723: Your Brain on Food: How Diet Affects Mental Health With Dr. Uma Naidoo

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Your Brain on Food: How Diet Affects Mental Health with Dr. Uma Naidoo
Wellness Mama » Episode » 723: Your Brain on Food: How Diet Affects Mental Health With Dr. Uma Naidoo
The Wellness Mama Podcast
The Wellness Mama Podcast
723: Your Brain on Food: How Diet Affects Mental Health With Dr. Uma Naidoo
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You’ve probably heard the old saying “You are what you eat,” but this phrase applies to our brains too! Today I’m talking with Dr. Uma Naidoo, who specializes in the gut-brain connection and how what we eat has such a big impact on our brain health.

Dr. Naidoo has also been described as a triple threat in the food and medicine space. She’s a Harvard Trained psychiatrist, a professional chef, and a nutritional specialist. And this combination of her interests has led to her work in the field of nutritional psychiatry.

In today’s episode, we’re focusing on just how much food affects mental health. Dr. Naidoo explains the science behind this, including how most of our serotonin is produced in our gut. We also talk about which nutrients are most important to focus on for brain health and how to get them. Plus we go into morning light, sunlight, and other health habits you often hear me talk about and their effect on brain health.

So please join me and listen in as I chat with Dr. Naidoo!

Episode Highlights With Dr. Uma Naidoo

  • How foods affect mental health
  • Foods to prioritize and avoid for optimal mental health
  • We know our diets affect our bodies, but they impact our brains just as much! 
  • How the gut and the brain communicate
  • 95% of serotonin receptors and serotonin is in the gut!
  • A simple acronym for remembering the best brain foods, especially for kids
  • Why we crave more food than we need when we aren’t getting enough micronutrients
  • Some powerful herbs and spices to incorporate
  • Even more reasons that a little sun exposure each day is important 
  • Adding herbal teas for the nutritional benefits 
  • The world is more anxious across all age groups and what we can do about it
  • Metabolism is closely linked to anxiety
  • Her top foods to avoid and consume

Resources We Mention

More From Wellness Mama

Read Transcript

Child: Welcome to my Mommy’s podcast.

Katie: Hello, and welcome to the Wellness Mama Podcast. I’m Katie from wellnessmama.com. And this episode is about your brain on food and how our diets affect our mental health. And I’m here with what someone who Michelin-starred chef David Bouley described as the world’s first triple threat in the food and medicine space. Dr. Uma Naidoo is a Harvard-trained psychiatrist, a professional chef, and a trained nutritional specialist. So she unites three worlds in her work. And the combination of her interests have led to the niche of nutritional psychiatry. She’s also the bestselling author of This Is Your Brain on Food and her new book, Calm Your Mind with Food. And in this particular episode, we go deep on just how much food affects mental health. We all know that food affects our bodies, but she explains the science of how it really impacts our mental health as well, including things like how the vast majority of our serotonin is produced and lives in our gut. And so, changing our focus to improving our mental health through food can be highly effective and especially important for our kids’ developing brains. So, without any further wait, let’s jump in and join Dr. Uma Naidoo. Dr. Uma, welcome. Thank you so much for being here.

Dr. Uma: Katie, thank you so much for having me. I’ve been so excited to be in your great podcast.

Katie: Well, I’m very excited to chat with you as well. It’s not every day I get to talk to you. I believe you are called a triple threat of being a psychiatrist, a chef, and a nutritional therapist as well. So, you have quite the wide-ranging expertise. And I think especially relevant to a lot of our moms who are listening because moms are the ones making a lot of the nutritional choices for families. And I think that’s a perfect diving in point. Actually, you have a very popular book, and I want to make sure we get into some of the things you talk about, the idea of your brain on food, because I think it’s well talked about, of course, how our food impacts our bodies, but I feel like it’s not as well talked about how the foods that we put in our body impact our mental health and our brain and so many other aspects. I just feel like those don’t get enough airtime. So, I would love to start broad there, and maybe you can introduce us to some of the concepts that you found in your research and in writing your brain on food.

Dr. Uma: Thanks so much, Katie. So, This is Your Brain on Food was released a few years ago. And really that became kind of a, an outline of the different areas of mental health foods that you really want to lean into all based on science, and the foods, foods we want to step back from a little bit and really try to avoid over time, you don’t have to give them up immediately. And it’s, it’s divided into conditions so that if someone has depression in the family, maybe a friend has anxiety, you can look at the different conditions, then their recipes at the back, which are not meant to be fancy, just easy, tasty brain foods. And, you know, it’s a great way to think about how to incorporate these into your family’s life. And so, I was excited to bring it forward. And I think people have found it to be a go-to book that they can even take photographs of the list and take it to the supermarket, for example. I’ve heard that from a lot of moms.

Katie: I love that. And I know I’ve read the statistic that over 80% of healthcare dollars are actually spent on conditions that relate to diet and lifestyle, which makes them largely within our control and preventable, which I view as wonderful news because this means we have some power to affect change. It seems like from the mental health side, there’s sort of the talked about concept of the gut-brain connection. And I’m guessing a lot of the reasons that our diet can affect our mental health, of course, go back to the gut. But can you give us some of the background of maybe the things we need to understand physiologically of what’s going on with that gut-brain connection?

Dr. Uma: Great. I love to ask people what seems like a silly question, which is what happens if you have a headache? You know, kind of maybe it’s the front of your head, the back of your head, side. What do you do? And many people will say, well, you know, I, if it’s really bad, I want to take a headache pill. So, I say to them, just follow me for a second. What do you do with that headache pill? Well, I get a glass of water, I swallow it, and I hope the headache goes away well. But you’re swallowing a pill, and where’s the headache? Right. The headache is in your head. How’s it getting there? And immediately it starts to unfold that what we swallow can affect other parts of the body. But very specifically, it reaches the neurons and neural tissue, the brain. And so, then I start to explain that the gut-brain connection is about the fact that these two organ systems, right, they originate from the same cells in the human embryo, they divide up from two separate organs, and they remain connected by the vagus nerve, which is the 10th cranial nerve. And I like to say it’s kind of like these two organs are like two teenagers always texting each other because they’re sending these chemical messages, which are really neurotransmitter messages communicating.

But then we’ve heard about serotonin, the happiness hormone. Ninety to 95% of serotonin receptors and serotonin is actually in the gut. Now, it’s elsewhere in the brain, elsewhere in the body, including the brain. But it’s very important to understand that as that food, think of the headache pill, but as that food gets broken down, it’s interacting with the trillions of microbes that live in the gut microbiome. But also, with where the receptors are, with the serotonin, some of the serotonin is being produced. You start to understand, therefore, that the food is impacting that environment. It’s interacting with the microbes, the receptors. And you start to unpack a little bit that as we eat certain foods, they can definitely impact our mental health, either positively or negatively. But that helps us understand the concept, which is one of the ways we understand nutritional psychiatry.

Katie: That’s fascinating. And I would guess this might be a new concept for a lot of people that the majority, the vast majority actually, of serotonin is produced and occurs in the gut, which then seems like when we’re facing this epidemic of mental health issues and depression, seems like it would indicate that we could put a lot more focus on our gut health and optimizing for that. Are there particular methods or foods that are helpful for the body in producing serotonin more effectively, or that kind of decrease our natural serotonin production?

Dr. Uma: The way to think about this is really to take a step back and examine our overall diet because some of these are general principles, and then there are specifics. But when we’re thinking specifically about children, the foods I’ve come up with, you know, the only way to get through medical school is to learn lots of lists with acronyms. So, I’ve come up with an acronym that I feel has helped a lot of families because they want on their fingertips the foods that they really should be thinking about. And it’s called BRAIN CHILD. So, I break it down. And even though it’s long, it’s something that, you know, you can literally make a list up and think about in terms of foods to add into your children’s diet, and actually the family’s diet, because these are foods that can help everyone.

So, the B is for your B vitamins. We know that those B vitamins are extremely important for the brain. Vitamin B12, which you find in meats, vitamin B9, folate, which you find in leafy greens. And also the other B is for berries because we know these are low-glycemic foods. Kids love different colors, and different berries are just great little snacks for them to be eating. Plus, it gives them their servings of fruit. R is for the rainbow of fruit and vegetables. Remember those colors. We want as many colors to add diversity to our gut microbiome. So, when you’re in the supermarket, you know, reach for the different colors, introduce the family to more foods. A is for antioxidants, which you get from your vegetables, your food, your spices, so many things, including herbs. I is for iron and iodine. And I just want to stop for a second because there are many children and even adolescents, and moms who may be deficient in iron. So, increasing your iron through, you know, your sources of clean proteins, the meats that you’re eating, but also certain vegetables have iron. These are important because it turns out that, especially in children, low iron leads to anxiety. So, it may be just something to be thinking about. And N is for your macro and micronutrients. You know, the things that we kind of forget about, like magnesium and others.

 

C is for choline. One of the richest sources of choline is eggs, if you consume eggs, and also vitamin C, hugely important for biochemical reactions in the body. Vitamin C can be found in citrus fruit, clementines, lemons, limes, also kiwi fruit, and red bell peppers, even richer than citrus fruit. H is for hydration, teaching our kids, our families to always have maybe a sustainable water bottle, always be sipping water, having them, that be something they go to when they’re thirsty, hugely important, reduces anxiety and helps mood. I is insulin and blood sugar control. So just eating healthier will help that insulin level fend off type 2 diabetes, weight gain. L, less ultra-processed and processed foods. We know this already, less of the junk foods, less of the fast food. And D is for vitamin D, which we all need. And guess what? Ten minutes of outdoor time gives us 80% of vitamin D, so that’s not hard for us, even in winter, and then put on your sunscreen or sunblock.

Katie: I love that. That’s such a comprehensive list. And you brought up so many great points that I’d love to expound on a couple of them. You mentioned the micronutrients and several other larger nutrients as well that are more well-known. I’ve had a theory for a while that on the physical health side, in the rising obesity epidemic, I feel like the focus has moved largely to calories and macros. And I wonder if we’re under-serving ourselves by not looking at a more full picture of this in that my theory is that the body needs, of course, certain nutrients and micronutrients. And that when we don’t get them, we might still continually crave food, even when we don’t need calories. It’s just that’s what our body knows to signal is that we’re hungry or we need food. But what it really might need is those micronutrients, or it’s trying to fill a deficiency. I would guess that maybe there’s a corollary here with the brain as well, maybe even more so because the brain is so energy-intensive and uses so much of our energy resources. But do you find this as well, that if we’re deficient in some of those things you talked about, we might crave much more actual food density than we need because we’re not meeting our basic requirements?

Dr. Uma: You are so right. You know, let’s just acknowledge the fact that many Americans are eating what we call the Standard American diet, which is also called the SAD diet or the Western diet. And I don’t want us to feel guilty or blamed about this. It’s just the way our life and society has happened. Let’s start to think, how can we improve this? How can we go towards more whole foods?

So first, I’ll just say one of the tips is, you know, eat the orange, skip the store-bought oranges. It’s just a principle to keep in mind. The more time you can actually have the food, even if it’s frozen broccoli instead of some processed broccoli snack that has been created in the freezer section to attract us but may not be as nutrient-dense. But you are correct. When our body craves something, we start often, when our body is missing something, we start to crave foods, and they may not be the healthiest foods. So, I’d rather us think about, look, if we might be iron deficient, we can check our levels, but let’s make sure we have more of those nutrient-dense proteins that are going to bring back iron into the body. For magnesium, avocados are actually rich in magnesium. Turns out lots of Americans are deficient in magnesium. That doesn’t mean I want people to rush out and get a supplement, check with their doctor, because magnesium is involved in about 600 biochemical reactions. So, I don’t want you to just pop magnesium. But including foods, since we’re eating anyway, is an easy go-to for that.

Katie: And you also mentioned the importance of just a small amount of sunlight. And anytime I get a chance to talk about sunlight, I love to go deep on this topic because I feel like it’s been well talked about how in the modern world, we’re divorcing ourselves more and more from nature in general. And the studies abound about nature time and how time in natural light and clean air outside and moving have so many compounding benefits. And so, I love to get your perspective on the mental health side of this because I do think we’ve also done ourselves a disservice when we threw the baby out with the bathwater and started avoiding the sun completely. Because, as you said, there’s so much more. The vitamin D component is huge. The light component, getting morning sunlight for mental health. I know this is now starting to be talked about a lot more, but what are some of the, can you expound on the reasons that that natural light and that vitamin D is so important?

Dr. Uma: That is such a great question because, first and foremost, you mentioned something that I love people to understand. In the morning, it’s so important to look at sunlight. If you can spend a moment outdoors, let your skin, your body, your eyes take in the light because that helps with our different hormone levels. It helps wake us up, helps get us ready for the day.

But also, tied to nature, there’s a Japanese concept called shinrin-yoku, which actually is just called forest bathing. But really, if you break it down into terms that we would understand, it’s spending time in nature, a nature walk, walking outdoors, using that as your form of exercise and movement for the day, taking the whole family, making it something fun. And vitamin D is not only critical for two conditions in mental health, both anxiety and mood. So just spending that time before we put on our sunscreen because, you know, we don’t want to demonize the sun, as you pointed out. The sun is important for things like the manufacture and the kind of conversion of vitamin D in our body. So, I’m saying, you know, 10 to 15 minutes before we put on sunscreen or sunblock, depending on what you use, is great for the kids. It’s great for everyone in the family. And then, you know, be cautious about the sun. But it’s going to produce a function. If you do it consistently, just that fresh air, being outdoors is very calming. It’s healthy for all of us in so many ways. And it is very important in mental health.

Katie: And another area I feel like maybe the U.S. could learn a lot from the rest of the world in, you touched on herbs and spices being a great nutritional source. And I know that they also can have sort of almost therapeutic benefits beyond their basic nutritional benefits. I feel like a lot of other cultures do much better on average on incorporating more herbs and spices into their cooking, or at least a wider range of herbs and spices. But can you give us some examples of particular herbs or spices that have benefits and maybe even ways we can incorporate them more easily?

Dr. Uma: Yes. So, start off with one that not everyone uses, but I’m going to tell you simple ways to use them very quickly. Turmeric with a pinch of black pepper. It’s a bright yellow spice, and it is activated, the active ingredient is made more bioavailable and activated by piperine from black pepper. So, if you’re using turmeric, squeeze in a couple of grams of black pepper to it and use it that way. Add it to a soup or smoothie or tea to start if you don’t cook with it. But it’s easily used in roasted vegetables and other things. But be careful because it does stain clothes and countertops. But very powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, has benefits in conditions like anxiety, mood, and more.

Others that we work with more frequently are things like parsley, thyme, mint. Some of those actually contain a powerful antioxidant, luteolin, including Mexican oregano and mixed red peppers or mixed sweet peppers. They contain this antioxidant that helps clear brain fog. Or helps kind of lower the level of brain fog. Something that many people are struggling with these days. So just adding in those herbs and spices are great.

Then one of the things I think is super refreshing are refreshing teas and calming teas. Things like a mint tea with lemon. A lavender tea. You know, we tend to associate lavender with only a spa experience or an oil. It actually can be made into tea. I love to put a sprig of mint and a piece of lemon. It’s very uplifting in the afternoon. I also like green tea. It gives me more of an energy lift in the afternoon. Rather than that jittery feeling you get if you have one too many cups of coffee. So, these are good things for us to try. And although chamomile tea is a great one for calming the mind, I would just say that if you’re pregnant, chamomile tea is something you want to talk to your OB about because a couple of case reports and studies that showed there was an issue with maybe some preterm labor. So, although it is good for calming yourself, if you’re pregnant, just speak to your OB about that.

Katie: And you also mentioned choline, which of course, eggs are one of the richest dietary sources, but I would love to expound on choline, especially for kids and developing brains. Because for me, what opened my eyes to the idea of choline was that when I was going through my autoimmune journey for a while, I was needing to avoid eggs because I was reacting to them, and I didn’t even think about it, but I realized I was becoming deficient in choline. And when working with my doctor, I added choline supplements in the short term, and I was amazed, it felt like my brain turned on, like a light went back on in my brain when I started getting choline. So, I always think for kids, especially with developing brains, this seems like a really important one, but what do we need to know about choline?

Dr. Uma: Great question. I’m so glad that you have that. I’m not glad you were sick, but I’m so glad you found your way to recovery through that because it is a place for supplementation. You know, say that we can’t consume a certain food or we have a food intolerance or allergy. So, choline has a critical role in neurotransmitter function because of its impact on a substance called acetylcholine. And we’ve heard about things like dopamine. It also affects dopaminergic function. So, basically, you know, one of the things we want to do is really lean into sources of choline. If you have low choline, you might have low energy levels. You may be fatigued, have memory loss, some problems with learning, muscle aches, nerve, you know, maybe it’s nerve damage and also mood changes. So, one of the things we want to do is think about adding this in on a regular basis to our diet. And a rich source of these are eggs. If possible, you know, maybe try for pastured eggs. Because, you know, we not everyone eats eggs. But if you do, that may be one option. But other food sources are beef, chicken breast, fish, shiitake mushrooms, say you don’t consume meat, legumes, some beans have them as well as can be found in milk and certain yogurts. So, there are definitely ways that we can get choline and incorporate them into the diet. And sometimes kids are picky eaters. So, someone doesn’t like eggs. Well, is there a way we can get it into a different food? And make it a fun food, but still have that nutrition that they so well need.

Katie: And I know your new book focuses even more on the mental health side of this. And I would love for you to share some of the concepts that you expound on in the new book. I’ll make sure both of your books are, of course, linked in the show notes. But I love the addition of this new one. And I think the more light we shed on these topics, the better, especially for our kids.

Dr. Uma: Well, thanks for that question, Katie. You know, my new book was based, is called Calm Your Mind with Food, which is the one behind me with the purple broccoli on the cover. So, this is because of what I studied and saw and researched during the pandemic, which is that the world is simply more anxious across all age groups. And that’s not a word that we like to hear because almost hearing the word makes us feel anxious. So the wording is calm your mind with food. There’s a significant amount of research that goes back to connecting that gut-brain connection, sources of inflammation, one of the biggest sources being food. You made a point earlier about so many conditions in the world actually can be changed by lifestyle factors. And one of the biggest lifestyle factors is food. So that connection to inflammation because, unfortunately, those bad foods that are processed, junk foods, fast foods, they just worsen inflammation in the body that cause an upset in the gut microbiome and can really lead to an uptick of symptoms and other connections with immunity in the body.

But putting it all together, what I really did for people was break down metabolism. It turns out, this, I think, is key for us to know as parents and moms. The metabolism is closely linked to anxiety. Anxiety has increased by 25% through the pandemic. And research has shown this, and it’s been published in top-level, top-tier journals. How do we think about it? How do we change that in a favorable direction? One of the ways is how are we eating? How are we approaching our everyday foods? What’s going on? That’s why I shared micronutrients and macronutrients but also made the point that if we’re gaining weight, if our kids are gaining weight, if we’re not eating well, there could be many reasons for weight gain, but one of them could be poor diet. It starts to disrupt our metabolism. And as we disrupt the metabolism, we disrupt and increase anxiety. That’s an important connection for us to understand because the more of us that are gaining weight or have impaired metabolism, the more of us that are also going to be anxious. So just paying attention to food, it’s not so much about the number on the scale as it is about healthfulness because the more healthy foods we incorporate, naturally your body will let go of that excess weight. But stepping away from the candy, the cookies that we are more used to and picking up the clementine, the extra dark natural chocolate, the celery sticks, the healthier food options is ultimately going to be better for conditions in mental health as well.

Katie: That makes sense. Are there any other kinds of pet favorite foods that you really encourage people to incorporate or any that you like highly encourage people to avoid?

Dr. Uma: Right. So, you know, let’s start with the ones to step back from. Those processed, ultra-processed foods, the packaged foods, it’s really hard to, in this day and age, you know, ignore or live without a processed food. But it’s the degree of processing. When, you know, chickpeas or black beans are put in a can, they are processed. But all you have to do is look to see what’s in the can, rinse them out, and use them. That’s very different from a processed frozen pizza or a frozen dinner or fast foods, which are highly, highly processed.

The other issue with fast foods is they’re often fried in unhealthy oils, which cause inflammation in the body. Then there’s the added sugars, which, you know, we don’t realize that there are 262 other names for sugar used on food labels. This is something you can look up online. I would suggest that moms be aware of this because of things like brown rice syrup, people think, oh, you know, brown rice, I’m told, has more healthy grains in it. Actually, brown rice syrup is simply sugar. But the food industry labels these. You don’t realize it’s sugar. So just watch out for this on food labels. And then also savory foods like ketchup, pasta sauces, salad dressings have a lot of added sugar that we don’t realize.

Another one is artificial sweeteners. So, getting the diet sodas and things like that, or the sports beverages that are labeled no sugar, they might have a bunch of artificial sweeteners in them that are not good for our body. So those are some big groups.

And then the wrong types of fats, meaning the trans fats, hydrogenated oils, you know, store-bought baked goods that are on the shelf, and you buy them this week or next week, they’re still there. It’s those types of oils we want to avoid. So those are the ones to step back from. I always believe in finding like healthy options for something you like.

And then the ones we want to lean into are those leafy greens. You know, maybe once a week, make the kids a smoothie, add in those leafy greens. You know, it becomes a purple or add in some blueberries. It can be a purple monster smoothie, you know, encourage the vegetables in an indirect way. I love to have them eat different colors of vegetables and also learn to love those cruciferous vegetables. The broccoli, the cauliflower, the cabbage, Brussels sprouts. They may not sound like kid favorites, but what can you do to use riced cauliflower, which can now get frozen. And usually, the only thing that’s in it, and you can look at the label, usually just riced cauliflower. But you can actually add that into a meatball, and they’re not going to know the difference. Whatever kind of meatball you make, you can add in chopped spinach, and you can add in rice to cauliflower to up the veggie intake. So, I love those cruciferous vegetables as a way to get kids to really enjoy the flavor, the taste, the crunch of a vegetable or something like zucchini fries in an air fryer oven are great ways to increase their vegetable intake while giving them a healthy choice.

Katie: I love that. You are such a wealth of knowledge on so many topics. And I love that you have like a triple wide-ranging expertise that you’re able to tie into practical changes that we can make. I feel like I’ve already learned a lot from you in this episode, and I would encourage people to stay tuned when we get to do another episode. This episode, I feel like focused a lot on the what and understanding the foundational. And in our next episode, we will get to focus on the how and the more of the psychiatry focus for you on how do we make these habits actually stick in our families. So, you guys stay tuned for that. Both of Dr. Uma’s books are linked in the show notes for you listening on the go. But Dr. Uma, thank you so much. You are such a wealth of knowledge, and this was such a fun conversation.

Dr. Uma: Thanks, Katie. I really loved talking to you. Thanks for having me.

Katie: And thanks to all of you for listening. And I hope that you will join me again on the next episode of the Wellness Mama Podcast.

If you’re enjoying these interviews, would you please take two minutes to leave a rating or review on iTunes for me? Doing this helps more people to find the podcast, which means even more moms and families could benefit from the information. I really appreciate your time, and thanks as always for listening.

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About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. WellnessMama.com is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.

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