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Food Therapy for Depression and Anxiety

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In my last post, Mental Health: Where Nutrition Meets Psychiatry, I point out the increasing evidence that nutrition plays a fundamental role in our mental health. Treatment that combines nutrition with psychiatry is a critical component of the effort to bring awareness and enhance treatment of mental health disorders.

Drew Ramsey, MD, is one of psychiatry's leading advocates for using dietary changes to balance moods, sharpen brain function, and improve mental health. As an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, with an active private practice in New York, his focus is the clinical treatment of depression and anxiety. He has authored three books including, Fifty Shades of Kale, The Happiness Diet: A Nutritional Prescription for A Sharp Brain, Balanced Mood and Lean Energized Body, and the recently released Eat Complete: The 21 Nutrients that Fuel Brain Power, Boost Weight Loss and Transform Your Health.

At a symposium on "Food and the Brain" at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in May of this year, Emily Deans, MD, (instructor of psychiatry, Harvard University), Laura LaChance, MD, (fifth-year resident in psychiatry at the University of Toronto), and Dr. Ramsey presented research on the role nutrients play in brain health.

Pauline Anderson writes about this session on Medscape Medical News, "New 'Brain Food' Scale Flags Best Nutrients for Depression," May 26, 2016.

Dr. Ramsey and his colleagues have developed a nutrient profiling system, an evidence based scale that rates animal- and plant-based foods and their abilities to improve depressive symptoms. They pinpoint Brain Essential Nutrients (BEN) that affect the treatment and prevention of depression and have gathered nutritional data for top food sources of BEN from the Agricultural Research Service Nutrient Data Laboratory, using it to calculate the Brain Food Scale score.

The team of researchers identified long chain omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, calcium, fiber, zinc, iron, and vitamins B1, B9, B12, D and E as Brain Essential Nutrients. Statistics from the US Department of Agriculture in 2009 revealed that most Americans are falling short of recommended daily allowances for these nutrients.

They advocate a diet rich in leafy greens, nuts, and fish with low mercury content (octopus, squid, snail, mussels, salmon and sardines). They highlighted the importance of including grass-fed, pastured animal sources of red meat, organ meats and wild game. They identify risks associated with B12 deficiency due to following a vegan or vegetarian diet.

The food-as-therapy session at the APA annual meeting was presented to a standing-room-only crowd of more than 400 psychiatrists and other professionals.

The popularity of this event is encouraging as it demonstrates the movement towards including nutritional advice in order to improve the outcomes of patients.

Dr. Ramsey and a number of other experts will be offering nutritional solutions for anxiety, stress, and panic attacks during an upcoming Anxiety Summit.

I had a chance to review the transcript of Dr. Ramsey's interview and am including an excerpt, condensing some of the responses in order to highlight key points. Trudy Scott, food/mood expert and nutritionist, conducts the interview.

Trudy Scott: Let's start by talking about nutritional psychiatry and this movement of food as medicine.

Dr. Drew Ramsey: One, oftentimes mental health symptoms stem from dietary insufficiencies, so people can feel more down, more anxious, more cloudy in their thinking, based upon the type of foods they are eating. Secondly, the strongest data addresses prevention. If you have an anxiety disorder or you really struggle with your mood, there's data that supports the development and recurrence of depression that is very highly correlated with your dietary pattern. In summary, nutritional psychiatry is looking at mental health through the lens of food and adding nutrition in the toolbox of clinicians.

I was fascinated with Dr. Ramsey's mention of a study that looked at the impact of dietary patterns on the size of the hippocampus, Can your diet really impact the size of your brain?

Trudy Scott: A study was published in 2015 that looks at the impact of food on the size of the hippocampus. This is an area of the brain that is involved in emotional regulation and learning. Let's talk a little bit more about this and why we would be interested in knowing about this research.

Dr. Drew Ramsey: Yes, this is a great study, actually. Dr. Felice Jacka's work from last fall is the first study to look at dietary pattern and brain size. A bigger brain means more cells. At about the age of 40- 45, our brains begin to shrink. Dr. Jacka and her group found that people who ate a diet based on colorful plant foods, seafood and whole grains, with the omission of processed foods, had bigger brains at the age of 60 to 65; and their brains were shrinking at a slower rate.

This is all very exciting for all of us. As I try to convey in my writing, rather than blaming ourselves for our mood swings, depression, or anxiety, we need to pause and consider if our mental outlook is affected by the ways in which our body is nourished. Positive changes will empower us to begin our journey to healing.

The Anxiety Summit ( June 6-16th, offering nutritional solutions for anxiety, stress and panic attacks. It's online and is hosted by Trudy Scott, author of The Antianxiety Food Solution. Attendance is free of charge.

Melissa Reagan Brunetti, CNC
Author, The Sweet Side of Balance