How what you do- or don’t- eat impacts your brain
A few days ago, I took a long walk through the streets of San Francisco with a nutritionist a mutual friend put me in touch with. In the beginning, we had a typical networking conversation: Linda (name changed) told me about her work as a nutritional consultant to various companies, I told her about my work at a mental health startup. But with a single question, we broke the ice and the conversation became personal for both of us.
When I asked Linda what nutrition meant to her personally, she suddenly opened up about the medical struggles she went through before discovering a severe gut imbalance and a set of food sensitivities. As she put it, “Soy destroys me. If I have even a little, my mood tanks, my body bloats, and I’m in too much of a fog to do anything all day.” Her history was surprisingly similar to mine, and I told her about how I unraveled the systemic inflammation, Lyme disease diagnosis, and food sensitivities had left me similarly depressed and incapacitated. Though her experiences had led her deeper into nutrition and mine had led me into mental health, both of us considered the two fields inseparable.
On one level, This isn’t surprising. All of us know that nutrients power our brains. As William Walsh puts it in his book Nutrient Power, “ An underappreciated fact is that the primary raw materials for the synthesis of many neurotransmitters are nutrients — nutrients — amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and other natural biochemicals that we obtain from food.” With the recent surge of research in the gut-brain connection, we also have strong evidence that food allergies and sensitivities can have profound effects on the brain via inflammation.
What is surprising is the complete disconnect between the nutrition and mental health fields in our society. For example, how many individuals experiencing brain fog or depression are recommended a nutritionist before, or in conjunction with, a psychiatrist? How many mental health apps include education on the potential impact of diet and food-related inflammation? How many people consider that what they eat impacts not only their waistline, but their skin, clarity of thought, and overall self-image?
The invisible rise of food allergies and sensitivities
I always knew about food allergies growing up, but I never heard about food sensitivities. I knew that certain kids couldn’t eat peanuts or their throats would close up, but I wasn’t aware that my blotchy skin, occasional brain fog, or debilitating tendonitis had any connection to my diet. As I described in a previous post, a visit to a nutritionist finally changed my life. After some routine testing, he informed me that I was severely sensitive to dairy, soy, corn, and cane sugar. Surprised, I told him that I cooked with butter every day and felt no negative effects. He explained to me something I had never learned from a doctor or a biology class: Food sensitivities and allergies follow separate pathways. While severe peanut allergies, for example, are mediated by fast-acting IgE proteins and can immediately lead to hives and difficulty breathing, sensitivities are mediated by IgG and IgA proteins. IgG and IgA proteins are slower acting, delayed in onset, and cause progressive damage over time. Therefore, rather than eating a peanut and reaching for an epipen, food sensitivities are subtle enough that you may consume a food for years without realizing it is causing you physical and psychological symptoms.
As I became aware of my food sensitivities, I changed my diet and watched as my skin, joint problems, and mind began to clear up immediately. I also noticed that I was not the only one. Over the past couple years, food labels have begun to list which potential allergens are processed in the same factory and menu items are becoming increasingly friendly to gluten-intolerant individuals. What many individuals have also realized, though doctors and public health experts have not, is the mental health impact of food sensitivities. In a 2019 article comparing IgG levels in healthy adolescents and those with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), researchers found:
“Significantly higher serum food antigen-specific IgG positive rates were also found in the patient group. Furthermore, over 80% of patients exhibited prolonged food intolerance with elevated levels of serum histamine, leading to hyperpermeability of the blood–brain barrier, which has previously been implicated in the pathogenesis of MDD.”
As Dr. Perlmutter, bestselling author of Grain Brain and Brain Maker, has written: “I believe the shift in our diet that has occurred over the past century…is the origin of many of our modern scourges linked to the brain, including chronic headaches, insomnia, anxiety, depression, epilepsy, movement disorders, schizophrenia, ADHD, and those senior moments that quite likely herald serious cognitive decline…and incurable brain disease.”
Whether it’s related to numerous changes in our food supply- pesticides, additives, or GM crop among them- or stress on our bodies that leaves them unable to cope, an increasing number of people are reacting adversely to compounds in food. For those who have identified or been tested for these reactions- myself among them- the psychological and physical toll of eating the wrong food again is obvious. But for the millions of individuals with undiagnosed sensitivities, the impacts are more quiet and insidious: inflammation in the gut gradually takes a toll on your mind, your body, and how well you’re able to live your life.
Nutrients out of balance
On the flip side of the coin, what happens when we get too little of what we need? As mentioned earlier, our brains and bodies derive their ability to function from the nutrients we get from our diets. While we know that calories can make us skinny or fat, very few people consider what happens nutrient imbalance can do to our brains. As Walsh writes, “Serotonin is produced from the amino acid tryptophan, a constituent of protein, and the final reaction step requires vitamin B-6 as a cofactor. Dopamine can originate from either of two amino acids with iron and folate also involved in the process…” Simply put, nutrients and trace elements are involved in every aspect of our brain function, and the manifestations of a long-term deficiency can be severe both physically and psychologically.
In addition to causing well-known conditions like scurvy, nutrient imbalances can also play a role in a variety of mental health conditions. While studying schizophrenic patients, researcher Carl Pfeiffer identified certain clusters of nutritional imbalances- which he called biotypes- that corresponded to different symptoms in patients:
“ [Pfeiffer] reported that 90% of schizophrenics fit into one of the three major biochemical types that he called histapenia, histadelia, and pyroluria, with an additional 4% suffering from wheat gluten allergy… Pfeiffer believed that histamine deficiency (histapenia) and copper overload were responsible for classic paranoid schizophrenia that usually involved auditory hallucinations. He treated this condition with folic acid, vitamin B-12, niacin, zinc, and augmenting nutrients. In contrast, Pfeiffer’s histadelia (histamine overload) biotype typically involved delusions or catatonic behaviors that he treated with methionine, calcium, and sometimes with antihistamines.” (Walsh, 15)
The data that Pfeiffer and other researchers amassed eventually gave rise to the field of Orthomolecular medicine, which focuses on using nutrient supplements to maintain human health. Though this field has been championed by major figures such as Linus Pauling, the father of modern chemistry, it has been largely ignored by mainstream medicine and pharmaceutical companies and therefore remains little known. However, nutritional supplementation is likely to gain prominence soon, for better or worse.
Intensive agriculture practices over the past few decades have depleted soil health, leading to dwindling nutrient levels in the foods we eat. To put it in perspective, a person today would need to eat eight oranges to get the same level of Vitamin C their grandparents would have obtained from one. If we continue grow food using industrial farming techniques and ignore the decline in its quality, we will learn firsthand, and on a mass scale, the effects of nutrient deficiencies and their consequences.
If my health experiences in the past have taught me anything, it’s a profound respect for food that I share with people like Linda. I recognize the power of food to cause pain: the embarrassment of blotchy skin, the fog of depression and poor focus, and grief of arthritis and losing the ability to do the things I love. Potentially worst of all, as Linda and I both experienced, the wrong foods can warp your self-image until you believe, “maybe I’m just weaker than most people” or “maybe I just don’t have the same energy levels.” “Maybe this is just what happens when you get older.” Most destructively, “maybe this is just who I am.”
While food is certainly not at the root of all mental health issues, I would argue that it’s the basic foundation of good health. When we eat nutrient-dense foods and cut out what our bodies react badly to, we give ourselves the best chance of self-regulating and staying well. And I believe that as a baseline, everyone deserves that chance.