Kelly Brogan MD Team, KellyBroganMd.com
The Path to Wellness Is through Food
If you are one of the estimated 15 million Americans suffering from depression, you may be surprised to learn that the path to wellness and vitality is through food.
The Western diet of heavily processed, denatured foods has been widely linked to rising rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Did you know that it’s also linked to poor memory function, hyperactive immune response, and inflammation, all of which affect symptoms of depression?
The Gut-brain Axis: Your Second Brain
Our digestive systems know when we are under stress. Whether it’s feeling too nervous to eat, or experiencing “butterflies” in the stomach when we feel excited, it’s clear that our thoughts impact digestive functions. But why is the gut being called our “second brain”?
The enteric nervous system, or ENS, is the cellular lining covering the entire GI tract. The ENS sends signals to the brain via 100 million nerve cells. Scientists at Johns Hopkins University explain it this way:
The gut doesn’t seem capable of thought as we know it, but it communicates back and forth with our … brain—with profound results. For decades, we thought that anxiety and depression contributed to digestive disorders, such as IBS, Crohn’s disease, etc. But … studies show that it may also be the other way around.
What Signals Is Your Gut Sending?
The Standard American Diet (appropriately called SAD) is creating an epidemic of poor digestion. Gas, bloating, pain or exhaustion after meals is commonplace. Diagnoses of bowel disease like colitis, IBS, and Crohn’s are rising worldwide, especially among people age 15 and under.
Take control of the signals your gut is sending to your brain by following these basic rules.
5 Rules for Eating away Your Depression
1. Avoid Trigger Foods
Unfortunately, most packaged items on standard grocery store shelves will fit into this category. Boxed meals, bottled sauces, and processed vegetable oils contain additives that can wreak havoc on the gut lining and have been linked to systemic inflammation and thyroid dysfunction.
The further food gets from its natural state, the more likely it is to trigger an inflammatory response in the gut.
Symptoms of inflammation such as fatigue, brain fog, flat mood, PMS, and constipation are all frequently reported by depressive patients. These signs of systemic inflammation are psychiatric pretenders—they mimic symptoms associated with mental illness—which explains why depression has been called an inflammatory disorder.
To heal inflammation in the body, eliminate foods that are known to be inflammatory triggers. Purge your pantry, tossing out all:
- Refined sugars
- Grains (including corn)
This highly effective dietary protocol requires adherence for 30 days to reset the body. After this cleansing phase, pay strict attention to how you feel if you reintroduce any of these foods back into your diet.
2. Go Organic
Purging your pantry of trigger foods can leave you wondering, “What is there to eat?” Fortunately, the answer is simple: real, organic food. Finding healthy options is easier than ever before because of the growing demand for it, and it isn’t as costly as you might think.
People naturally prefer the most flavorful foods, which, as nature would have it, tend to be organic. But did you know that your health, as well as that of future generations, may depend on it? Non-organic foods contain higher-than-ever levels of pervasive pesticides and herbicides like glyphosate, which are known to cause endocrine disruption, damage DNA, and even cause birth defects.
By choosing a whole foods-based, organic diet, you not only get the healthiest and best-tasting foods, you support the long-term health of our species, and the planet. Now that’s something to feel good about!
3. Guard against Deficiencies
It may surprise you to learn that many individuals who are clinically obese are actually malnourished. Micronutrient deficiencies are increasingly appearing, as overuse of pesticides and herbicides deplete the soil used to grow our food.
Going organic helps, but denatured soil isn’t the only culprit behind nutrient deficiencies. A person can take in adequate nutrients, yet factors like stress, smoking, pharmaceuticals, and environmental toxicants often interfere with the body’s ability to absorb them. Western diets are frequently found to be lacking in the following nutrients, all of which are essential to mood and energy regulation:
Supplementing low levels of B12 has proven “among the most useful, safe, and effective” treatments for a host of psychiatric conditions.
Magnesium is considered one of the most beneficial supplements available, providing relief from ailments such as PMS, poor thyroid function, and depression.
Zinc deficiency is often found concurrent with a psychiatric diagnosis. The important role zinc plays in immune system regulation, sexual health, and basic cellular repair make this another mineral that cannot be overlooked. Our bodies can’t store zinc, which makes supplementation even more critical if adequate levels are not maintained through diet.
- Essential Fatty Acids
The human brain is more than 60% fat, so consuming adequate amounts of healthy fats is critical for optimal mental health. Essential fatty acids or EFAs, promote cellular regeneration, build new brain tissue, and cushion and protect neural pathways. Still, more than 70% of Americans are believed to be deficient.
These vital nutrients cannot be manufactured by the human body, so be sure to include lots of the following foods as part of your healthy diet:
- Dark, leafy greens
- Oily fish such as wild-caught salmon, mackerel, and sardines
- Pastured eggs
- Sprouted nuts and seeds
If you’re worried that eating more dietary fat will derail your weight, don’t. Optimal metabolism is a natural consequence of the blood-sugar-stabilizing effects of a high natural fat diet.
4. Restore Your Microbiome
If you haven’t heard of the microbiome, let’s get into it. The human microbiome is the internal community of living microorganisms that supports healthy digestion and immune system response, among other useful functions. It is made up of trillions of cells that continually report to the brain on the state of the body.
The gut-brain axis refers to the vagus nerve pathway where this signaling takes place. When the organisms in the microbiome send distress signals, a host of health effects can occur, from depression and other psychiatric complaints, to brain disease, stroke, and seizures.
There’s no denying the negative impact the modern American lifestyle has on this bacterial ecology. Rapid urbanization, proliferation of environmental toxins, and denatured food all place growing burdens on the gut, while the overuse of antibiotics undermines beneficial bacteria that are essential to maintaining this delicate, internal balance.
When the microbiome is compromised, gut contents pass through the lining of the gut wall and into the bloodstream, where they drive inflammation and often present as symptoms of mental illness.
Adherence to an ancestral, organic diet will do much to restore a damaged microbiome. Probiotic supplementation has proven to be extremely effective in treating depression through restoration of beneficial bacteria in the gut. One or two teaspoons per day of fermented foods should be added to your list of powerful safeguards against the ravages of the modern age.
5. Eat Consciously
A diagnosis of Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis served as my wake-up call to examine what I was asking of my body. Fueling late nights with sugar and caffeine had culminated in a state of listlessness, hair loss, and brain fog. That was not my normal state—rather, it was a state of emergency that I took very seriously.
Whether the alarm is sudden and undeniable, or slow to awaken us, the point is that we wake up—and become fully conscious of what—and how—we feed ourselves.
Do you often eat at your desk, while processing an endless stream of emails? Do you sometimes eat standing up, too rushed to even call it a meal? When we eat unconsciously we deny our bodies the experience of nourishment. Is it any wonder that our bodies often struggle to digest food?
Take time before each meal to really take in your food: look at the colors, savor the aromas, appreciate the nourishment your meal is providing. This sends the first signals to the brain that it’s time for digestion to begin.
Let your mouth water! Saliva contains powerful enzymes that pre-digest food as you chew. Chewing slowly and thoroughly will ensure that you receive the optimum benefits of these powerful digestive juices.
Finally, promote a feeling of gratitude for what you are about to consume. The journey our food takes from farm to table requires several levels of sacrifice. Acknowledging the part that you and others play in the lifecycle of your food will deliver the full range of nourishment that food can provide.
Food is information. With every bite we take, we are programming our bodies for tomorrow. What signals is your food sending?
Copyright © Kelly Brogan. This work is reproduced and distributed with the permission of Kelly Brogan, MD. For more articles, sign up for her newsletter at www.kellybroganmd.com.
Dr. Kelly Brogan is boarded in Psychiatry/Psychosomatic Medicine/Reproductive Psychiatry and Integrative Holistic Medicine and practices Functional Medicine, a root-cause approach to illness as a manifestation of multiple-interrelated systems. After studying Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT and receiving her MD from Cornell University, she completed her residency and fellowship at Bellevue/NYU. She is one of the nation’s only physicians with perinatal psychiatric training who takes a holistic evidence-based approach in the care of patients with a focus on environmental medicine and nutrition. She is also a mom of two and an active supporter of women’s birth experience. She is the Medical Director for Fearless Parent and an advisory board member for GreenMedInfo.com. Visit her website.