Are there things that we can do to optimize the longevity of our brain, the resilience of our brain, the emotional regulation of our brain? I think we all know the answer is yes.
–Dr. Drew Ramsey, MD, recently speaking on The Reflective Doc Podcast.
As a psychiatrist, I spend a significant amount of time helping patients weigh the pros and cons of medication to target their symptoms. There are many times, however, when I want to offer more. In addition, many patients are looking outside of the traditional psychiatry clinic for answers and relief.
Preventive mental health is an increasingly important topic—using preemptive strategies to strengthen our brains and bodies. The average reader will be regularly encouraged to try meditation, create an exercise routine, and keep a consistent sleep schedule. I agree wholeheartedly with all of these.
Remembering a Key Factor for Mental Health: Our Diet
What I would like to add to this great list is nutritional psychiatry, defined by a thought leader in this field, Dr. Drew Ramsey, MD, as “The use of nutrition to optimize brain function, and to prevent and treat mental health disorders.” Dr. Ramsey, a Columbia-trained psychiatrist, author of Eat to Beat Depression and Anxiety and founder of the New York City–based Brain Food Clinic, stated in our recent podcast discussion, “In some ways I see food really as a very powerful biological intervention…Our brains and our consciousness are made from the nutrients in our food.”
With our current Western diet, we have shifted far from prior eating patterns toward a higher level of processed, carbohydrate-rich foods, many significantly lacking in nutrient density. The anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids have been replaced with the more reactive omega-6 fatty acids, which compete for the same enzymes but provide fewer benefits to our health.
What Should We Be Eating to Improve Our Moods?
The Mediterranean diet, with its emphasis on olive oil, seafood, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and nuts and seeds, has shown promising benefits in mental health. In the SUN Navarra study, it was shown to decrease the risk of depression in college students by more than 40 percent. In the SMILES study, participants experienced significant improvement in major depressive disorder after only seven dietary consultation sessions.
It is understandable that many individuals struggle to keep up with the shifting nutritional recommendations they have heard throughout their lives. Michael Pollan sums up a more recent movement toward healthy eating in his book In Defense of Food, in which he recommends “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” He emphasizes nutrient-rich food found naturally, rather than processed choices.
It’s unfortunate that we have taken so many years to recognize the negative effects of so many simple carbohydrates, processed foods, and sugar in our diet. Many of us are regularly searching for a better way to eat, both to feel better and to improve our overall health.
How Can Nutritional Psychiatry Guide Us?
In addition to my own diet, when selecting food for my children, I want to make choices based on evidence, not emotion. The goal of nutritional psychiatry is to help individuals choose foods that protect and promote brain health, shifting away from an often-repeated, and less positive, focus on weight loss and physical appearance. I don’t want my children to fear certain foods, categorize them as good and bad, or feel constantly nagged to “find a healthy snack.”
I also appreciate the field’s openness to self-selection, describing various options to improve dietary intake, without being pedantic about how to begin or specific foods we must consume. Food is such a powerful instrument for connection, belonging, and collaboration. As a clinician, I must be aware of my patients’ cultural and familial relationship with food, whether it was conflictual or highly enjoyable.
Done with patience and a reasonable pace, we, along with our loved ones, can choose those particular foods that appeal most, slowly adding to our nutrient-dense food intake, and improving our brains in the process.