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Harvard Health Blog
Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food
- By Eva Selhub MD, Contributing Editor
About the Author
Eva Selhub MD, Contributing Editor
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles.
No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
Eva is correct and there is extensive evidence behind her contentions. I have posted multiple links to the science below
I have believed, and loudly stated, for a long time that poor nutrition was most probably a leading factor in the mental disease that runs rampant in my family. What I don’t understand is how a few of us seem to be exempt. Perhaps genetic testing should be made less expensive and more available to the general population. But, more importantly, how do you propose to make these “healthy alternatives” affordable for people? Our foods are rampant with chemicals, hormones, and …? Some families can barely afford to subsist, much less pay high prices for the healthier foods. I don’t believe that you can even get the seeds to grow your own anymore without them having been genetically modified. I think this article is very informative. The links provided are a great place to start on finding information. Sometimes we need to first be made aware that this information exists; than search for ourselves the information pertinent to our own situations or lifestyles. Thank you berry much for your article and the links provided to give me further resources to find more info on Fitts subject.
At age 55 and on atypical bipolar meds since age 19, I’m pre-disposed to diabetes. The meds are awful for your metabolism, and create brain fog. The bipolar is well controlled now, but after a few years of pre-diabetes, and not doing anything about it, I crossed the line to diabetes with a HGB A1C of 7.5 and FBS of 155 and a weight of 230 in January (up from 145 five years ago), despite walking 3-7 miles daily. Refusing to take yet another med, I went to see a nutritionist who is also a doctor and can write scripts for tests. I wanted to know exactly what my body needed before adding anything to the chemistry that is me.
She performed four tests: vit D, ferritin, the Spectracell, and the Alcat food sensitivites. My vit D was deficient, so we added a supplement, ferritin was off the charts, so I started donating blood, Spectracell showed me exactly what I was deficient in relative to nutrition and aging, so I could get onto only those supplements or precursors I needed for a healthy immune system, (also brewing my own Kombucha for probiotic and ployphenols)and the Alcat showed me precisely what foods cause inflammation in my body.
I went through a lifestyle change with no refined sugar, wheat, or soy and limited dairy (minimal raw, grass fed). Upped the organic vegetables, lowered carbs (limited to legumes and wild rice), no fried foods or processed foods. Coconut oil three time daily, Udo’s oil once daily. Added krill oil. No cooking with any oil but coconut or red palm. I eat meat or fish once or twice a day, less than 4 oz. (grass-fed beef, wild caught fish or pastured pork/chicken ) Totally eliminated those foods the Alcat showed severe or moderate reaction to, and minimized the ones it showed mild reaction to.
AMAZING results! My psychiatrist and my medical doctor are impressed. My LDLs have come down to 76 from 124. TC down from 201 to 153. My HDLs up to 66 from 56. My Hgb A1C is now 5.6, my FBS is 88, and I’ve lost…50 pounds in one year. I know I have a ways to go, but I’ve not felt this good in five years. No mood swings, no depression, no manic episodes. Tranquility, serenity and feeling energized. Increased productivity and the brain fog has lifted.
That’s really wonderful!
My name is Carol Chester. I have been experimenting with diet since the mid-1970s. Regardless of what evidence is presented, I go by how my body feels after eating. Plant-based foods seem the best for me, combined with daily exercise.
I’m 69 years old, and 13 years ago, I became a vegetarian. I was the “junk eater extraordinaire” before going clean! I had to do something about my weight, my food addictions and overeating. I could eat bags of junk snacks washed down with sodas, with no thoughts on what it was doing to my health.
Well I did IT! I lost weight, exercise almost daily and I’m not on any prescription drugs. I quit eating all meat except WILD fish, scallops, occasionally. 98% of my diet is plant based. All the colors of the rainbow, nuts, seeds, beans, and of course fruits and veggies. I do eat an occasional sweet desert, an ice cream once in a while, but never to the extent of what I ate in my “previous life.”
May I highly recommend that if you feel and look like crap, then do something about it and change that diet of junk, soda’s, and garbage candy. If you want off your meds, then start researching what REAL food can do for you.
To-C. Petrovich–I tried the veggie thing-and guess what??I became so supersensitive to aromatic hydrocarbons(ie-perfumes-heat from gas furnaces-kitchen cleaners-all phenol based products)This actually caused a severe rise in blood pressure.
My advice is”Before doing the “Wacko”diet thing–eat organic-and also find out by way of allergy testing–what is BEST for your body’s metabolism-I’m glad that the diet worked for you-JM
your blogs are extremely helpful
thanks for the really good tips
as a sufferer of the combined depression and food cravings – it doesn’t seem any of you point to which causes which to occur at the beginning of its situational occurrence. I am now undergoing the debacle – started 2 days ago – beginning with either the chocolate food craving or the depression – one of the two symptoms causing the other — what caused which one to begin — no one seems to have any help or answers or understanding.
Do you take any kind off magnesium, or vital. D3?
It is challenging to figure out what is causing what, once the cycle has been initiated. I usually have my patients start with an elimination diet (along with therapy with one of the therapists I work with) for 3 to 4 weeks and then slowly reintroduce foods to see if there is a trigger. I also make sure they are on probiotics.
What’s laughable about all the criticism of Dr. Selhub’s work not being “scientific enough” is that so much of medical “science” isn’t scientific at all–and doctors and researchers are admitting that fact.
I refer, of course, to a recent editorial in the Lancet, but other examples abound. Remember when being gay was a psychiatric illness, then–poof (no pun intended)–after some political pressure, it was no longer?
I also wonder how many of the complainers have actually read the research. Oh, that’s called contempt prior to investigation. Not very scientific.
how many influence have chemical additive in nutrien/food on our health and behaviour ?
Thank you for all of the great info!
Love the complaints. This is not a medical journal nor academic paper. The article had to get approved by the editor with Harvard-quality standards.
I found some of the story new information and interesting.
I believe Felice was trying to make sure these references came to light for all those individuals wanting more science:. As per Felice Jackson:
The field of Nutritional Psychiatry is relatively new, however there are now extensive observational data confirming the association between diet quality and mental health across countries, cultures and age groups – depression in particular. Here are links to some systematic reviews and meta-analyses:
There are also now two interventions suggesting that dietary improvement can prevent depression:
Diet during early life is also linked to mental health outcomes in children (very important from public health perspective):
Extensive animal data show that dietary manipulation affects brain plasticity and there are now data from humans to suggest the same:
Finally, while there are yet to be published RCTs testing dietary improvement as a treatment strategy for depression, the first of these is underway and results will be published within six months:
I have posted (twice) an extensive list of links to the evidence base, yet the moderators have not posted these as yet. I’m not sure why, as they contain nothing controversial not commercial.
Moderators, please publish my post so that others may read the literature for themselves.
Hi Dr. Jacka, When comments have links in them they are automatically queued up for approval because majority of the time it’s spammers posting irrelevant links. Sorry for the delay in approving the other important references regarding this research!
Harvard Health Publishing
There are extensive data from human observational studies, summarised as per these systematic reviews and meta-analyses:
As well as extensive data from animal and human studies highlighting the influence of diet on brain parameters – just one example in humans:
Two new interventions suggesting prevention of depression via dietary improvement:
As well as important data suggesting that dietary intakes during pregnancy and early life are relevant for the mental health of children:
The results of the first RCT to investigate dietary improvement as a treatment strategy for major depression will be published within the next six months:
I other interesting articles, there is always at least one, often, references to refereed literature whence I can find more details. W/o those references the article reads very weak. The note at the end of this page explains that the aim of the blog is to provide reliable information.
I saw this after having a long discussion about a man in our community who committed suicide yesterday. Given the rise in mental illness, and other chronic illnesses today, do we want to wait – how long – for “enough” scientific evidence that a healthy diet is helpful? Or do we want to work toward promoting healthy diets and lifestyles now, and hope we can use this knowledge and prevent deaths? Are processed, sugar & chemical laden foods so important to health that we can’t use some common sense and the findings we have to start to help people by encouraging healthier foods? Or do more children need to lose their parents to suicide and heroin overdoses while we wait for stronger studies?
Comparing our brains to an expensive car seems inappropriate, we are much more complex than any machine. Food does play a major role in our health and eating good wholesome fruits and vegetables are the key. Growing our own non-GMO food would be ideal with no pesticides and chemical fertilizers. But even then pesticides can blow in from people who use them. because of all these factors, I believe more hands on study should be done to give a concrete solution on this subject.
For those of you interested in the research:
In the Lancet Psychiatry
I guess what is bothersome to some readers is that although there is scientific evidence to back up the claims, the claims themselves here are general and vague. ie “There are a lot more cases of diabetes in certain ethnic groups and diabetes can cause multiple systemic health problems that lead to decreased quality of life.” (Well known, scientific facts, BUT not specific). VS “Diabetes is most common in Native American/Inuit, Aftrican American and Hispanic communities and is the leading cause of kidney failure in the United States.
Strongly agree with Jennifer — I’m interested in genuine research news, not a marketing pitch for a point of view I’ve read many times before.
I agree with Jennifer. This article is research lite. Don’t dilute the quality of the newsletter.
the only thing i really didnt know is that of probiotics!can you please tell me a brand that is on the market in greece?or maybe i can import it.if not which ingredients are probiotics?thank you very much!
Hi Dia, I can help you get probiotics in Greece. Contact me by going to www dot omnivore dot club (yes, that’s .club!) and all the way at the bottom there is a like called “Write to us”… That goes directly to me and we can talk details. Best of luck. ~Sara
And best of all, those wonderful anti-oxidants are badly needed to help cancer cells grow and reproduce.
Possibly true if you take antioxidants as supplements, but certainly not true if you consume them as food
This article mixes up fact with conjecture in a dubious stew of food topics. It lacks science but includes a “premium” level of generalities. The Gazette is generally a high quality publication – please do not drag it down with supermarket-level blogs.
Eva is correct and there is extensive evidence behind her contentions. I have posted multiple links to the science below
I agree with you Eva that food is directly effecting the structure and function of the brain. Thus, we should have to eat healthy food. I like the way, you represent your thoughts. The example given by you is fantastic. Thank you for sharing this knowledgeable post.
Given this is a popular line of thought, I would appreciate evidence to back it up.
There are many references within these scientific papers my colleagues and I collaborated on if you are interested:
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