"Currently, inflammation is considered a major factor in the development of depression, dementia, and other brain disorders," says Dr Drew Ramsey.
Every year you can expect a slew of new “guaranteed diet” books for weight loss, brain health, aging, spiritual well-being, and general lifestyle. There’s the vegan one, the raw meat one, the low-fat one, the high-fat one, the juice-from-fruits-picked-during-a-full-moon one, the blood type one, and the one based on your latest tarot card reading. It becomes quite confusing. Authors confuse a little information with knowledge, then try to translate that into sales.
There are too many factors to factor in to a proper diet. Serious nutritionists recognize that good health requires a nuanced understanding of individual genetics, environment, and gut microbiome. Then there’s the speed you consume your food, the types of sugar you eat—in juice or whole fruit, in which the fiber plays a critical role—then the types of fat you digest, and stress levels.
Let’s pause on that last one for a moment, as stress is rampant. An overtaxed body is an inflamed body. A recent study investigating the role of inflammation in regards to brain health and dementia is worth considering. It’s not the only factor in a good diet, but it is a crucial one.
A team at Columbia University Medical Center, led by neuropsychologist and epidemiologist Yian Gu, studied the cognitive performance of 330 elderly adults to see if the Mediterranean diet—one of the longer-lasting and most-studied diets in the world—could lower their risk of diseases of dementia, including Alzheimer’s. All adults involved did not suffer from dementia during the course of the study.
Gu points out numerous studies have shown that this diet, which is fish- and poultry-heavy with an emphasis on whole grains, fruits, olive oil, vegetables, and moderate alcohol intake, offers protection against the development of Alzheimer’s. Gu wanted to know if this is due to a decrease in inflammatory biomarkers in the subject’s brain.
The result was yes, decreased inflammatory markers were prevalent in those who ate this diet. They also had better visuospatial cognition, thanks to nutrients such as vitamins B1, B2, B5, B6, D, and E, as well as higher intake of omega 3-fatty acids, calcium, and folate. Gu notes:
This study suggests that certain nutrients may contribute to the previously observed health benefits of some foods, and anti-inflammation might be one of the mechanisms. We hope to confirm these results in larger studies and with a wider range of inflammatory markers.
To understand why lower inflammation helps overall health and aging I emailed Drew Ramsey, also at Columbia University. The psychiatrist, Big Think expert, and author of numerous books, including Eat Complete, told me:
Inflammation is how our body deals with stress and injury. Today, most people eat a diet and have a lifestyle that promotes incredible stress via excess sugars, eating the wrong fats, and losing the sense of joy that food should give us. Currently, inflammation is considered a major factor in the development of depression, dementia, and other brain disorders. People should worry about inflammation because it is contributing to the degradation of their health.
This is especially important as we age. As Gu and team write in the study, Alzheimer’s is the leading cause of dementia worldwide, and is the most common neurodegenerative disorder. While medical interventions help us live longer that does not always translate to healthier. We can overcome cancer and heart surgery and survive longer with AIDS and type 2 diabetes, but quality of life is greatly compromised when suffering from dementia. The strain on family and friends can be overwhelming.
Which is why it’s important to start interventions earlier in life. Most of what is sold in packages is not food, but a combination of food-like substances preserved by unpronounceable chemistry. Sugars and unhealthy fats hide, disguised by numerous names, slowing transforming our microbiome in ways that degrade health. And it’s not only visceral fat, body mass index, and heart disease we need to worry about. Without healthy cognition the very concept of “I” disintegrates. The so-called golden years are effectively meaningless if you can’t remember them.
While studies like Gu’s remind us of the bigger picture, Ramsey suggests taking it meal by meal. When I ask him how people can implement changes in their diets now, he expresses skepticism about considering the long game. Change starts at the dinner table tonight, he says.
People don't get motivated by “long term benefits” or “risk reduction.” We have the most success in our clinic when we encourage patients to make better food choices at their next meal. We find that there are very rapid effects when people switch from modern Western food to nutrient dense whole foods (which are also brain food). Sure, eating more avocados can decrease dementia risk, but encouraging patients to eat more avocado toast and guacamole is more compelling when it comes to behavioral change.
Gu knows that one study does not change a discourse. But the combination of better understanding the microbiome and the effects of decreasing inflammation is too prevalent to deny. The Mediterranean diet offers a simple lesson applicable globally, to eat seasonal fresh foods and enjoy moderate amounts of alcohol. Such an approach worked for our species for millions of years until the advent of refrigeration and industrial processing. And we know it works now. We just have to implement it, be it through the recognition of cognitively strong aging or, as Ramsey suggests, hitting the produce aisle for dinner tonight.
Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
We know there's a gut-brain connection, but just how deep does it go? Could we treat depression just by adopting a particular diet?
Scientists have recently become aware there's a connection between our gut and our brain. But just how deep does this connection go? Could we, say, treat depression just by adopting a Mediterranean diet? A new study suggests, yes.
Doctors have been prescribing diets to their patients as a preventative measure against heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and now depression joins that list. “We now have real evidence to back up what’s good common sense: that eating well doesn’t just benefit your body, but it also benefits your brain,” says Columbia professor Drew Ramsey, who wrote, Eat Complete.
Ramsey represents a growing group of mental health experts who practice nutritional psychiatry. The idea of a gut-brain connection is one that has been gaining ground in scientific studies and some have started putting these ideas into practice. There's evidence to suggest certain foods influence the bacteria in our gut, which in turn influence mental health.
It’s also important to note about 95 percent of your body’s serotonin is made in your gastrointestinal tract. Scientists are just beginning to discover this secret life of microbes and how much they influence other aspects of our overall health and wellbeing. But we can influence our microbiome with what we eat.
The brain is also directly affected by diet. “Tryptophan is the amino acid that we use to make serotonin and dopamine,” Ramsey told us when he came to Big Think. “These are very, very important mood-regulating and learning-regulating neurotransmitters, or chemicals in the brain. And so the idea is to give people a core set of foods. You know, again, with every bite you're getting all the nutrients that your brain needs.”
Researchers from Australia’s Deakin University led a controlled clinical trial which gives promising results towards suggesting “dietary improvement guided by a clinical dietician may provide an efficacious treatment strategy for the management of this highly prevalent mental disorder.” The researchers recruited several hundred patients with moderate to severe depression, 67 of whom participated in a 12-week parallel group trial. All participants had poor dietary quality when they entered the trail, meaning they ate empty carbs and nutrient-sparse foods, like pizza, pasta and baked goods – what Ramsey terms the "beige diet" or the "12-year-old boy diet".
Ramsey explains the trial result that is exciting for the future of mental health treatment:
"The augmentation effect was quite robust for an adjunctive treatment. In the treatment group, about 32% of patients achieved remission, compared with 8% in the control group. In terms of risk-benefit profiles, a dietary intervention is emerging as a very safe and effective way for us to engage our patients."
The promising meal plan has been coined the Modi-Medi Diet – or modified mediterranean diet –and consists of legumes, leafy greens, colorful vegetables, a variety of quality seafood, quality lean red meat, fruits, olive oil, and nuts. Ramsey emphasizes that the quality of food, in particular of meat and seafood, is important – which is often an area of concern for people trying to make a positive diet change: organic food is expensive. During the trial, the Australian researchers actually found that eating the right foods for optimal brain health is cheaper. "The average Australian spends $138 a week on food. Those who were taking part in the study spent just $112," says Ramsey. What is it about these foods that boost brain function and mental health? They contain nutrients the brain needs, specifically omega-3 fats, zinc, magnesium, iron, and vitamin B12, which are "highly correlated with a lower risk for depression and dementia."
It’s important to note, the field of nutritional psychiatry is still new, so you should not use this diet as a substitute for consulting a therapist if you feel depressed.