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How to Feed Your Brain

Can nutrition take over where psychoactive drugs leave off?

Key points

  • Rates of depression are rising rapidly around the world, and psychoactive meds are failing to stem the tide of new cases.
  • Fast food, which is energy-dense and nutrient-poor, is a likely cause of much mental illness.
  • According to a new book, adding nutrients and fiber back into our diets can increase our mental resilience.

In their new book The Better Brain, authors Bonnie Kaplan and Julia Rucklidge show us how to overcome depression and anxiety with nutrition. This is a fascinating tome by two prominent researchers who aren’t afraid to hold the feet of psychiatrists to the fire. What is that fire? The overhyped reputation of the current crop of psychiatric medicines. After all, if these drugs were working as advertised, why would rates of depression be shooting through the roof?

 Jiangdi/Shutterstock
A new book about nutrition and mental health.
Source: Jiangdi/Shutterstock

The authors estimate that almost half of Americans will experience depression or anxiety in their lifetime. That is up from less than 1% only 50 years ago. Are we just more stressed? Not likely. As the authors point out, previous generations have lived through major world wars and financial ruin worse than anything experienced today. We can’t even blame COVID-19; the alarming rise in depression predates the pandemic by years.

What in the world is happening to us?

This is supposed to be a gilded age of new treatments and psychoactive meds. But with studies finding that some psychoactive meds are only marginally better than placebo, and with depression now ranked as the number one cause of disability, something seems to be seriously wrong with mental health care.

The authors, both psychologists themselves, are not shy about calling out psychiatry for its role. They point out that clinical practice guidelines for psychiatry are written by committees that often have financial ties to pharmaceutical companies. That’s not to say that drug development isn’t progressing. Some new drugs are working well for some patients, although they tend to be expensive.

With the cost of developing a new drug nearing the billion-dollar mark, that’s to be expected. Companies need to recoup their investment. But if the problems we see are not really pharmacological in nature, we shouldn’t expect these companies to come to our rescue.

Rethinking the problem

It’s not just psychiatry that may need a reset. Is it a mere coincidence that during this same period, people have shifted to eating highly processed food? “Processing” involves separating food — mainly soy and corn — into cheap starches and fats, then recombining them with flavorants to make them tasty enough to overlook the fact that the nutrients and fiber were left behind.

The domination of cheap fast food, which is now spreading around the world, must take a lot of the blame for our mental health debacle. By stripping out nutrients and fiber in order to concentrate on energy, manufacturers are making us sick, physically and mentally.

A raft of micronutrients is necessary for the brain to function properly and fiber is essential to feed the beneficial bacteria in our gut. Although some nutrients may be added back to processed food, they rarely match the profile of nutrients in the original source food.

The addition of preservatives and emulsifiers, although good for shelf-life and the bottom line, only adds to the damage done to the gut. Yet these processed foods are lapped up by a public now addicted to the seductive taste of fat, salt, sugar, and artificial flavors.

Learning is liberating

We all need to educate ourselves on the basic truths of the gut-brain axis. That’s where books like The Better Brain prove to be vitally important. We need to do more than read them; we need to shout the message from the rooftops. After decades of increasing lifespans, we are now experiencing a dispiriting backslide. Worse yet, we get sick sooner, wrecking the chance for a dignified retirement.

This book is crammed with intriguing stories of people who have found relief from psychiatric conditions using proper nutrition. One patient noted that there were clues in her charts that were ignored: “They found low potassium, which I learned impacts brain functioning and therefore could contribute to psychosis. I was eventually treated for the low potassium … but I wonder why they did not start there.” Indeed. Psychiatry has yet to fully accept the contribution of gut issues to mental health, much to the detriment of their patients.

With each new study reaffirming the importance of a healthy gut, opting to ignore this aspect of mental health becomes harder to justify. However, anecdotes are unlikely to sway the field that much. What is really needed are large randomized, controlled studies. That is enormously difficult for nutritional studies, which traditionally depend on people remembering and accurately reporting exactly what they have been eating.

Fortunately, more and better studies are being conducted, and there is general agreement that humans need a full suite of micronutrients and fiber to keep their gut microbes happy and their brains nourished. Hippocrates pointed out that our guts were the key to our health some 2500 years ago, but it seems to have slipped our minds.

The bottom line

This book is a great eye-opening read, making it easy to follow the science to its logical conclusions: Our diets are depressing, and better nutrition is the key to our salvation. As a happy plus, it contains some delicious recipes. This book makes a great companion to my own book with John Cryan and Ted Dinan, The Psychobiotic Revolution. We make a similar case for better nutrition, with an emphasis on the microbiota. Hopefully, the world of psychiatry will start to pay more attention to diet and gut microbes as it becomes clearer that our current paradigms are lacking.

The bottom line? If you suffer from depression, anxiety, or ADHD, get this book and learn how to become more resilient with better nutrition. After all, you have nothing to lose by eating right, and so much to gain.

References

Bonnie J. Kaplan and Julia J. Rucklidge, The Better Brain. (New York, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021).

Scott C. Anderson, John F. Cryan and Ted Dinan, The Psychobiotic Revolution, (Washington, D.C., National Geographic, 2017)

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