Brain Food (August 25, 2015)
Slideshows are one of the true scourges of the internet. Slogging through one slowly-loading page after another in the hopes of maybe someday obtaining some actual information is not my idea of a good time. Even worse, by the time that you finally finish the thing, all that remains in your mind as payoff for your torment is a vague, quickly-vanishing impression or two of the "blueberries are good for you" type.
But slideshows assembled by teenaged summer interns and books with exclamation points in the title are where you tend to wind up when you start researching a topic like “foods for [FILL IN DISEASE OF YOUR CHOICE HERE]”. And those are what I did battle with this past week when I naively took up the subject of food/nutrients and brain function. Huzzah! (I should mention here that by “brain function” I mean not just dementia and cognitive decline, although I have been focusing on those lately for some reason I can’t seem to remember, but also anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder -- the whole mental ball of wax.)
How much diet might benefit mood and mind has been a subject of either neglect or amusement here in the Oh-So-Scientific West, where for some reason we feel that mind and body are two separate entities, and that illnesses of the mind are moral failures in a way that illnesses of the body are not. (This split between the mind and the body does not exist in Asian medicine. There, emotions are matter-of-factly considered to be capable of producing physical problems and vice versa. Clever, these Chinese, as my father used to say.)
Considering the dependence that modern psychiatry has on the use of drugs and its lurid history of treatments that even politely can only be described as barbaric, it’s funny that diet as an influence on brain function is something that has been neglected for so long. You'd think that they'd have tried EVERYTHING long ago. And whatever else one might believe about the mind and its nature, you can’t really dispute that the brain is the organ of same and that both might easily -- and profoundly -- be influenced by the products that the diet dumps into the blood.
So when you have a history of immersing people in freezing water, electrocuting them, stuffing them into sacks and driving ice picks into their brains, all in the name of "treatment", how much harm could there be in trying to see if it might be of some use to eat avocados instead of Little Debbies? Well it happens that finally this occurred to a few psychiatrists, and the American Psychiatric Association has included a session at its annual meeting for the last few years devoted to diet and the brain.
In fact, there is now even a new International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry founded on the premise that food is a very beneficial and underused intervention for mental health. Right this very second, a few maverick psychs are working on the theory that that diet is as important in normal brain function as it is in diabetes, heart disease, etc. About time, I say.
But what do we know right now about what would be a healthy diet for the brain? Well, to start with, it would be more a pattern of eating than a few unrelated foods. And that pattern would be a traditional pre-processed food diet, such as the Mediterranean Diet.
What might be specifically beneficial in this style of eating? One psychiatrist has rather melodiously summed up the especially beneficial foods therein as “seafood, greens, nuts and beans”. If you then add some dark chocolate and a little alcohol to that list (and who could object to adding a little dark chocolate and alcohol to anything?), all the while keeping in mind that we are talking about a fundamentally Mediterranean diet, we’ll be right on top of it.
Why those foods in particular? Probably because there are deficiencies of particular nutrients that are strongly correlated with disturbances in brain functioning, and the food groups on that list all have either good individual evidence to support their efficacy in improving mental function, are loaded with nutrients that are known to be helpful, or both. Briefly, the seafood (especially molluscs but also deepwater oily fish like wild salmon, herring and sardines) supplies omega-3 fatty acids and B12 and zinc, vitamin D, iodine and chromium; the greens provide fiber, folate, vitamin K, magnesium, and no end of antioxidants and other phytochemicals; nuts have useful fats, fiber, vitamin E and an impressive list of other minerals and vitamins; and beans contain fiber, protein, and antioxidants.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t other foods beneficial to the brain. Certainly anything that supports the gut microbiome, dysfunction of which has recently been discovered to play a part in depression, would be good. But what I just recited is most of what we know so far.
As kind of an aside here, it happens that a lot of people with particularly nasty gluten allergies are schizophrenic. Celiac disease (which is the autoimmune disease you get when you are majorly allergic to gluten) is present in schizophrenics at a rate of about four times that of the general population. Moreover, cutting gluten out of the diets of these people produces remarkable reversals of not just the celiac disease, but the psychosis as well. Huh.
Does that mean a little bit of gluten insensitivity could whack you out just a bit? The answer to that is a very large "maybe". But my personal suggestion to anyone with any kind of chronic emotional or mental issue is that s/he test gluten as a food that is possibly causing the symptoms. I don't see how that could possibly hurt anyone to try.
Which brings me in conclusion to something I can hardly believe I haven’t written on yet, and that is elimination diets. There are circumstances under which finding out if you are eating something that is causing a specific symptom is not just helpful, but essential. My personal opinion is that anyone with a chronic health issue should probably do an elimination diet once to see if it helps them. And the best elimination diet by leaps and bounds is a classic one, not the pitiful substitutes that are being offered up in its place these days.
So I will take up elimination diets next week. But as a takeaway from today, I would just conclude that a Mediterranean diet with an emphasis on seafood and greens, nuts and beans plus the cheery addition of small amounts of alcohol and dark chocolate may very well make you better mentally and emotionally as well as physically, and is just one more reason to eat that way. Beats the heck out of the alternatives -- even when you consider that they aren't using the human-sized hamster wheel anymore.
--dr. diane holmes
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