, because if you're suffering, first of all, know that you're not alone. Secondly, please get help. Medical therapy, talk therapy, counseling, seek out the treatments and support that you need in order to be well.
But there may be many folks out there who are already getting treatment for depression and still aren't feeling at their best, or maybe they're not at the point that they feel, or that their providers feel that they need medications, for example, and yet, they're just not well. If that describes you, then this episode is for you.
The connection between food and mood, honestly, is fascinating, and I'm really excited to share this information with you.
GUT AS THE SECOND BRAIN: WHY THE GUT-BRAIN CONNECTION IS SOLIDIFIED AND IMPORTANT
So first, let's talk about the gut-brain connection. In fact, Hippocrates, the Father of Modern Medicine, once said, bad digestion is the root of all evil. Now, maybe that's a little bit melodramatic, but I'm going to talk to you about why the gut-brain connection is so solidified and so important.
So, let's go back way back when to when we were first conceived.
When we were first conceived, we developed into a blob of cells. Yep, I know that doesn't sound really sexy, but that's the truth; we started out as a blob of cells, and then those cells specialized.
One group of specialized cells are called the neural crest cells. Now, these are the group of cells that went on to make up the central nervous system, the brain, and the spinal cord. But these cells also went on to create the enteric nervous system, or the nervous system contained within the gut. Did you know that the gut contains between 100 and 500 million neurons? Remember that neurons are the fancy word for brain cells. So these are actually neurons, but they're not in the brain – they are in the gut – which is why the gut has the name of “the second brain”.
The brain and the gut are very closely connected in other ways.
For example, there is a nerve called the vagus nerve. This nerve begins in the brainstem and travels down into the gut, where it then branches out and kind of engulfs and envelops and penetrates the walls of our gut. The vagus nerve can be considered as a freeway that connects the brain to the gut, and allows them to communicate and be intricately connected.
So, it's no wonder that the food that we consume impacts gut health, and impacts our brain. As you probably know, for example, the central nervous system produces neurotransmitters and chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, acetylcholine, these are all neurotransmitters that regulate mood. Well, get this. 90% of serotonin receptors are actually found in our gut. Think about that. 90% of serotonin receptors. That's our happy hormone, is found in our gut.
So, it really highlights the connection between our gut and our brain, and more importantly, our gut and our emotional and mental well being.
SOME IMPORTANT PHYSIOLOGY: TALKING ABOUT GUT MICROBIOME AND HOW IT IMPACTS OUR BRAIN HEALTH
So, let's get into some important physiology.
First, I want to talk about the microbiome.
Now, the microbiome refers to the microbes or specifically the bacteria that live in our gut. There are approximately 100 trillion microbes in the gut, and these microbes are symbiotic, meaning, they scratch our back and help us, and we, in turn, scratch their backs and help them. These bacteria help us with many necessary processes, like food digestion, our immunity, and more and more evidence shows that the gut microbiome is also important in impacting our brain health and specifically in our mental and emotional well being. How's that?
Well, our diet can change the gut microbiome. So, what we consume can actually help flourish the good bacteria, or it can help kill off the good bacteria, which makes more room for the bad players. These bad bacteria can then result in inflammation, which then, because there is that direct connection between the brain and the gut through the vagus nerve, can then cause inflammation in the brain. And this inflammation or neuro-inflammation does impact our brain’s functioning and impacts our mood. What's more is that these bacteria can also send off other chemicals and messengers that are also transmitted to the brain, affecting our brain health and impacting our mood.
And so, what is one of the key mechanisms of maintaining and stabilizing a healthy gut microbiome?
You guessed it. It's our diet.
DIET AND GUT MICROBIOME: HOW SUGAR AND ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS AFFECT THE HEALTH OF OUR BRAIN
So let's talk about some of those players when it comes to diet and our gut microbiome.
Number one, sugar.
Sugar is the wrong nutrient for the bacteria in our gut. Think about it, the bacteria in general actually thrive on sugar. That's one reason why diabetics, for example, are at higher risk for infections in the body. When it comes to the brain, we know that higher blood sugar levels are associated with a lower brain-derived neurotrophic factor. So this factor, shortened as BDNF, is a protein that helps our brains grow and develop. It's also a protein that helps the brain adapt to stress.
But again, we know that blood sugar, or high blood sugar, results in a reduction in this helpful protein that is supporting our brain health. In fact, it has been shown that one can have sugar sweetened beverages, think soda or juice daily has been shown to increase the risk of depression by 5%. Two and a half cans of soda, which is equivalent to nearly 100 grams of sugar, increases the risk of depression by 25%. And don't forget highly processed carbs; these are essentially sugar. Foods like white bread, pasta. These highly simple carbohydrates turn into quick sugar in the body, and so essentially, it’s sugar. Studies showed that people who consumed higher quality carbs had a 30% reduced incidence of depression than those that consumed the quick sugars, the high glycemic carbs.
So compare the “good carbs” as I like to call them – beans, grains, legumes, these are the carbohydrates that are complex, they are harder to break down because of the complexity. That means that they result in a much more steady rise in blood sugar, as compared to those quick sugars, those simple sugars that are quickly metabolized and result in really super high spikes in blood sugar.
So, you may think that an alternative to sugar is artificial sweeteners, right? But guess what? They, too, are associated with a higher risk of depression, specifically aspartame. Aspartame, in particular, has been shown to have many ill effects, and actually, I spoke on a video on Instagram, @dradrienneyoudim, recently about a study they released that showed the correlation between the consumption of artificial sweeteners, and specifically aspartame, and higher risk of cancer. And here, too, we know that aspartame is associated with a higher risk of depression. Other artificial sweeteners have been studied and show trends, but none as equivocally as aspartame.
So, what does aspartame do? It actually increases concentrations of substances that inhibit the release of our “happy hormones”, such as dopamine and serotonin, so you can think of aspartame as like a blocker to the release of these positive neurotransmitters, dopamine and serotonin. Aspartame also causes oxidation and free radicals in the brain, which compromised cellular brain health. Off note, aspartame has been associated also with a higher risk for have memory issues and dementia. While these studies are somewhat inconclusive, so the facts are not hard and fast, it kind of makes sense that as a negative effector of neurotransmitters, that it can have far ranging impact on our brain health at large.
DIET AND GUT MICROBIOME: BENEFITS OF MONO, UNSATURATED, AND POLYUNSATURATED FATS, AND WHY IT’S A MUST TO AVOID TRANS FATS
Next, let's go to fats.
So first of all, not all fats are the same. We have saturated fat, unsaturated fat, trans fat, polyunsaturated fatty acids, mono unsaturated fatty acids, and these fats are not all the same.
First off, trans fats.
Trans fats are really bad. Period. They include things like margarine shortening, hydrogenated oils, and they're primarily found in packaged foods, pastries, fried foods. These fats were banned in the United States, in packaged goods, but there was a level at which it was tolerable, and so they're still found in some amounts in foods that are on our shelves and out there in the market. So, trans fat is something really to look at and really to avoid like the plague.
Now, we said trans fats are found in fried foods, and fried foods in general have other ill effects to brain health. They make us feel heavy and dull, which in the long run can affect mood. But actually, a study in Japan showed that people who consume more fried foods were more likely to develop depression during their lifetime. Studies have also linked trans fats to a higher risk of depression. Whereas on the other hand, healthier fats or healthy fats, like mono unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, have lowered the risk of depression. Once again, these fats have also been shown to be protective in brain health, and may help reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
So, notice that these things go hand in hand. The nutrients that are protective of our brain and may reduce the risk of diseases that result in deterioration of the brain, like dementia, for example, are actually also important in preserving emotional and mental well being. Whereas those harmful nutrients that are harmful not only for the brain, but are harmful for the body at large, for example, trans fats, they are not only harmful to the brain and to mood, but are known to be cardiac risk factors, resulting in cardiac and metabolic disease. So, these things go hand in hand. The things that are not good for your body at large are not good for your brain health and are not good for your mood.
So, back to these good fats – the poly and mono unsaturated fatty acids. These include avocado, olive oil, almonds, nuts, walnuts, for example, flax seed, not butters seeds, and also vegetable oils.
Now, it must be said that when it comes to certain kinds of fats, the polyunsaturated fats, they can further be divided into Omega-3 and Omega-6, and Omega-3 is definitely the more favored. Omega-3s can be found in fish, particularly in fatty fish, including salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, sardines. It can also be found in walnuts and flax seeds. Omega-6 can also be found in nuts, but are also found in vegetable oils, and while they can be helpful, too much of them are not.
So, get a good balance of good fats with an emphasis on mono unsaturated fats and the Omega-3s. These fats have been shown to be protective of the brain. They're also associated with a reduced risk of dementia and depression.
DIET AND GUT MICROBIOME: EFFECTS OF NITRATES TO HEALTH, BOTH IN PHYSICAL AND MENTAL ASPECTS
And lastly, nitrates.
Nitrates are found in cured meats, deli meats, sausages, cold cuts, for example. They have other adverse health effects, such as being associated with a higher risk of colon cancer, but they are also associated with depression, as they've been shown to alter that healthy gut bacteria in a negative way.
WHAT TO EAT: DR. ADRIENNE REMINDS HER LISTENERS TO TAKE NOTES AS SHE DOES A SHORT RECAP OF THE FOODS WE SHOULD EAT FOR BETTER MENTAL HEALTH AND WELL BEING
So let's recap, and here's where I would grab a pen and paper and jot this down, pause where you need to, rewind where you need to, but this is the information that I want you to take home.
So, what to eat?
Number one, probiotic and prebiotics. Foods high in probiotics, again, include tempeh, miso, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, buttermilk, certain cheeses, natto, which is fermented soybean. These are foods that are naturally high in probiotics, but also prebiotics. Prebiotics are indigestible fibers that are found in beans, certain legumes, oats, berries, garlic, onions, banana, for example. These indigestible fibers work with probiotics in order to preserve healthy gut bacteria.
Omega-3 fatty acids. Again, these are found in cold water fatty fish, including salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, sardines. Other fish like tilapia, sea bass, shellfish and cod are close seconds. And there are other sources like walnuts, chia seeds, and in fact, grass-fed beef.
Other nutrients that have been found to reduce the risk of depression – B vitamins, which are found in leafy green vegetables, cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli, kale. B vitamins are also found in nuts, seeds, and legumes, with the exception of B-12. So, whereas most of the B vitamins including folate, which is in particular helpful in brain health, are found in these other plant-based items that I've discussed, B-12 specifically is only found in animal products. So eggs, dairy, and yes, fish, meat, poultry, chicken, etc. If you're vegetarian, vegan, or limiting your amount of animal protein, then please supplement.
Vitamin D. Vitamin D is another supplement that has been implicated in brain health. Vitamin D, actually, is involved in serotonin metabolism, and its deficiency has been associated with depression. We get vitamin D from salmon. Many of our dairy is fortified with vitamin D, because one of the functions of Vitamin D is helping us absorb calcium, so many of our yogurts and milk, for example, are fortified with vitamin D. And one of the best sources of vitamin D is sunlight. We manufacture vitamin D in our skin cells when exposed to sunlight. But these days, with all the sunblock and sedentary behavior and working from home, I wouldn't rely on sun exposure
Next, seasoning, spice, and herbs. So this is something that was really intriguing to me as a person of Middle Eastern descent, who loves to cook Persian food.
Saffron. In one study, 15 milligrams of saffron was as effective as 20 milligrams of Prozac; seriously. Saffron appears to increase certain neurotransmitters including glutamate and dopamine, both of which are involved in mood. But 15 milligrams of saffron is quite a bit, particularly considering that saffron is more expensive per gram than gold. But if you have access to saffron, and if you're using it, I recommend incorporating it in your dishes.
Another seasoning is curcumin, which is the active ingredient in turmeric. Keep in mind that adding black pepper makes the active ingredient curcumin more bioavailable. So, in order to achieve the benefits of consuming turmeric, you need to be able to extract the curcumin, and we can increase that bioavailability by adding black pepper to our turmeric. So if you're adding turmeric to your dishes, include also a pinch of black pepper.
And then finally, oregano. Oregano has been shown to not only be neuroprotective, but also to function as an antidepressant.
Those are the foods to incorporate.
WHAT TO AVOID: DR. ADRIENNE REMINDS HER LISTENERS TO TAKE NOTES AS SHE DOES A SHORT RECAP OF THE FOODS WE SHOULD AVOID FOR BETTER MENTAL HEALTH AND WELL BEING
Now, the foods to avoid. Again, just to recap.
Sugar, high glycemic index carbohydrates, or quick carbs like bread, rice, pasta, potato. Foods that are made from refined flour or ultra processed. Also, try and avoid artificial sweeteners, in particularly, aspartame. Fried foods should be limited and trans fat should really be eliminated. Foods that contain nitrates should be kept to a minimum, like our processed meats. And then, alcohol. We didn't talk about this much, but alcohol is a sedative; it is a depressant. It works by acting on the same GABA mineralogic receptors in the brain that are affected by our benzodiazepines. These are medications like Xanax and Ativan, for example. Alcohol depresses the central nervous system and can be a depressant. So I'm going to, like I said, talk about this in more detail at a subsequent podcast.
And last but not least, just be intentional about feeding yourself. These lists are extensive, and honestly, I don't expect people to eliminate all the foods to avoid, or consistently incorporate all the foods that I've asked you to incorporate, but just be intentional about feeding yourself. Make time for yourself, cook for yourself, care for yourself. This act of self care can be healing in it of itself.
Well, that's all for this week. I want to thank you for your time. Time is our most precious resource, and really, I appreciate you spending some of that preciousness with me.
If you love this episode, please subscribe. And if you think this message will be of service to others, please share it with your friends, your family, and people that you love.
Last but not least, I'm going to ask you to head over to www.dradrienneyoudim.com. My team has created a mood pack with our favorite mood enhancing supplements, including Omega-3 fatty acids, probiotics, and ashwagandha. When purchasing the mood pack together, I will throw in my 30-Day Journaling course as well. These are tools to enhance your mood, mind, and body. What can be better than that?
Here's to an excellent week. Have a great one. And I look forward to seeing you next week right here on Health Bite. Until then. Bye now.