Food and Mood Pt. II: Inflammation and Mental Health

I’ve sat down to write this article a few times before, and each time end up winding town a different (yet equally important) path. In Yogic Eating, It’s Not What You ThinkFood and Mood Pt. I and The Science and Body Image of Fat, I touched on the importance of a nourishing diet for a healthy, happy, sustainable life. In Food and Mood, I explored the basics of what I have concluded, after literally years of reading peer-reviewed scientific studies, clinical trials, personal testimonies, and my own experience, to be the best approach to nutrition: real, whole, nutrient-dense foods. This means plants and animals that still look like plants and animals. Grass-fed or pastured meats, high-quality fats, and the best-sourced vegetables you can get your hands on.

I don’t subscribe to any macronutrient dogma (low-carb, high-carb, low-fat, etc.). I believe in centering your plate around a quality protein source, adding some satiating and hormonally-important fat (not too much, but also- and this is often unheard of- not too little), and then filling your plate with veggies. While I don’t shy away from carbohydrates (I’ll explain the mental health benefits of starch later in this article), I don’t agree that getting them from grain sources will be beneficial to your health. Grains contain high concentrations of lectins: a type of protein is specialized in protecting the plant. These lectins damage and even perforate the lining of your intestinal tract, literally allowing partially digested food (and any bacteria or other causes for concern) to leak into the rest of your body. One type of lectin you’ve probably heard of- gluten. Gluten has come to light as a highly inflammatory protein that causes trouble for the vast majority of people, even if they haven’t been formally diagnosed with Celiac’s Disease or IBS.

Not only are grains concentrated in proteins that damage your intestinal lining and lead to leaky gut syndrome, they are very high in omega-6 fatty acids. Now, if you’ve read my blog before, you know I don’t fear fat. But omega-6 fatty acids are a whole other story. Not to be confused with the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, these guys contribute to pro-inflammatory pathways in your body and are a major player in many diseases plaguing Americans today. Not only are these found in the grains themselves, they’re found in common cooking oils that you may have been led to believe are healthy alternatives, such as vegetable oil and canola oil. The concerning aspects of grains not only affect our breads and flours, but also our meats. When animals are raised on diets of corn or wheat, they are just as inflamed, sick, and overweight as the average American is. Is that the kind of food you want to eat?

Regardless of your understanding of the inflammatory effects of grains, it might be easier to grasp the concept of “empty calories”. Grains and their processed equivalents (chips, crackers, breads, cakes, cookies, etc.) are low-nutrition, but high-energy. What does this mean? It means it gives your body a lot of low-quality fuel that can spike your insulin and cause hormonal disruption without providing any nutrients. Fiber? Easily found in more abundance in vegetables. Essential vitamins? Veggies. Carbs? Root veggies. All of these provide you with ample calories, carbs, and energy without the downsides of inflammation or overconsumption (it’s easy to eat a bag of chips until it’s gone, but I dare you to overeat broccoli or sweet potatoes).

Now, what role does inflammation play in mental health?

More and more research is coming to light showing the links between what we eat and how we feel. Specifically, recent research is proving that depression is associated with low-grade, chronic inflammation: exactly the kind of conditions most people are living in.  You do not have to suffer from IBS, Celiac’s, or any other intestinal ailment to have issues with inflammation. In fact, the symptoms have probably become such a part of your daily life that you fail to even recognize them as issues anymore. Bloating, constipation, loose stools, cramps, achiness, fatigue, headaches….all of these and more are symptoms you probably experience on a daily basis.

A Dutch study recently drew the line between our food and mental health in a very strong way. Researchers found that patients with an autoimmune disease were 45 percent more likely to have a mood disorder. Even more striking, about 1/3 of people diagnosed with a mood disorder (depression, bi-polar, anxiety, etc.) have been previously hospitalized for a serious infection. Inflammation is, at the root of its purpose, a protective response to infection. Autoimmune disorders, interestingly enough, is a condition where the affected person’s body recognizes its own cells as an invading enemy, and produce inflammation as a response.

Inflammation stems from many sources, not just grains. Sugar triggers the release of inflammatory cytokines, forms advanced glycation endproducts when it binds to proteins, and oxidizes lipids that form cell and mitochondrial membranes. Chemicals found in our food such as pesticides, environmental pollution, and plastics all stimulate the immune system and disrupt processes in the body, specifically in vulnerable tissues such as the thyroid. Pathogens, commonly found in poorly sourced meats and eggs, leak through the gut lining and into the body, as well as changing our intestinal flora and facilitating the growth of pathogenic bacteria, yeast, and fungus, alarming and inflaming our immune system. Perhaps most important is our body’s reaction to stress: any kind of stress, physiological or psychological, triggers the release of cortisol. Cortisol mobilizes blood sugar (insulin spike) to prepare your body for a “fight or flight” response- something that is incredibly draining if it’s occurring all of the time. It also serves a role as a systemic immune suppressant by lowering the levels of secretory IgA, a “body guard” of the gut mucosa.

The problem with inflammation is that it is self-perpetuating. Stress occurs in the body, so inflammation is triggered. The inflammation stresses the body, so more inflammation is triggered. It’s a vicious cycle until the original cause of the stress is handled or removed. Inflammatory cytokines travel throughout the body damaging fragile structures in the body, including brain cells and mitochondria. In the brain, anxiety-provoking chemicals such as quinolinate are produced, only serving to further stress the body. Soon, you’re suffering from a host of issues, including lethargy, sleep disturbance, decreased sociability, libido, learning incapacity, and even depression or other mental ailments.

Here is where you come in.

You can reverse inflammation in your body, but it takes time, dedication, and effort. Adding in gentle exercise (such as walking or swimming) and short bursts of intense exercise minimize inflammation and provide you with healing cardiovascular benefits (as opposed to long-duration or endurance activities such as running). Mental exercise is important as well: meditation can provide enhanced genomic expression of anti-inflammatory genes and the suppression of inflammatory ones.

Most important, however, is your diet. Removing inflammatory food products for at least 30 days can show you just how good you are capable of feeling. I recommend considering the Whole 30 program, which outlines the most inflammatory foods and how to specifically approach an elimination-style diet. It means no legumes, grains (even gluten-free ones such as rice), dairy, or added sugars for one month, and an emphasis on nutrient-dense whole foods that heal the body. Great, healing foods include nutritious berries, omega-3 rich seafood, and an abundance of leafy greens.

I truly believe that inflammation is the main source of the majority of health problems in this country. With the rise of highly-processed foods dense in inflammatory components and low in any beneficial nutrients, we’ve seen a decline in mental and hormonal health. It’s time to get back to the basics: quality, ethical proteins, nourishing fats, and healing plant matter.


Inflammation and its discontents: the role of cytokines in the pathophysiology of major depression.

Cytokines and Cognition- The case for a head to toe inflammatory paradigm.

A randomized controlled trial of the tumor necrosis factor antagonist infliximab for treatment-resistant depression: The role of baseline inflammatory biomarkers.

The Whole 30 Program

Harvard study revealing link between inflammatory dietary habits and depression in women.

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