The food you eat directly affects your brain.
Food is the best medicine. All your cells, bones, signaling molecules, and tissues are built from what you eat. For example, dietary fats are the building blocks of brain tissue and help balance hormones. Muscles are built from protein. Different vitamins and minerals are used to create energy and send electrical impulses along neurons so that we can move, think, and feel.
This physiological reality is why a nourishing diet is one of the best strategies against depression.
The food we eat affects both our human cells and the cells of the microbes that live inside us. Numerous studies have shown that food changes the collection of trillions of beneficial bacteria in our guts, called the microbiome. In the name of convenience, flavor, or simply habit, many of us consume inflammatory foods on a daily basis. These increase intestinal permeability (leaky gut), harm the microbiome, and create chronic inflammation that can lead to depression.
Many studies have shown that people who eat an anti-inflammatory diet have significantly lower risks of depression. A recent study that tracked about 6,500 women over the course of 12 years showed that women eating an anti-inflammatory diet had a 20 percent lower risk of developing depression than their peers. These anti-inflammatory diets consist of healthy fats, vitamins, antioxidants, and plenty of high-quality protein. On the other hand, many foods in the standard American diet create chronic inflammation. These five inflammatory foods are the most frequent offenders I see when treating patients for depression.
Gluten is the glue-like protein found in wheat. Grains such as barley, rye, and contaminated oatmeal contain proteins that may be recognized by your body as gluten. Gluten and gluten-like proteins are some of the most inflammatory foods you can eat.
Gluten drives inflammation by irritating the gut and gut microbes, as well as intestinal tissues. This protein causes gut cells to produce a compound called zonulin, leading to intestinal permeability. Gluten, which is a sticky protein, can also interfere with digestion by clumping together food particles. A recent study showed that gluten caused inflammation in the gut cells of healthy volunteers, suggesting that gluten may cause adverse effects that can lead to depression in anyone.
Gluten consumption has been linked to depression, seizures, headaches, anxiety, nerve damage, and ADHD-like symptoms. Gluten has been linked to over 200 conditions, with neurotoxicity topping the list.
Believe me, I understand the pleasures of dairy. Growing up in an Italian family, many of my fondest memories involve cheese, ice cream, ricotta, and yogurt. Science supports our attachment to dairy. On a molecular level, dairy contains morphine-like compounds which engage our opiate receptors and create a mild dairy addiction.
A number of studies have shown that casein, a protein found in dairy products, can drive inflammation. Casein has been linked to several psychiatric conditions, ranging from schizophrenia to depression. Dairy may not be a problem for everyone, and some people can tolerate certain types of dairy, such as raw milk.
If you’re suffering from symptoms of depression or anxiety, it’s worth eliminating dairy for 30 days and seeing how you feel. Some people are able to reintroduce dairy after a month off with no problems, while others totally lose their taste for it and even vomit when trying it again.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have become a staple in the standard American diet. Beyond being a population-wide experiment in manipulating nature’s design, these foods have been heavily treated with pesticides and herbicides. Since these chemicals have been designed to kill, it makes sense that they’re quite toxic to our own human and microbial cells. Indeed, studies have shown that the common herbicide Roundup (glyphosate) causes cancer.
Alarmingly, these chemicals have been found in fetuses and breast milk, showing that the toxins used in modern farming are harming future generations. Roundup is toxic to fetal cells and can lead to birth defects. This toxicant disrupts our microbiome, messing with the production of amino acids, absorption of minerals, and detoxification in the liver.
In addition to Roundup—which is the primary herbicide sprayed on GMOs such as soy and corn—GMOs also carry a variety of other toxicants. As even non-GMO foods can be contaminated with pesticides, I advise my clients, especially those suffering from depression, to eat organic foods.
Sugar and Artificial Sugar
Our bodies weren’t designed to handle the blood sugar and insulin roller coaster that many of us are on. Here’s how it goes: When you eat sugar, whether it’s in soda or pasta, your blood sugar jumps and then spikes insulin. When insulin removes blood sugar, you then have a blood sugar crash, and cortisol comes in to compensate and try to move sugar out of storage and back into the bloodstream. Since your brain needs steady sugar to function, this chain reaction has several effects. This process, often called reactive hypoglycemia, causes carb and sugar cravings, which lead to anxiety, headaches, irritability, and, ultimately, depression.
Overall, high blood sugar causes inflammation, which is one of the most significant risk factors for depression. Balancing blood sugar is one of the most effective treatments for depression and anxiety.
Sugar messes with our brain health in three main ways. First, sugar creates inflammation, often by spiking insulin and harming our gut microbiome. Next, sugar derails hormones, ultimately increasing levels of the stress hormone cortisol and disrupting the balance of sex hormones. Finally, sugar starves the brain and damages important structures in our bodies, like cell membranes and blood vessels. All of this can lead to depression.
Because of all the research showing how harmful sugar is, food manufacturers have gotten creative in naming it. Don’t be fooled by code names like cane sugar, crystalline fructose, maltodextrin, high-fructose corn syrup—it’s all sugar.
It’s tempting to swap out sugar for artificial sweeteners, but products like aspartame and sucralose are ‘zero calorie’ because they can’t be digested by the human body. Unfortunately, these chemicals don’t just pass through your body with no effect. Artificial sugars confuse hormones and change your microbiome. A high-profile scientific article showed that artificial sugar consumption leads to metabolic syndromes such as insulin resistance and diabetes. Choose sweeteners that your body recognizes, such as honey.
The standard American diet contains large amounts of unhealthy fats, mostly in the form of commercial vegetable oils. Many processed foods, ranging from store-bought cookies to salad dressing, contain these oils. Vegetable oils include safflower oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, soybean oil, and canola oil. These oils are considered ‘processed’ because many high-heat and high-pressure steps, as well as chemical solvents, are required to create them. Many of these oils are made from GMOs.
Have you ever seen a canola plant? Canola oil, which has been touted as heart-healthy, is derived from the Canadian rapeseed plant. Recognizing that “rape oil” wasn’t a good marketing name, this invention was given a new name as a combination of “Canada” and “ola,” which means oil. Today, it’s genetically modified by Monsanto to withstand saturation with Roundup herbicide.
Our bodies don’t recognize vegetable oils, especially when they’re heated and distorted. Consuming vegetable oils triggers inflammation and has been linked to thyroid dysfunction, cardiovascular diseases, nutrient deficiencies, cancer, and psychiatric disorders such as depression.
So What Do I Eat?!
I recommend that people give themselves two to four weeks to kick the sugar, gluten, and dairy habit. In this time, you can try non-GMO foods and healthier fats like olive oil and lard. People are amazed by how good they feel and how quickly their tastes change.
It can be overwhelming to try to overhaul your diet, and we’ve been led to seek quick and easy fixes. As someone who’s radically changed her diet and outlook on eating, I assure you that the deep commitment to yourself and your health is worth it. When you remove these inflammatory foods, you can more easily tap into your intuition to properly nourish yourself.
For links to the source studies that this article draws on, please visit our website for the online version or visit KellyBroganMD.com
Kelly Brogan, M.D., is a holistic women’s health psychiatrist and author of the New York Times bestselling book “A Mind of Your Own,” the children’s book “A Time for Rain,” and co-editor of the landmark textbook “Integrative Therapies for Depression.” This work is reproduced and distributed with the permission of Kelly Brogan, M.D. For more articles, sign up for the newsletter at www.KellyBroganMD.com
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the herbicide Roundup. The Epoch Times regrets the error.