The first list of antidepressant foods restructures the "standard" American diet

The first list of antidepressant food scores restructures the "standard" American diet.

  • Leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, and oysters top the list of depression-fighting foods.
  • Organ meats are also near the top of nutrient-dense food sources that should be included in your diet.
  • Researchers focus more on what to eat rather than what to remove from the standard diet.

Michael Pollan was onto something when he added two words to conventional wisdom, writing, "You are what what you eat eats." The nutrients your meal consumes becomes part of you as well, whether it's a cow munching on grass or the soil your vegetables grow in. We know eating has an emotional effect, but you cannot separate emotions from psychology as they are the basis of your mental states.

We can extrapolate philosophically, but we can also look at actual studies on the nutrient profile of foods and their relationship to mental states—specifically, in this case, depressive disorders. A recent study, published in World Journal of Psychiatry, investigated 34 nutrients, extracting data as it relates to foods high in at least one of 12 antidepressant nutrients:

  • Folate
  • Iron
  • Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA)
  • Magnesium
  • Potassium
  • Selenium
  • Thiamine
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin B6
  • Vitamin B12
  • Vitamin C
  • Zinc

Conducted by Laura R LaChance, in the University of Toronto's psychiatry department, and Drew Ramsey, in Columbia's psychiatry department, this team believes this study to be the first to specifically focus on the application of nutrients to depression. They continue:

While many nutrient profiling scales currently exist, created by government agencies, researchers, and the food industry, none focus on mental disorders or brain health. Additionally, no scale is based on nutrients that are supported by scientific literature to be involved in the prevention of and recovery from psychiatric disorders.

There is evidence that the lack of key nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids, B-vitamins, zinc, magnesium, and vitamin D, result in depressive symptoms. In fact, clinical treatment often involves supplementing one or more of these nutrients. The fact that we can get plenty of vitamin D with just a few minutes in the sun is one indicator that our lifestyle patterns are missing essential components for optimal health.

Given the global rise of depression, changes in diet provide at least one level of prevention and therapy—it is unlikely that diet alone could cause such a spike in rates, though it certainly can play an important contributing factor. Something as simple as altering your food intake could help battle the consequences of these symptoms: low self-esteem, loss of meaning, anxiety, spoiled relationships, and at the extreme, suicide, whose rates have also been increasing.

The foods, along with their Antidepressant Food Score (AFS), are listed below:

According to the mean score by category, vegetables top the list at 48 percent, followed by organ meats (25 percent), fruits (20 percent), and seafood (16 percent). The list concludes with legumes, meats, grains, nuts and seeds, and dairy, all coming in below 10 percent. Unlike traditional guidelines, this list does not focus on what not to eat:

A recent review suggests that nutrient profiling scales designed to improve consumer food choices should be based on nutrients known to be beneficial for health as opposed to nutrients to avoid.

They note that recent "common wisdom" suggesting that saturated fats, cholesterol, and sodium is bad for health is now in question. Whereas it's rather obvious that carb- and sugar-heavy diets do not work in our favor, the aim of this study is to remind us what we should be putting into our mouths. Without actionable input, telling us to leave certain foods behind without offering replacements makes little sense.

The main problem is that the majority of Americans do not eat foods high in AFS. For example, most of the adult population consumes too few vegetables; one study reveals that only 27.2 percent eat three or more servings per day. Between 80-90 percent do not eat at least two servings of seafood per week. And forget about most Americans eating organ meats.

Which is a shame, given that organ meats are the most nutrient-dense part of an animal. Whereas there is evidence our ancestors ate the organs and left the meat for scavengers, we've reversed that trend—and are paying the cost.

There is no single food source that will end depression. Rather, the authors write, it seems to be a confluence of events that have led to our abandoning essential nutrients, including increased inflammation due to the "standard" American diet and a lack of dietary fiber. With an increased understanding of the microbiome in overall health, we're gaining clarity over just how influential nutrients are for every aspect of our health.

As nutritionist Chris Kresser wrote in 2011, purely vegetarian and vegan diets are problematic given the lack of essential nutrients, such as those cited in the above study. When asked by Joe Rogan what he thought the healthiest diet is, Kresser replied a vegan diet with shellfish; he's also championed organ meats. Of course, a vegan diet could by default not include animal products, but Kresser's suggestion squares well with this recent research.

There is no question that these food sources provide the most nutrient-dense meals possible. Cultural aversions to organ meats is more the result of economics, not nutrition; at some point, eating organs was believed to be "lower class." That, along with technological advancements such as frozen food that is usually championed as progressive, has set into motion the disastrous eating habits we have today, along with the depression that has followed. The link is clear. Forging new links requires another story.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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