In The Better Brain, doctors Bonnie Kaplan and Julia Rucklidge share their groundbreaking research on the impact diet has on treating mental disorders, improving brain function, and leading a healthier life.
Table of contents
How nutrition affects mental wellbeing
Nutrition can have a profound effect on our mental health in various ways, from being used as a method of curing sicknesses, regulating emotions, improving brain function, and improving long-term health. And those effects aren’t baseless claims; the authors have seen the impact of good nutrition in these aspects through science and research.
Food as medicine
The authors share the example of ten-year-old Andrew, who was experiencing symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, and psychosis. Andrew received every treatment possible, including seeing a psychologist and hospitalization, and nothing seemed to be easing his symptoms. Then, he was prescribed multi nutrients, and within ten months, his OCD was gone. Over time, other symptoms of psychosis disappeared, and he went on to graduate high school and get a job. On top of Andrew’s experience in life-improving, the nutrients he was prescribed were a fraction of the cost of the inpatient treatment his parents paid for.
The idea of food as healing medicine dates back thousands of years ago. It’s Hippocrates who wrote, “Let food be they medicine and medicine thy food.” So, it’s not a new concept, but it’s not always the first course of action in our modern-day age of prescription drugs.
Kaplan and Rucklidge note it’s the societal norm to seek out drugs to solve our medical problems. While medication may be necessary in some cases, the authors explain that most psychiatrists are trained to prescribe a drug regimen for their patients before evaluating where natural solutions, like a change in diet or multi nutrients, may make a difference or combat mental health disorders like depression, ADHD, or anxiety.
How diet affects brain function
Let’s look at the example of a beehive. The larva the bees select as queen will be fed a diet rich in royal jelly. The rest of the bees are fed pollen, nectar, and honey. Those plant chemicals affect the DNA of the future worker bees, making them unable to reproduce. While the example of diet impacting bees has a more exaggerated consequence than how our diet affects us, it gets the point across that what we eat correlates to how our bodies function.
What we eat can directly affect our DNA and how our genes are expressed, along with how our brains function day-to-day. For our brains to operate as effectively as possible, we need to consume the right vitamins and nutrients that help it build countless substances that support mental functioning.
The brain-gut connection
On top of your brain having what it needs to support its functioning, it’s been shown there’s a connection between our gut microbiome and mental health.
A microbiome essentially is a diverse set of bacteria living together in an environment. Your gut has its own microbiome, and it’s directly impacted by what you eat, which in turn affects your emotions. Studies from the 1980s showed that mental health patients often reported digestive issues like stomach aches. The reasoning then was that digestive problems were caused by depression, anxiety or stress. Now, researchers are starting to suspect the reverse might be true.
There was a compelling experiment where scientists transplanted gut microbes from anxious mice into more outgoing mice and found the mice ended up switching roles. The once-anxious mice became outgoing. The outgoing mice displayed symptoms of anxiety. It’s an interesting study the authors use to drive home our gut bacteria could be a significant factor in our mental wellbeing.
How moms diet influences child development
Another interesting thing the book talks about that parents might find intriguing is how certain foods an adult eats can affect babies and children. A study of 3,000 Dutch women who ate a diet that consisted of primarily meat, potatoes, and margarine but didn’t eat many eggs, vegetables, fish, or dairy found higher levels of aggression in their children by the age of six.
And a study of 700 Norweigian mothers and their babies reported that the women who ate more fruit during pregnancy had infants who showed more advanced cognitive development at the age of one.
The ideal diet for a healthy brain
You’ll hear a lot of conflicting advice out there, but the answer is simple – eat real food. Kaplan and Rucklidge say you’re on track if your ancestors could recognize the foods you’re eating. Before processed foods, families ate seasonally and cooked fresh foods. Those same rhythms can promote eating a diet that boosts your mental well-being.
The Mediterranean diet specifically is linked to the most brain-healthy foods. It consists of lots of fruits, vegetables, lean meat, fish, and whole grains. Other great choices are leafy greens and peppers. Ideally, your plate should consist of half fruits and vegetables, a quarter serving of carbs, and a quarter of protein.
What you can change
Kaplan and Rucklidge recommend cutting out unhealthy foods from your diet. Things like sugar and processed meals are the easiest things to identify. It won’t be easy, so the book suggests having a plan that will guide you on how to phase those things out of a regular rotation rather than the cold turkey method. Cutting those things out will be an incredible contribution to long-term mental and physical health.
Another important and easy to implement step toward better brain health is taking a multi-nutrient regularly. That’s come up several times during our discussion, and it’s because it gives your brain and body everything it needs to function optimally. You won’t see immediate results taking them, but if you’re consistent and patient, you’ll begin to reap the benefits in time.
A natural and healthy eating style can help combat a mental health crisis and change the way you experience the world around you in a positive way.