Sunday, July 24, 2011

Maybe it's Not All in Your Head

Para nuts, fresh from the rain forest, at the outdoor market
 in Belem, Brazil
Everyone knows that food can cause all sorts of physical effects on our bodies. Sugary desserts can cause cavities, sodas can leach calcium out of our bones, and too many carbs can make us soft and push us toward diabetes. None of that is disputed.

What is disputed, and is a topic of ongoing research, is the effect certain foods have on our mental health. There is a growing body of evidence showing that for certain individuals, some foods can cause mental fogginess, depression, anxiety, and can aggravate more severe mental issues, such as schizophrenia. The flip side to that cause and effect is that removing the offending foods may allow individuals to alleviate their symptoms and eliminate or reduce certain medications - a very promising concept.

Before I go on, a quick fact: did you know that about 10% of all adults in the United States (and about 2% of all children - yikes) have prescriptions for anti-depressants? And that number doubled between 1995 and 2005 (coinciding with the advent of direct-to-consumer advertising, by the way). So there are a lot of people out there being medicated for depression.

Let me state up front that I believe some individuals do have brain chemistries that can benefit from anti-depressants. And for those individuals, medications can be lifesaving. However, I am suspicious that 1 in 10 adults in the United States need an anti-depressant. Therefore, I do wonder if there are commonalities in our environments, like, say, an intolerance to wheat or dairy products, or an inability to process ever-increasing amounts of sugar, that affect the brains in individuals with susceptibilities to those products.

There is a lot of interest in the food/brain connection.

Recently, Alice Bradley, the talented writer of the blog Finslippy, wrote about her new diet that eliminated wheat, dairy, sugar, and grains, and focused on fruits, vegetables, and protein. After only a few weeks, she was able to wean herself off of Remeron, Klonopin, and sleep meds, retaining only her prescription for Prozac. If you Google "wheat and depression," you get 11,900,000 hits. Google sugar and depression and you get a whopping 30,600,000 hits. Part of the interest in sugar can be traced to Gary Taubes' fascinating New York Times article on the perils of sugar.

However, once you delve into the research behind the claims, you are quickly confronted with a wide divide between medical professionals who believe food intolerances can cause all sort of mental problems and those who pooh-pooh the entire concept, chalking up any gains made in mental health from altering one's diet to the placebo effect. It's confusing.

A lot of the confusion comes from the research not catching up to the anecdotal evidence. Mental health is difficult to quantify because symptoms are, for the most part, self-reported. Depression and anxiety can vary from person to person and treatment success often boils down to, "I feel fine." But the fact that the placebo effect exists tells us that there are still many mysteries in medicine that cannot be fully explained by science.

Despite the problems with quantifying mental health, there has been compelling information published on how the gut is like a "second brain," with its own nervous system operating independently of the brain. A new field, neurogastroenterology, has been proposed to better understand how the gut mediates the immune response, and there are even murmurings of psychiatry expanding to include treatment of this second brain in addition to the one the field currently focuses on. (Side note: sounds a bit like holistic medicine, no?).

Further, research on the different antibodies, IgE (immediate ones associated with hives and anaphylactic shock) versus IgG (delayed ones associated with food intolerances, a concept that current medical practice does not fully embrace), is plodding along. Fascinating stuff from an academic perspective. But frustrating when you are interested in the practical application of the information. Thus far, no one has scientifically mapped out why foods being digested in the gut can have effects on the brain. So a lot of medical professionals are skeptical of any food/brain effect link.

But I don't think you need clear-cut answers in order to move ahead with managing your health. If you are being treated for anxiety or depression you might want to talk to your doctor about trying an elimination diet to determine if some of the common allergens, such as wheat, dairy, or soy, could be underlying or contributing to your condition.  Here is information on elimination diets, and a good nutritionist can guide you through the challenges of what may at first seem to be a daunting task.

I look forward to the emerging research that will map out how our second brain interacts with our "first" brain. Until then, I think there is enough information to encourage us all to look closely at the link between our diets and our mental health.


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