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People will ask if they can simply swap out their Prozac for kale, and that’s of course impossible to answer.

Dr. Drew Ramsey, author of Fifty Shades of Kale

Is food the cure for what ails us?  Back in the 70s the book Sugar Blues, by William Dufty, indicted sugar as a major source of physical and mental illness. At the same time, orthomolecular psychiatry emphasized the role of nutrition and biochemistry in the healing of schizophrenia. Regardless, traditional doctors continued prescribing pharmaceuticals.  Health food “nuts” ran for the granola.  Now, over thirty years later, mainstream psychiatrists are taking a serious look at food, too.


Recent studies show that inflammation in the brain plays a major role in Alzheimer disease, Parkinson disease, and multiple sclerosis. Newer studies1 also show inflammation affects treatment-resistant major depression.  Helpful strategies to combat inflammation include weight loss, exercise, and meditation.  Food selection is another. Consider these studies:

  • How the brain-gut connection works is not yet fully understood, but researcher Emeran Mayer, MD, said “the knowledge that signals are sent from the intestine to the brain and that they can be modulated by a dietary change”² could lead to new treatments for mental disorders.
  • Dr. Shaheen Lakhan, executive director of the Global Neuroscience Initiative Foundation, points to inflammation caused by fructose  and “gut dysfunction” (imbalance of microbiota in the stomach), as playing a negative role in mental health.  Fructose is a form of sugar.  “The emerging evidence,” he said in a Medscape interview, “suggests the pathway to be: diet-microbiota-inflammation-mental health.”³
  • The term “psychobiotic” was created during recent studies at University College Cork in Ireland, according to a Psychiatric Times article about treatment-resistant major depression.  Researchers noted a connection between probiotics (as found in yogurt and supplements) and behavioral disorders. Presumably, a pathway to the brain comes as a result of an “anti-inflammatory mechanism that may itself be influenced by probiotics”4 in the stomach. Perhaps, the researchers say, “diet itself might catalyse bacterial communication with the brain.”


Rigid diet.  Time consuming preparation.  Odd foods.  Obsessive focus.  I think those images come to mind when a physician mentions dietary changes for health reasons.  Along with the negative images, there are doubts.  How will someone with major depression or schizophrenia maintain such a regimen?  Especially someone in a group home or institution? Where will he or she get the money for those expensive special foods?

“There is no one food that should be eaten or not eaten to reduce the risk for mental disorders or any other health disorder,”3 said Dr. Felice Jacka in a Medscape Medical News article.  Looking at the whole diet makes more sense than picking a few items only. Jacka, president of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research, found that refined carbohydrates, sugar, and trans fats have been linked to inflammation, which is linked to sickness of the brain.

Reducing intake of those types of foods would improve overall health, but maintaining such a drastic dietary change might be a challenge for many patients.  Drew Ramsey, author of Fifty Shades of Kale, details a more moderate approach. Dr. Ramsey, who also wrote The Happiness Diet: A Nutritional Prescription for a Sharp Brain, Balanced Mood and Lean, Energized Body, suggests swapping food items.

As an example, he suggests swapping whole wheat or quinoa pasta for white pasta, “or choose less pasta and more vegetables.”3  Instead of a chocolate covered pretzel, he suggests a dark chocolate-covered almond. “All of a sudden,” he said, that person would be “eating 2 of the most healthy brain foods ― nuts and dark chocolate.”  The author of Fifty Shades of Kale also suggests swapping nutrient-rich kale for iceberg lettuce.


I’ll admit, popping a pill is easier than making a kale smoothie.  Healthier foods also cost more than a cart load of canned and boxed products, but fruits and vegetables don’t have the potent side effects that accompany many psychiatric medications. Rather than suppress symptoms, healthy food improves mental and physical health. As for family members living in group homes, maybe you won’t convince the cook to make any dietary switches on their behalf, yet you might.

None of the physicians or researchers quoted in this post suggested discontinuing medication.  “People will ask if they can simply swap out their Prozac for kale,” said Dr. Ramsey,” and that’s of course impossible to answer.” The doctors interviewed acknowledged a positive effect from certain food choices and believed patients would benefit mentally as well as physically from dietary changes.  Ramsey did not promise results from kale alone, but he believes psychiatrists should discuss diet with their patients.  “It’s a very easy intervention,” he says.

1 “Inflammation and Treatment Resistance in Major Depression: The Perfect Storm,” by Charles L. Raison, MD, Jennifer C. Felger, PhD, and Andrew H. Miller, MD, Psychiatric Times online, September 12, 2013, http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/cme/inflammation-and-treatment-resistance-major-depression-perfect-storm .

2 “Probiotics Affect Brain Activity,” by Megan Brooks, Medscape online, May 30, 2013, http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle /805012.

3 “Culinary Culprits:  Foods That May Harm the Brain,” by Nancy A. Melville, Medscape online, Jan. 30, 2014, http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/819974#1.

4 “Probiotics a Potential Treatment for Mental Illness,” by Deborah Brauser, Medscape online, November 19, 2013, http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/814672 .