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By Kelly Brogan, MD
The human body interacts with its environment with deep intelligence. If you have panic attacks, anxiety, or other mood-related symptoms, it’s important to know that your body created these on purpose. Scientists call this an adaptive response. This means that it is a meaningful reaction to your environment.
There’s a very good reason for your brain and mood difficulties – to get your attention. They are meant to grab you by the throat, so you can make a change. But change what? What is at the root of depression and similar mental health symptoms?
The inflammatory model of depression
Much of my writing and teaching is devoted to the compelling scientific literature relating to inflammatory models of depression and mental illness. Inflammation is the driving force behind many of the symptoms that we try to squash with medications. Bodily states of inflammation – signaling danger – can translate to the brain and wreak havoc. Inflammation can:
- Influence the production of neurochemicals
- Have negative effects on mitochondria, which are responsible for energy production in the cells
- Stimulate apoptosis (cell death)
- Impact the very sensitive feedback systems involving stress hormones, such as cortisol
- Elevate cytokines, rendering you even more depressed
A recent study in Translational Psychiatry supports the idea that inflammation is the culprit in depression. In the 47 medication-free melancholic depressive test subjects, about 75 percent of the inflammatory-related genes looked at were significantly upregulated, compared to those found in healthy controls.
The gut-brain connection
Once triggered, inflammation is highly self-perpetuating. As inflammatory pathways are repeatedly activated, signaling is expedited because the body begins to recognize them as familiar – like recognizing landmarks when you are trekking along your favorite hiking trail. Inflammation transfers information to the nervous system, typically through stimulation of major nerves, such as the vagus, which links the gut and brain.
This is actually a bit of good news. You may think that you were born with bad genes or low serotonin. However, it’s far more likely that your depression is just a complex, nonspecific symptom of chronic illness. You probably have an unhealthy inflammatory response that is driven by cortisol dysfunction stemming from problems in the gut.
Why is this good news? Because we know how to heal the gut. In addition to being the gatekeeper of the inflammatory response, the gastrointestinal tract houses at least 70 percent of the immune system. We outsource countless bodily functions to our beneficial microbial communities, and in fact, these microorganisms outnumber our human cells ten to one. We can address depression and other mood-related symptoms by treating, protecting, and nourishing the gut microbiome – the specific combination of beneficial microbes in our gut.
There are many factors that impact the health of your gut and the makeup of your microbiome, for better or worse, including:
- Vaginal birth and breastfeeding
- Exposure to medications, including oral contraceptives, NSAIDs (which can cause gut permeability), and antibiotics
- Toxins, such as GMOs, pesticides, and plasticizers
- Diet and nutrition
In this article, I will give you several ways to reduce inflammation and optimize gut health, creating a happier body and healthier moods.
A few simple ways to start healing your moods
There’s more to this story than is presented here, and I hope you will take charge of your health by doing some research. In the meantime, consider making changes in the following areas:
1. Eliminate Processed Foods and Food Toxins from Your Diet
What are processed foods, really? Broadly speaking, they are anything in a package. More specifically, they are anything that contains more than three ingredients, usually including such things as hydrogenated vegetable oils, preservatives, dyes, emulsifiers, tenderizers, taste enhancers, and refined sugars.
Processed food is chemicalized so that it is portable and shelf stable. It is manipulated for texture, mouthfeel, and taste. It also tends to be polluted with toxicants, such as pesticides. Buying organic will help you avoid these pollutants. You can also use the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” lists, which rank produce based on their levels of pesticide contamination (see ewg.org/foodnews).
2. Add Whole Foods and Good Fats to Your Diet
Once you eliminate processed foods with long lists of ingredients, you’re left with whole, simple foods that often don’t even come with a Nutrition Facts label. These include fresh fruits and vegetables; pastured meats, wild fish, eggs, nuts, and seeds; and traditional fats such as olive oil, coconut oil, and grass-fed ghee.
3. Consider Cutting Out Grains
As a start, avoid gluten-containing grains – and perhaps other grains, as well. Quinoa, buckwheat, and white rice may ultimately be fine; however, most of my patients benefit from a 30-day break to really heal before adding them back in.
A NOTE ABOUT GLUTEN: There’s been an explosion of research demonstrating the immune-modulating and inflammatory effects of gluten. Many individuals perceive that they are totally “fine” until that day when they’re not. In reality, there has been a long period of “incubation” of symptoms.
No matter what you’ve read, you should know that eating gluten provokes an inflammatory response in everyone. In about 80 percent of people, it precipitates intestinal wall changes that allow for various compounds, food particles, and bacteria and their immunotoxic components (e.g., lipopolysaccharides, or LPS) to enter the bloodstream. In animal models, LPS is used to induce “depression.” There are many scientific studies establishing the role of inflammation in depression, including postpartum depression.
4. Eat Fermented Foods to Restore and Balance Your Gut Flora
Prebiotics and probiotics are essential to gut health. Prebiotics are food for probiotics. Probiotics are the good guys – the beneficial bacteria that help to keep the ecology of your gut in balance. You probably know this already, but you may not be aware that probiotics can actually reverse psychiatric symptoms.
Everyone is extolling the merits of fermentation. Fermented foods are simply probiotic foods. Long before probiotics were marketed as supplements, people in virtually all cultures enjoyed one form of fermented food or another. And there’s no better way to consume a rich array of healthy bacteria than to obtain them from wholly natural sources, such as sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi, other fermented vegetables, and coconut kefir. You’ll want to make sure these foods are truly fermented (as opposed to just pickled in vinegar). Fermented foods are delicious and flavorful. They are also relatively simple to make on your own. This is an easy and powerful basic step toward creating a happier body and a healthier brain.
Nutrition has more power than any other single intervention on earth. It is an important tool you can use to create a life in which you reconnect to your own power to heal and to feel free, unafraid, and well. You can begin now by making some of the changes described above. To help you get started, I’ve included a list of seven therapeutic foods.
Seven happy body, healthy brain foods
Why: Traditional cultures used fermentation as a preservation technique. The lactic acid-producing microbes that act on the cabbage are diverse and contribute greatly to replenishing the beneficial bacteria in our guts. Given the inherent limitations of our constantly evolving understanding of the gut microbiome, food-based probiotics are an intelligent way to support the immune system, metabolism, and inflammatory response.
How: Start with ¼ teaspoon of the juice from lactofermented sauerkraut, kimchi, or pickles. Work up to a daily serving of 1 tablespoon or more. Hawthorne Valley, Bubbies, and Wildbrine are good brands to purchase until you are ready to make your own.
Why: Liver is the best multivitamin money can buy. It’s a unique source of the fat-soluble vitamins – A (preformed), D, E, and K – as well as B vitamins, usable iron, and other minerals. Grass-fed liver should be consumed about twice a week, and a desiccated liver powder can make that easier.
How: Radiant Life brand liver can be incorporated into soups, stews, or even smoothies with minimal alteration of flavor. Start with 1 tablespoon twice a week.
Why: Himalayan salt boasts over 80 ionized minerals formed within the earth’s crust more than 200 million years ago. Consumption of this salt supports proper electrolyte balance, hydration, pH levels, and detoxification and may also contribute to bone health.
How: To make sole, fill a glass jar one-quarter of the way with Himalayan salt or Real Salt, and fill it the rest of the way with filtered water. Let sit overnight. Put 1 teaspoon of the salt-saturated water into a glass of filtered water to drink first thing in the morning. If you prefer, you can find kits containing salt rocks and jars online.
Why: Starch comes in two varieties, one of which – resistant starch – is not enzymatically broken down in the body and thus serves as a source of fermentable fiber in the intestines, producing anti-inflammatory saturated fats, such as butyrate. After one month on a high-natural-fat diet without grains and added sugars, introducing resistant starch can contribute to beneficial changes in the intestines, promoting healthy blood sugar balance and providing metabolic support.
How: Take 4 tablespoons daily of Bob’s Red Mill Potato Starch (or equivalent) in food or in water (you can do it as a shot with each meal).
Why: Because our diets are heavily focused on muscle meat consumption, we lose out on the benefits of consuming bones, skin, and tendons, as was the practice in many ancestral cultures. Traditional bone broths are used in gut-healing protocols, such as the GAPS diet, for mucosal repair, while the high glycine content of gelatin may help reduce insomnia and anxiety and is beneficial for joints, hair, and skin.
How: Use Great Lakes gelatin when making warm foods and easy jelled snacks (1 tablespoon of gelatin mixed with ¼ cup of almost-boiling water and 1¼ cups of organic juice; refrigerate for three hours). Put 1-2 tablespoons of Great Lakes hydrolyzed collagen (green label) in any liquid or food, as it dissolves well and is flavorless.
Why: A primary source of traditional fat throughout the tropics, coconut oil has a unique saturated fat profile – specifically, a high proportion of medium-chain triglycerides. These fats don’t require pancreatic enzymes for digestion and are immediately available for energy. They have been extensively studied and shown to benefit cognition, lipid balance, immune support, and metabolism.
How: Add ½ tablespoon to morning hot water/tea, cook with it, or add it to smoothies. Work up to 1 tablespoon daily.
Why: This herb has been studied for its immune modulation, anti-inflammatory, liver detoxification, and even antidepressant qualities, and has been demonstrated to have comparable efficacy to over a dozen drugs.
How: Turmeric is best absorbed when warmed with oil and a little black pepper. Add to savory foods or make into a golden tea with coconut milk: Make a paste with 2 tablespoons of organic turmeric in ¼ cup of water; then warm with coconut milk, a teaspoon of coconut oil, and raw honey to taste.
Excerpted with permission from the ebook Change Your Food, Heal Your Mood, by Kelly Brogan, MD, with Louise Kuo Habakus; available at www.kellybrogan.com.
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About the Author
Kelly Brogan, MD, is a Manhattan-based holistic women’s health psychiatrist, author of the New York Times bestselling book A Mind of Your Own, and co-editor of the landmark textbook Integrative Therapies for Depression. She completed her psychiatric training and fellowship at NYU Medical Center after graduating from Cornell University Medical College, and has a BS from MIT in Systems Neuroscience. She is board certified in psychiatry, psychosomatic medicine, and integrative holistic medicine, and specializes in a root-cause resolution approach to psychiatric syndromes and symptoms. Dr. Brogan is on the advisory board of Price-Pottenger. Her website is www.kellybroganmd.com.
- Brogan K. How inflammation and depression gave birth to new medicine. http://kellybroganmd.com/new-psychiatry-psychoneuroimmunology/.
- Carvalho LA, Bergink V, Sumaski L, et al. Inflammatory activation is associated with a reduced glucocorticoid receptor alpha/beta expression ratio in monocytes of inpatients with melancholic major depressive disorder. Translational Psychiatry. 2014; 4:e344. doi:10.1038/tp.2013.118.
- Brogan K. Pigs warn: undeniable evidence of Roundup toxicity. http://kellybroganmd.com/snippet/pigs-warn-undeniable-evidence-roundup-toxicity/.
Published in the Price-Pottenger Journal of Health and Healing
Fall 2017 | Volume 41, Number 3
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