Nutritional Psychiatry is one of the newest branches of psychiatry, focusing on how nutrition and
food choices impact our brains and moods. Drs. Drew Ramsay and Uma Naidoo are leaders in
this field, both focusing on nutrition in their treatment of patients. Why is nutrition important as it
relates to brain health? For starters, among people aged 15-44, depressive disorders are the
leading cause of disability worldwide. Recent studies show a correlation between dietary patterns
and brain-based illnesses (depression, dementia, etc), and what you choose to eat is critical to
your brain health, as your brain consumes 20% of everything you eat. A healthy brain can help
promote better resilience during times of stress.
Your brain is also an extension of your gut, which is a fact that is commonly overlooked…so
what happens in the gut impacts the brain and vice versa. The adult brain also has capacity to
grow new brain cells (neurogenesis) and BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a hormone
made by cells in the brain, can be increased by nutrients in food. Low levels of BDNF can
worsen depressive symptoms.
What about inflammation? If you read any news these days, you have likely read all about the
dangers and evils of inflammation. Acute inflammation is good, as it is protective to the body,
especially against infection. Chronic inflammation, however, is where problems arise, and can
contribute to many diseases, including brain based disease (dementia, depression). Chronic
inflammation can be caused by food choices, i.e. high blood sugar, and be drastically decreased
by changing diet. When inflammation reaches the brain, cytokines (chemical messengers that
are released during an inflammatory process) can affect neurotransmitters. New studies are
showing that these cytokines can also affect the amygdala, which is essential in processing
emotion. Amygdala dysregulation plays a role in anxiety, PTSD and the fear response. It is
important to note here that psychiatric disorders are not inflammatory diseases, but decreasing
inflammation in the body may have positive effects on mood and other psychiatric symptoms.
So….what should you eat? My next blog post will go into more detail about complete eating
principles and how to pick healthy choices that may have a significant impact on brain health,
mood and overall sense of well being. If you are suffering from psychiatric symptoms, it will be
important to talk with your doctor about how diet and food choices may help supplement your
other treatment modalities (therapy, medication); this should not be used in lieu of other
evidence based treatments.